Interviews December 2007

Thinking in Real Time

Andrew Sullivan speaks candidly about why he supports Barack Obama, how he became a blogger, and why he's not afraid to change his mind.

At the end of the 1960s, when Hillary Rodham was writing her thesis on radical politics and Rudy Giuliani was contemplating the priesthood, the line between liberal and conservative was cleanly drawn. Young people on the right said “please” and “thank you,” prayed at bedtime, and saw the fight against communism as America’s sacred mission. Those on the left opposed the Vietnam War, championed the underdog, and harbored a solid distrust of anyone over 30.

According to Andrew Sullivan, politicians have never stopped wearing the team jerseys they donned during those turbulent years. “How do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics?” he asks in “Goodbye to All That,” his piece in the December Atlantic. “The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t… between God-fearing Americans and the peacenik atheist hippies of lore.” The 2008 presidential election, to his mind, is more than a call to take sides in a fierce struggle. It is an opportunity to transcend the struggle itself. “If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems,” he writes, “Obama may be your man.”

That Sullivan, a longstanding conservative, would throw his support behind a liberal candidate might strike some as unorthodox. But Sullivan himself has long defied definition. Born in Britain, he earned an early reputation for his commentary on American politics, becoming editor of The New Republic while still in his 20s. His public pronouncements have ranged from support of the Iraq War to bitter criticism of its folly. He has stood by his Catholic faith while remaining ever candid about his life as a gay, HIV-positive man.

Sullivan continues to write for print—along with his December Atlantic piece, his recent output includes a regular column for the Times of London and a book entitled The Conservative Soul. But over the past eight years, the vast majority of his writing has appeared on his blog, The Daily Dish. Since joining The Atlantic as a blogger and senior editor this past January, he has continued to stretch the limits of the online medium and challenge notions of left and right. On October 26th, he stopped by my office for the following chat.

—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Your piece revolves around the idea that Baby Boomer candidates like Hillary and Giuliani are essentially rehashing the same debates they had in college dorm rooms 30 or 40 years ago. How are these discussions different from the ones college students are having now?

Well, in the past, the size of government was one of the more fundamental dividing lines between right and left. The right was supposed to represent the small government philosophy—limited spending, low taxes. Obviously, things have shifted. I don’t think any Democrat could possibly have increased government spending faster than the Republicans have done over the last six or seven years. Therefore, when you actually look at who would make government bigger or smaller, the distinctions between the two parties at this point are almost moot.

I also think the paradigm of whether one wants to be an interventionist or an isolationist, to use two hackneyed terms, has rather broken up since the end of the Cold War, and specifically since Iraq. Obviously, we don’t have a Soviet Union, a big state with an actual army that we’re fighting against. Therefore the rules of this war are very different and require a different calibration. I think we’re just at the beginning of really figuring out exactly what that means.

You and Obama were both in your 20s when the Berlin Wall came down. Instead of coming of age during Vietnam, when everyone was choosing sides in a fierce battle, you suddenly found yourselves in an optimistic political landscape where all the boundaries were crumbling. Do you think the people who were young at that time came out of it with a less-polarized worldview?

Yes, and also on certain fundamental social issues, the post-Boomers, if you will, just don’t see things in quite the divisive ways that the Boomers do. Let me give you a couple of examples.

On abortion or marriage or even end-of-life issues, I think this generation tends to be more pragmatically small “c” conservative, in the sense that they don’t see this as a fight over the meaning of civilization. I think the consensus, actually— you see this in films like Knocked Up—is that abortion is actually an awful thing and we’re not interested in having a fight over whether it is or isn’t. We’re interested in finding ways to making it less common. Most people are not that interested in making it illegal, criminalizing it in all circumstances. Or they think that that debate is really not that interesting or productive a debate.

Similarly with the gay thing. I think most people who came of age after the ’60s and don’t associate necessarily being gay with the New Left—or the “goddamn hippies”— think it’s fine if gay people want to get married, or settle down, or whatever they want to call it. And many certainly are happy with an idea of a federalist sort of solution where different states take different positions. There is no support for a federal marriage amendment except amongst very hard-core Christianists. So, I think that the next generation grapples with these issues, is not unaware of them, but it doesn’t have the same emotional, polarizing effect that it does on our parents.

