President Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

This is a wonderful interview with President Obama, in which he explains how books have shaped his day-to-day life in The White House. The transcript is here, and the broader piece by Michiko Kakutani summarizing her conversation is here. A highlight:

Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama taught himself how to write, and for him, too, words became a way to define himself, and to communicate his ideas and ideals to the world. In fact, there is a clear, shining line connecting Lincoln and King, and President Obama. In speeches like the ones delivered in Charleston and Selma, he has followed in their footsteps, putting his mastery of language in the service of a sweeping historical vision, which, like theirs, situates our current struggles with race and injustice in a historical continuum that traces how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It’s a vision of America as an unfinished project — a continuing, more-than-two-century journey to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence real for everyone — rooted both in Scripture and the possibility of redemption, and a more existential belief that we can continually remake ourselves. And it’s a vision shared by the civil rights movement, which overcame obstacle after obstacle, and persevered in the face of daunting odds.

Mr. Obama’s long view of history and the optimism (combined with a stirring reminder of the hard work required by democracy) that he articulated in his farewell speech last week are part of a hard-won faith, grounded in his reading, in his knowledge of history (and its unexpected zigs and zags), and his embrace of artists like Shakespeare who saw the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace. The playwright’s tragedies, he says, have been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”

This was my favorite question and answer (especially the bolded part below):

Q: It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

Barack Obama: It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where “Gilead” and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head… Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On how books can be a solace after a tragedy:

Q: Is there some poem or any writing or author that you would turn to, say, after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., or during the financial crisis?

Barack Obama: I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity. During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated. Churchill’s a good writer. And I loved reading Teddy Roosevelt’s writing. He’s this big, outsize character.

Worth reading in entirety. You will be missed, Mr. President.

Should Barack Obama Legalize Marijuana?

Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg profiles the history of marijuana and Barack Obama, and why the President should move to legalize marijuana:

For a start, he could arrange for the Justice Department to end the absurd classification of marijuana as a supremely dangerous Schedule I drug, like heroin. And he shouldn’t just knock it down to Schedule II, cheek by jowl with cocaine. Better to demote it to Schedule IV, where it would have Xanax and Ambien for company, or clear down to Schedule V, reserved for cough medicine. Better still, take it off the “schedule” altogether. If alcohol isn’t on there, marijuana shouldn’t be, either.

Second, he could make it clear—to the public, to the Justice Department, to the D.E.A.—that his policy is to avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for the eighteen states (plus D.C.) that allow marijuana use for medical purposes, for the two states that have made its recreational use permissible under state law (including Colorado; see Ryan Lizza’s piece on John Hickenlooper, the governor, in this week’s issue), for the dozen or so states and hundreds of localities that have decriminalized possession of small amounts, and, overall, for peaceful, otherwise inoffending marijuana smokers. To date, the Obama Administration’s signals in these areas have been confusing and its actions only slightly better (some would say slightly worse) than its predecessors’.

Third, but by no means last, he could change the name of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—a.k.a. the White House “drug czar”—to the Office of National Harm Reduction Drug Policy, and tell it to come up with something halfway as reasonable as the report of the Nixon-appointed Shafer commission, which, in 1972, when Obama was in sixth grade, recommended making marijuana legal.

Obama is a busy man. He doesn’t have time to read, let alone encode, everything that appears over his robo-signature. But he really ought to feel a smidgen of shame that the government he heads treats people who do exactly what he used to do, and now casually jokes about, as criminals.

I’m so distant from this conversation that I had no idea what “buzzfeed” was before reading the article.

President Obama Reads News on His iPad

From this New York Times piece, we learn that Barack Obama is an avid consumer of news. In particular, President Obama enjoys reading the news on his iPad:

A writer before he was a politician, Mr. Obama is a voracious consumer of news, reading newspapers and magazines on his iPad and in print and dipping into blogs and Twitter. He regularly gives aides detailed descriptions of articles that he liked, and he can be thin-skinned about those that he does not.

He typically begins his day upstairs in the White House reading the major newspapers, including his hometown Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, mostly on his iPad through apps rather than their Web sites. He also skims articles that aides e-mail to him, with the subject line stating the publication and the headline (like “WSJ: Moody’s Downgrades Banks”).

During the day, Mr. Obama reads newspapers on his iPad and print copies of magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker. On most Air Force One flights, he catches up on the news on his iPad.

My question: what blogs does Mr. President read? Sadly, the NYT article doesn’t disclose. It will be interesting to find out what’s on the President’s blogroll.