just asking questions

A Long Talk With Pete Buttigieg

The 2020 hopeful on college contemporary Mark Zuckerberg, how sewers are like national security, and Ulysses.

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in his office. Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“We’re not stupid, we understand that this is an underdog project,” says Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’s just weeks into the exploratory phase of his run for the Democratic nomination for president. Recent days have been intense for the mayor, who’s nearing the end of his second term. Just days after he announced his intention to run for the White House and kicked off a media blitz — while he’s gearing up for an upcoming book tour — his father passed away. Buttigieg, a Harvard-trained Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan War veteran who ran unsuccessfully for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2017, and who is one of the first openly gay candidates for president, is driving me back to his campaign office downtown. He’s just taken us on a tour of the city that included a stop for tacos in the back of a grocery store and another at his house down the street from where his mother still lives. The day before, he’d both livestreamed himself filling a pothole and monitored Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. At one point as we spoke, he took a call from a New Hampshire county Democratic Party chair inviting him to campaign in the state. He’s going to need to get a lot of calls like that if he’s going to have any shot in a crowded field full of much more famous names. “What’s nice is you don’t have to think yourself into too complicated a place,” he says. “Because, as a general rule, do a good job and conduct yourself well, and that will be the thing that’s most likely to help you win, and the thing that’s most likely to help you not regret that you ran, if you don’t win.”

You were at Harvard with Mark Zuckerberg. Were you one of the first people on Facebook?
Yeah. Well, not one of the first dozen, but one of the first two or three hundred. You know, Friendster was a thing back then, there were a few of these going around. I think MySpace was a thing by then. But I remember this thing was going around, I had a friend who was connected with those guys. I was like, “What’s up with this? Oh, it’s a thing.” So we all got on it. But I thought it was just another Harvard thing. We didn’t realize where it was going.

Did you know Zuckerberg well?
No, not in college.

But you’ve gotten to know him since.
I’ve gotten to know him more since, yeah. Because he came out there, I got to know him during the DNC process; actually, he reached out through some mutual friends. Then he was in the middle of that wanting to visit all 50 states, so I said, “If you’re going to do Indiana, you gotta come to South Bend.” So I got to know him that way.

Have you kept in touch with him at all?
Um, yeah. Every now and then.

He seems particularly resistant to this new spirit of oversight and critical thinking about his role.
I think they are worried about, kinda, the hostility to the tech companies that’s emerged. I think they realized that there’s gotta be some kind of policy response, because what they do is increasingly a matter of policy. I mean, in many ways corporate policies of Google, Facebook, and the others are public policy. And I think they take that seriously, I’m sure he does. I also think they’re just trying to protect their business. This is the interplay when regulation comes up. It’s like, you’ve got to protect the public, and the business does what it’s gotta do to look out for itself. I think it’s probably a lot of that kind of Silicon Valley skepticism about government, and I think that spectacles like the embarrassingly uninformed elderly senators not seeming to know the basics of, you know, the online world probably reinforced them. But I also think there’s no getting around the fact that there’s going to have to be a policy response here. You can’t just let companies self-regulate, and I’ve gotta think they get that, too. I think if you’re well intentioned and you think everyone you know is well intentioned, you kind of assume that everything will be okay. But I think they’ve seen the consequences of that and take that seriously. I just don’t think they’ve figured it out on their end.

But don’t you think that’s just naïveté about how the world works?
Yeah. I do think, actually, one thing I noticed with Silicon Valley post-Trump is it kind of made them more politically aware, more aware that, like, business and philanthropy alone isn’t going to make the world a better place. But I don’t think they’ve yet really reckoned with how they fit in when policy catches up.

