The latest installment of Marc Maron's podcast is already a blockbuster. But was it truly revealing?
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There's nothing like the Presidential touch to legitimatize an emerging medium. Marc Maron's WTF podcast was already popular enough to command A-list talent (Jonah Hill,, Anna Kendrick, and Mick Jagger, to name a few) and send the host spinning off into other mediums (see: IFC's Maron), but the show reached a new milestone with Monday's President Obama interview. Statistics from Libsyn, the podcasting network that distributes Maron's show, indicate that the stunt was a success for all involved: Obama's WTF episode garnered more than 735,063 downloads in 24 hours, The New York Times reports. That's triple Maron's previous record for most downloads in a day's time.
But was it great radio? Typically, the WTF podcast is no holds barred. Maron's guests dedicate their lives to dredging up truths and twisting them into wisecracks. Famous actors and the like willingly submit themselves to the interviewer's deep dive questions to talk personal issues and behind-the-scenes bullshit. But Maron's interview with President Obama could only dive so deep. The President had his own motivations for joining Maron in the garage. WTF would still get the "real" Obama, but the President wasn't there to offer his worst college memory or a kooky White House anecdote. He was there to speak to the people, to make his mission as Commander-in-Chief a little more personal.
"I've spent a lot of time in the last six-and-a-half years [on policy]," Obama said. When he became President, the former Illinois Senator said there were a few pressing issues. He wanted to prevent that whole "next Great Depression" thing. But over time, Obama watched American political points-of-view fragment into gerrymandered, Super PAC-enabled, 24 hour news-gorging echo chambers. "That's part of the reason I'm here, I'll be honest with you," he told Maron. "How do we talk to folks who aren't so dug in into a particular way of thinking about politics? [How] can we create more space for people have a normal, ordinary conversation, one in which the draws aren't clearly drawn in black and white, a battle in a steel cage between one side and another?"
Obama's strategy made for lesser WTF—nothing tops Todd Glass' coming out episode in 2012—but a rewarding alternative to the annual State of the Union address. Clearly on his guard, Maron shut up and gave Obama the floor. Though his talking points were commonplace, the language was anything but. The President filtered go-to sound bites through a laid-back lexicon. He joked about black helicopter paranoia (they're real, by the way), took a jab at Fox News, scoffed at the Supreme Court's upcoming "Obamacare" decision, and referred to Los Angeles as "my old haunts, man," among the coolest expressions for one's old neighborhood.
It's easy to imagine a version of Obama's WTF episode that's even softer. The world outside the garage didn't allow it. Recorded two days after the Charleston shooting, WTF saw a President in raw form. Obama can keep a level head—being from Hawaii keeps him naturally chill, he said—but, as he told the host, there are breaking points. He couldn't hold back frustration when addressing the tragedy in South Carolina. When Maron asked him point blank about his moments of absolute disgust, his fight for climate change awareness, and a Senate meeting from this February immediately, came to mind. "It'd be a lot more helpful if we had some cooperation from Congress and if I didn't have [Sen. Jim Inhofe,] the chairman of the energy and environment committee in the Senate holding up a snowball, as if that was proof climate change wasn't happening."
Maron finally pushed a button by wondering if America had really come that far in its pursuit of racial equality. This set Obama off (or, as "off" as the calm, pointed speaker can get). "I always tell young people in particular: Do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America, unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s or '60s or '70s. It's incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly in my lifetime and yours. Opportunities have opened up. Attitudes have changed. That is a fact."
Still, Obama said, the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional discrimination casts a long shadow over our modern lives. "We're not cured of [racism]," he told Maron. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior." That sound you just heard was a million politically correct, overprotective heads popping.
By the end, Obama's WTF felt like a victory lap. Even his own missteps had silver linings. He's aware that people will take issue with him over something. For every LGBT rights milestone, there's a morally ambiguous drone warfare decision. He can only go off his own instincts and factual information. And based on his own self-reflection, he won't have too many regrets on what he has or has not accomplished.
The "real" Obama, at least the one who showed up in Maron's garage, is the nicest dad we know. He loves his wife, treasures his kids, and can't pronounce, despite enjoying, "Louis C.K." He had a "bad streak" involving leather jackets and cigarette smoking. At 53, harbors nostalgia of his basketball glory days. And when it comes to the deeply personal, he remains guarded. (A line of questions comparing and contrasting the President to his demonized father began with "for those who didn't read my book…" a.k.a. the nice way of saying "been there, done that.")
But for those of us living in the United States, he's the rare politician that comes off, through broad media spin or intimate one-on-ones, as a leader that's genuinely interested in helping the world. Reminding the general public once in awhile is a moral boost. In the WTF interview, Obama told Maron that the greatest lesson he's learned from his presidency isn't a lesson, but a confirmation. "The American people are overwhelmingly good, decent, generous people," he said. "Everyone I meet believes in a lot of the same things. Honesty, family, community, and looking out for one another … that always gives me hope."
And for the reverse opinion, we'll always have comedians. With very successful podcasts.