You touch on the gay marriage debate in your piece—you argue that none of the candidates will have a major impact on the way this issue plays out. I found that a bit surprising. As readers of your blog know, you married a man in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this past summer. Are you not concerned that a new president might come into office and influence the legal status of that marriage?

Well, the facts on the ground are like the settlements in the West Bank: the longer they’re there, the harder it becomes to reverse them. If a federal constitutional amendment were passed, then that could have an impact. But that’s not a factor for the president, it’s for the Congress, and it failed in the most Republican Congress.

So the idea it’s going to succeed in what most everybody believes is going to be an increasingly Democratic Congress—I think it’s over. I think the debate is done. My own view, if I were to be predicting—and I hesitate to predict—is that there will be a handful of states that allow marriage rights within the next decade, enough to change the culture, and then in another 10 or 20 years, the other states will follow. It will be a process.

Obama is generally thought of as a great unifier, someone who can bring together people of all races and political persuasions. But as one of your blog readers recently pointed out, Obama doesn’t have the support of middle-aged black voters. They’re afraid he’ll be assassinated if he gets within striking distance of the White House.

The relationship of black Americans to Obama is sociologically riveting. Obama himself believes that most blacks simply think he can’t win, because a black man can’t be president of America—and therefore they’re putting their votes with Hillary, because they think she at least can win, and largely because of her connection to Bill, who still, for some reason, has an amazing pull in that community.

I also think that Obama’s life story, which is really of self-help and overcoming, is a conservative story in a way: a black man who got to be the first African-American to chair the Harvard Law Review. This is a very serious person. And he embodies a message that some elements of black America don’t want to hear. They want to hear that the issues within the black community are entirely the fault of whites. Obama neither takes the Clarence Thomas position nor does he take the Julian Bond position. He takes a rather nuanced position in between. But of course, when you’re in a community that has been fed the Julian Bond/Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson line for a very long time, you can sort of resent where Obama is coming from.

But what about this idea of potential assassination? After all, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated before election day, and he was white. Do you think there’s any chance that the country could dissolve into chaos if Obama won the Democratic nomination?

I think Obama is an RFK figure. Right now, Clinton is absorbing all the usual right-wing fire as well as helping the right wing raise lots of money. But if Obama were to become the nominee, this race would be transformed, because he represents a transformation of American politics. I don’t necessarily think he’s going to be shot—my husband does, but I don’t. However, I do think that what that resonates with is a sense that this man really could change things. And people resist it.

I think we have a very rare opportunity to change the direction of this country with this guy. I’m convinced, having watched him closely and listened to him for a couple of years now, that he’s the real thing, in the sense that he is still, unlike so many other politicians, a real human being. He actually is thinking in real time. He’s not entirely about the machine, as Hillary is. Therefore, he might actually take positions that upset serious vested interests—on all sides. That’s a threat to people.

You raise the provocative point that Obama’s background—his race and even his name—might help to make America safer. You argue that it would be much more difficult for Muslim extremists to incite violence against a brown-skinned president named Barack Hussein Obama.

I’m thinking there in terms of simply the propaganda war. It’s clear after Afghanistan and Iraq that pure military force alone is not a solution to the problems we have. It can be part of the solution. However, long-term, this kind of asymmetrical threat requires shifting the views of a large number of people in the Muslim world—especially given that that world is disproportionately young. And many of them have known only Bush as the face of the United States.

If you’re going to try to reach that teenager in Lahore, you’re not going to do it with Karen Hughes or with some elaborate PR strategy. I think Obama’s face, background, and identity, as representing America, reintroduces the country in a way—rebrands it in a way, that no other candidate’s could. Certainly, if you consider what the impact of a Giuliani would be on the way the world responds to us—especially anybody without white skin responds to us—I can’t imagine a more disastrous move for the United States than to go with the most polarizing, hostile, arrogant, insular, dictatorial figure. I think Obama is the aggressive offense. Giuliani’s sole reliance on military force and attacking people rhetorically is in fact a defensive posture that won’t work.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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