One thing I’m curious about is your own history in private business — your postcollege McKinsey training sometimes comes through in how you talk about projects here. But what do you make of the recent coverage of their work with foreign governments? Or the report of their work with Purdue Pharma, around OxyContin?
That I didn’t follow. But I saw the ones going on with the Saudi piece, and then the South African thing they got mixed up into. Again, it’s the same thing. I think you have a lot of smart, well-intentioned people who sometimes view the world in a very innocent way. I wrote my thesis on Graham Greene, who said that innocence is like a dumb leper that has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Within the context of Vietnam.
And I wrote about Iraq. Look, in some ways it’s similar. You’re a tech company and you view yourself as a medium and you try to be in control of the things that are sent across your medium, but you’re forced to realize there’s a point when you can’t do that anymore. I think for a consultancy it’s kind of similar, right? So they view themselves as kind of answering questions and solving problems, and that’s what they do, and they didn’t think that much. I mean, they also consulted for Libya under Qaddafi. A lot of American companies did, it was fashionable. Joe Nye was going out there. And I think there’s this idea that people are going to do what they’re going to do, but we’re going to help them be more efficient. I do seem to remember there were some morality clauses. You’d have to double-check this, but I think there was a blanket policy — they just decided they weren’t going to serve the tobacco industry, for example. But, in the end, when you have an apparatus like that that is so woven into the American private sector, it’s going to be as moral or immoral or amoral as the American private sector itself. And what’s interesting is you don’t see blanket denunciations of law firms that serve any number of these clients, because the thought is just, client service is what it is. And you serve people and represent their interest. But there seems to be a higher expectation of consultancies, and it may be because consultancies take a lot of pride in the work that they do with foundations and other great causes. They don’t want to be as amoral as a law firm.

What would you say if a junior at Harvard called you right now and said, “Should I take a job there?”
That happens from time to time. And I try to give good advice. My purposes there were mostly educational. I mean, I was earning money and saving money, too, but the reason I was doing that and not something else was mostly educational. And so if someone’s a junior in college, usually what I tell them is, “Look, your 20s are a really precious thing, so if you’re going to spend a couple of them doing anything, ask yourself if you were going to do it, having your expenses covered and not being paid. Would it still be worth it?”

I was watching a recent interview you did, with CBSN, and you said the center of the population is to the left of where the center of Congress
is …
Absolutely.

It’s objectively true, but I bring it up because it’s sort of interesting to hear a candidate for president talk explicitly in these terms out loud.
Well, that’s because people like me are told to not use “left,” “right,” “center” too much in our vocabulary. There’s all sorts of reasons it’s problematic when you do. But it’s also just a fact, it’s something you gotta say. Especially when you get a really dumb question about some idea, somebody says, “Um, is it too far left?” For example, if you had taken an ideological lens on some of the Bloomberg stuff, the soda thing, if a member of Congress had proposed a soda tax like that, it would have been characterized as this crazy, far-left socialist stuff.

And government overreach.
Well, you may or may not believe it’s government overreach, but it definitely didn’t come from the far left. It came from this pragmatist, business-oriented mayor who was following the facts and realized there is a pretty high social cost to obesity.

A big part of your pitch is that you’re a mayor, and no other candidate is — and that you have more executive experience than the president, which is a good line, and a good answer for the question of how you’re qualified, at 37, to do this. That’s all true, but there are other former mayors looking at running. They all have other experience on top of being mayor, one way or another. So how do you deal with the qualification question compared to them? I’m talking Cory Booker in Newark, Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Julián Castro in San Antonio, Bloomberg in New York. And now it looks like Eric Garcetti in L.A. and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans won’t run, but they were considering it.
I really admire Landrieu. I’ve seen him at work a lot in the community of mayors, you know, we had him as the president of the Conference of Mayors, and I found him to be very decisive and commanding, but also he had that Clintonian quality of being able to take complicated things and explain them in English that I think is really important. I think that comes more naturally to mayors because of our day-to-day experience and being on the job. But it’s also something that’s not so common. In terms of the others, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of the others because there are so many of them, and we just need to do our own project. I do think that because this hasn’t resolved itself into lanes, what you’ll see is everybody’s got certain pieces of a story, but nobody blows them out of the water with a full deck, right? So you have a handful of candidates from the middle of the country, but very few of them are young. You have a handful of young candidates, but very few of them are executives. We have a handful of executives but none of them are veterans, and so it’s a question of: What alignment of attributes do you want to have?

