In the past week or so President Obama – the nation’s media-critic-in-chief — sat for interviews with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as Gloria Estefan.
The interview with Mr. and Mrs. Smith aired at the Nobel Concert for Peace in Oslo last Friday night, which the president missed. Recorded the day the president accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, before the banquet (he’s dressed in a his formal clothes), it wasn’t officially broadcast anywhere.
Will Smith begins by saying the interview is “the first time I’ve been nervous in front of a camera for a long time.”
“Just think back to Prince of Bel-Air, man,” the president says, alluding to the NBC sit-com starring Mr. Smith as that ran from 1990 to 1996.
Smith asked the president to elaborate on a line in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in which he called for “the continued expansion of our moral imagination, an insistence that there is something irreducible that we all share.”
“When you think about what’s happening in the world,” the president replied, “on the one hand it's shrinking. We see the internet, live feeds, Youtube — and that means nobody around the world should be a stranger, and that should be bringing us closer together, because it should remind us that we're all fundamentally the same in terms of our aspirations, our hopes, our love for our children.”
But, the president said, “it's disorienting, so a lot of people pull back into their own specific identities — their race, their tribe, their religion, and that’s a dangerous thing because it can splinter people and cause conflict.”
President Obama said one of the “critical ingredients for peace” is “my ability to stand in your shoes, to see through your eyes, to constantly imagine, ‘What’s it like being a mother in Bangladesh right now?’”
Smith, formerly of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, said to the president, that such a mindset is “always going to slam you into a dilemma” because “once you get to the point where you can comprehend what the other person's saying, and they can comprehend what you're saying, there's still only enough water for one of y'all.”
“Hopefully what starts happening is you start figuring out are there ways we can work together to build a new well as opposed to fighting over the well we've got,” the president said.
“Look,” he continued, “I don’t want to simplify it. None of this is easy. But what it does mean is, for example, when wealthy countries think about foreign aid, they’re thinking about it as an investment.
‘This is a way so that we don't have to send soldiers on a peacekeeping mission because the peace is already there. This is a way to make sure that we've got new markets…because none of these folks has got a bicycle…’”
The mindset means “constantly thinking about how are we able to create opportunities for collaboration or cooperation as opposed to conflict,” the president said, pointing out the success of the Marshall Plan after World War II, which rebuilt not only the nations with whom the US had been allied, but its enemies.
“Part of that ‘moral imagination’ is being able to think 10, 20, or 30 years down the line both in terms of the consequences of action but also the consequences of inaction.”
Jada Pinkett Smith asked the president about First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Yeah she's a star,” the president said. “She's cute — that too.”
Will Smith suggested he’d been thinking the same thing. “Was I allowed to say that?” he asked.
“You could have said that,” the president said.
“Michelle is very, very fine,” Smith said.
“That's true,” agreed the president. “What can I do? I did the right thing.”
“You analyzed the information…” joked Smith, seeming to discuss a major policy issue.
“Made the best decision possible,” joked the president.
“Could you share with us how her wisdom may have influenced you with issues concerning peace?” asked Pinkett Smith.
“Here's the interesting thing about Michelle,” said the president. “First of all she's the most honest person I've ever known. She doesn’t pretend to be something else. She's very confident in herself and what she’s about and what’s important to her.” The “first thing she does is just give me that solid ground,” the president said. “I know if I'm talking to her I'm going to get it straight. Her values are ones that I believe in and that I share.”
The second thing she does, the president said, is that while “she's not somebody who spends a lot of time analyzing all these policy decisions in detail that I have, she does have a really good feel about what ordinary folks are going through because her gut is always back where she came from and that’s very helpful to me.”
The president said, “I think the worst thing about being president is all the noise, all the political games, it can be like a hall of mirrors where just a few people are talking to each other and never breaking out of it. And Michelle’s very good at making me focus not on the immediate world that we're in but what's going on outside of it.”
In a later press appearance, Will Smith called interviewing the president “terrifying. That's a really difficult job to really find the core of something. You want to sound smart and you want to get that thing that no one else has been able to get, you want to be able to get the person to say that thing that makes you famous.”
In an interview for Univision, singer Gloria Estefan interviewed the president, asking the “very important question…which chimney will Santa be coming down?”
The answer: the chimney in the Yellow Room in the middle of the Residence, “so that’s where we are going to set the cookies and the milk, because after working all night, giving the gifts…. we want to make sure when it comes to the White House that he feels like he is getting good service.”
The Obamas will also set out “a little reindeer snack.”
The president gives a message for Hispanics in the military, suggests that Americans become mentors, and says: “En esta temporada festiva, todos queremos estar con nuestros seres queridos, pero también podemos tomar el tiempo para ayudar a nuestras comunidades. Cada persona puede hacer una gran diferencia. Michelle y yo les deseamos una Feliz Navidad.”
(Translation: “In this holiday season, we would all like to be with our loved ones, but we should also take the time to help our communities. Each person can make a big difference. Michelle and I wish you a Merry Christmas.”)