The further down the class scale you go, the less sophisticated people are in dealing with the press. They just don’t have the experience; there are exceptions, but as a group they tend to have less defenses and they’re, to some extent, used to speaking plainly. Then, if you go down to the very poor, very often because they’re used to talking to social workers and caseworkers and the like, they’re used to keeping people abreast of their strikingly personal information. I think what you owe people in that situation is just to deal with it honestly. It was interesting in Beaver because these were guys who had grown up in steel mills where a lot of their buddies were black. In some respects they’d had a far more intimate experience of race than most white upper middle class people in New York, which is a strikingly segregated city. They were conflicted in interesting ways. I don’t want to idealize this, though, there were some stone cold racists, it’s all God’s children, at every level. But at its most interesting, there were great complications.
Obama is a complicated character. What was your approach when you sat down with him?
Obama’s a very challenging cat to cover. He’s a writer himself, and a quite perceptive writer. So he tends to look at himself and everything around him with a writer’s eye. And also therefore tends to have defenses up in interesting ways. Interviewing him is a challenge, trying to pull him out of that and get him talking about something.
As often happens, I got him out of that with some luck. I got talking to him about what he reads and was telling me about these different policy tomes. And I said, “Well, yeah, but come on. I’m out here on the campaign trail with you, you’re up even earlier than I am, and I’ve been carrying around this Philip Roth book with me for two months and I’m yet to even crack it.” He actually laughed at that point, and said, “Yeah, you have very little chance to really read. I basically floss my teeth and watch Sports Center.”
But he’s a great fan of Philip Roth, so we got talking about him. I was reading The Human Stain, which is about race. And frankly, because I had hardly opened the book, I didn’t realize quite how intensely it was dealing with race. That then led to a very interesting discussion where through talking about Philip Roth and others he started getting into something. It had nothing to do with what I necessarily sat down to talk to him about. I just went with it because it’s far more interesting to use your time that way than to try to get him to talk about Pakistan. Then he’s going to retreat into talking points.
The second part of this interview is here.