President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with former PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Ron Chernow. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
This statement was originally published on pen.org on 9 December 2020.
“When we say that we want to make a more perfect union, it’s not to say that America will ever be perfect. It is that we can make it more perfect.” – Barack Obama, 2020 PEN America Voice of Influence Honoree
As part of PEN America’s 2020 virtual gala, President Barack Obama received the PEN America Voice of Influence Award for “the power of his soaring words, the promises he has unlocked in our nation, and the enduring American values that he has embodied.” As part of the ceremony, he sat down for an interview with former PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Ron Chernow. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
RON CHERNOW: I’m Ron Chernow, a very proud past president of PEN America, and I’m honored to present the 2020 PEN America Voice of Influence Award to none other than President Barack Obama. It doesn’t get any better than this, folks, does it? Like PEN America, Barack Obama has always stood at the intersection of literature and human rights. Twenty-six years ago, his memoir Dreams from My Father revealed an acute self-awareness, a deep humility, and a distinctive ability to transcend the historic divides of American society. Both book and author leapt from the written page to the public stage. President Obama’s next book, The Audacity of Hope, rekindled the sense of possibility in a sometimes weary and frustrated nation. He understood that nothing about the freedom to write is ever guaranteed. And he rose to defend writers, journalists, and activists around the world who had paid the steepest price for exercising their right to free expression.
Now, President Obama has brought his majestic prose, his panoramic vision, and piercing insights to the first volume of his new presidential memoir, called A Promised Land. PEN America honors President Obama for the power of his soaring words, the promise he has unlocked in our nation, and the enduring American values that he has embodied. It is my very special privilege to bestow this award and invite President Obama to join me in conversation about the very heart of PEN America’s historic mission: the freedom to write. Welcome, Mr. President, congratulations on this mighty honor – one of many that you have received – and we’re all so grateful that you have decided to join the PEN America Virtual Gala.
BARACK OBAMA: Well, thank you so much for having me. And to PEN, to my fellow honorees, and to you, Ron, I want to just express my gratitude. I think it’s been noted that I’m a wannabe writer who ended up somehow falling into politics. So, to be recognized in this way by an organization that not only represents extraordinary literary talents, but also has fought the good fight for the freedom of expression – not just here, but around the world – that is a great honor, and I’m humbled and grateful for it.
“MORE THAN A WANNABE WRITER”
CHERNOW: Thank you. I think we can safely say you’re a little bit more than a wannabe writer. I confess, Mr. President, that I opened A Promised Land with excitement, but also some trepidation. Dreams from My Father was such a beautifully crafted and lyrical book that I found myself wondering whether – after eight years in the White House, where you had to weigh every word and parse every sentence – whether you’d be able to go back to writing with the freedom that you had enjoyed before. That is to put it bluntly, I wondered whether, when you sat down to write it, you felt, well, maybe I’ve lost it as a writer after eight years in Washington. Was that a concern?
OBAMA: It certainly was, periodically throughout the writing process. Ron, maybe you don’t go through the angst that some of us do when staring at a blank page, but I assure you that that happened pretty frequently with me. But the one thing that I didn’t stop doing while president was reading and appreciating good stories, and I think that continually informed how I saw the world. Great writers, both fiction and nonfiction, helped shape my sensibility and the decisions that I made, and that probably preserved somewhere in the recesses of my mind the possibility that when I started writing again, something other than speeches, that even though it was a little rusty, I could get back into that kind of frame of mind.
“[T]he one thing that I didn’t stop doing while president was reading and appreciating good stories, and I think that continually informed how I saw the world. Great writers, both fiction and nonfiction, helped shape my sensibility and the decisions that I made, and that probably preserved somewhere in the recesses of my mind the possibility that when I started writing again, something other than speeches, that even though it was a little rusty, I could get back into that kind of frame of mind.”
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“THE RIGHT WILL NOT ALWAYS WIN OUT”
CHERNOW: [. . .] PEN America for about a century now, PEN and its affiliates abroad, we’ve fought the good fight on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers both here and abroad. I was wondering, Mr. President, for all those PEN staffers and PEN Members who have labored down in the trenches on these long, drawn-out campaigns to get the release of this repressed dissident writer or that, it would be wonderful to know whether these sorts of human rights campaigns, do they actually percolate up to the level of the State Department or the White House? What is the importance of a group like PEN America, or the entire constellation really of nonprofit human rights organizations, to people who are holding public office in Washington?
OBAMA: I think it makes all the difference. I’m glad you framed the question that way, because I want the staffers and the people who are carrying the laboring or day-to-day on these issues to know it does impact foreign policy, and it does impact presidential decision-making. I was consistently raising issues of jailed journalists, jailed dissidents, censorship issues, freedom of the press issues in conversations that I would have – whether it was with Vladimir Putin or President Hu and President Xi, or any number of other world leaders. I want to make sure that I don’t overstate the efficacy of some of those interventions. One of the things I try to describe in the book is the degree to which the United States is and has been a genuine superpower – the most powerful nation on Earth – during the course of your and my lifetime.
But each country is still motivated by its own interests. For those in power, those interests largely revolve around staying in power. If you are bringing up in a bilateral meeting the fate of a dissident or journalist, and the foreign government determines that, you know what, that person is too dangerous – they are sometimes willing to ignore us, knowing that there’s also going to be other business between our two countries. But just the fact that we bring it up makes them conscious of it. There were a number of occasions where, as a consequence of us being aware of the plight of a journalist or a dissident, a human rights activist, that making it onto the agenda of a conversation that I had, that it ended up resulting in somebody’s freedom. More than that, I think, beyond the individual case, what it does is it sets a standard of conscience that percolates throughout the international community.
“There were a number of occasions where, as a consequence of us being aware of the plight of a journalist or a dissident, a human rights activist, that making it onto the agenda of a conversation that I had, that it ended up resulting in somebody’s freedom. More than that, I think, beyond the individual case, what it does is it sets a standard of conscience that percolates throughout the international community.”
Part of what I try to describe – it’s why I call the book A Promised Land – I think this applies both within the United States and around the world; at times, because we don’t always realize our ideals, there’s a tendency for some to think that the ideals themselves don’t matter. My argument is that just knowing there is an ideal out there, knowing there’s a conscience out there, knowing somebody is watching, that the right will not always win out, but it becomes a target for us to shoot towards, and it I think changes the conversation over time, such that we’re better off than we would have been if we just cynically said, this isn’t gonna make any difference at all. When we say that we want to make a more perfect union, it’s not to say that America will ever be perfect. It is that we can make it more perfect. And the same applies to issues of human rights around the world. We’re not going to get to a point where we can eliminate all censorship, all cruelty, all abusive power, but we can lessen those trends and those tendencies over time, and that’s the difference that an organization like PEN can make.
“WE ARE NOW IN AN ONGOING CONTEST OF IDEAS”
CHERNOW: That’s wonderful to hear. I noticed that in this book, in all of your books, heroes of human rights stride across the page. You describe how, in preparing for your presidential race in 2008, you went to South Africa, you stood in the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela had been for 27 years, and then you met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We at PEN America, we love the sense of a worldwide community of human rights activists, because that’s really the very essence of the organization. I wonder, that community of worldwide activists, do you think it’s as strong today as it was, say, in the days of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela? Or has the rise of all of these authoritarian, illiberal, nationalistic regimes around the world really eroded the power of that community?
OBAMA: I think that history moves in cycles, and we are now in an ongoing contest of ideas. There is a vision of what the world could be that, I think, PEN embraces, that many of the writers who are part of your organization describe – one that recognizes human dignity and freedom and equality and fairness, and that at times we’ve been able to approximate in liberal democracies. Right after the Cold War, with Russia and the old Eastern Bloc nations back on their heels, China just emerging into reentering the world post-cultural revolution, I think it felt as if that spirit was ascendant. Mandela’s released from prison, and suddenly you see Europe unified, and there’s glimmers of hope that China’s going to politically liberalize, as well as economically liberalize. Then, you get a backlash – not just in those countries, but here in the United States. And that contest between a vision of humanity that recognizes the dignity of all individuals and believes that we can work collectively to make the world more kind, more just, more free, voices are heard, and we are good stewards for the planet, that wrestles with a much more ancient attitude towards human relations that’s based on power and domination, in which strong men emerge – and we’re in the middle of that contest.
Here’s the good news, though, Ron. I do think that, as I travel around the world – or at least pre-COVID, when I was traveling around the world – the spirit that I believe in I saw alive and well among young people everywhere. It didn’t matter whether it was in Prague or Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires or Ho Chi Minh City, you saw more and more young people embracing the kinds of values that, I think, PEN has stood for. The challenge we have is that our institutions have not adapted as quickly to those longings, which is why the younger generation often doesn’t have the same mechanisms to express their idealism. Oftentimes, they’re disappointed with existing political structures, existing media structures – those are going to have to be remade.
“[Y]ou saw more and more young people embracing the kinds of values that, I think, PEN has stood for. The challenge we have is that our institutions have not adapted as quickly to those longings, which is why the younger generation often doesn’t have the same mechanisms to express their idealism. Oftentimes, they’re disappointed with existing political structures, existing media structures – those are going to have to be remade.”
It’ll take some of us old folks getting out of the way so that they can remake them. But there are, I would say, probably more young people who embody the same spirit that a Havel or a Mandela do today than there were in the past. They just haven’t yet risen to the point where they have the voice and the authority and the power to help realize those values.
THE PRESIDENCY AND THE PRESS
CHERNOW: Thank you, those are very encouraging words for those of us at PEN America. Let’s talk a little bit about the always fraught subject of the presidency and the press. We have gone through four years of the most unbelievably hostile and confrontational attitude toward the press, clearly epitomized by President Trump but, as you point out in the book, not limited to it. This was a spirit that permeated his administration, many Republicans on Capitol Hill, and as you point out, it started long before Trump – going back to Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and others. How deep do you think the damage has been, and can we repair this breach and get back to somewhat more civilized relations between president and press, which are always difficult?
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