Ours is, first of all, among mayoral experience — this is biased, obviously — one of the most distinctive, because it’s such a turnaround story. Also, not to get too much into the technicalities of municipal government, but this is a strong mayor system. I don’t run the schools, but other than that, there’s not a city manager. The reckoning with nostalgia that South Bend did — you sort of find a way to take onboard your past and honor it, but not get sucked into it, not get resentful about it, either — is, in my view, what has to happen for America as a whole. We’re at this moment where Democrats need to abandon the appeal of the ’90s, and Republicans need to abandon the appeal of the ’50s. And we need to have some faith that the future is going to be better, and take some steps to make sure that’s true. And I think South Bend’s story in that regard is pretty special and pretty unique. And, by the way, incomplete. The story is still being told. I just got the numbers today that we are, at last, over $20,000 in our per capita personal income. But that just happened. We’re at 25.5 percent poverty now, which is actually good news compared to two or three years ago, when it was 28. Because statistically that means a couple thousand people are out of poverty.

I’ve never read a pre-presidential-campaign book that has so much in it about sewers.
Well. Yeah. Like public surface in general, sewers are unbelievably important. They’re so important that we make sure they work basically all of the time. Which is why you never think of them — that’s kind of the point. But it’s not that different from national security. It’s like I say, people experience the more freedom the less they think about it. By the way, most infrastructure is underground. I know we think about bullet trains and airports. That’s cool, too, but if you really want to talk about a major American infrastructure program, come see what the combined sewer overflow cities are dealing with. Today I was reading our current evaluation of the net assets of the city is $480 million. So if you depreciate it, anything that was capitalized, from our trucks to our pipes, it’s worth $480 million. At best, the sewer upgrade that I’m going to have to do is $500 million, so it is literally equivalent to the value of all of the city’s assets. We talk about a Green New Deal? There could be, almost, a New Deal–level investment just in midwestern sewer separation. And, by the way, water quality, too, as we learned in Flint.

This isn’t exactly sexy, but are you surprised national Democrats aren’t having more of a prominent infrastructure conversation?
I think we got tricked a little bit because we thought Trump was going to do infrastructure, right? A “trillion-dollar plan.” Even we fall for it.

Wait, did you believe it?
Not really. But I always thought he would do something, that something would provoke a bump in the economy, and they’d use that bump in the economy to get reelected. And it turned out, literally, the plan was like, “You do it.” The message to the cities was: “We can kick in a little bit on the top, but you have to run this.” It’s not so much a plan as a restatement of the status quo. So I think for that reason, we maybe cooled off on that, because it was supposed to be the big bipartisan priority and that turned out as all bullshit.

And now infrastructure has turned into a symbol for Trump’s inability to do anything …
Yeah, I think the pattern that’s so revealing is that he said he was going to do this thing. He didn’t — nobody’s that surprised, and by the time anybody goes back to check, it’s like, “Look over there! Caravan!” What’s most interesting about this is nobody’s talking about infrastructure. Look at his State of the Union address. This is where you unveil your big thing. And other than the wall he hasn’t done anything at all. I suppose that’s infrastructure.

I suppose? But it’s not actually being built …
Right. Nor did I hear any suggestion of a plan to do so, an actual plan. I mean, you could at least have talked about a pseudo-plan like what [Congressman Dan] Crenshaw and these guys are putting forward. I didn’t even see that.

But why do you think that is? Is he not actually interested in building it?
I think he doesn’t care.

What does he care about?
Things like the wall are interesting inasmuch as they feed the show, not the other way around. So for those of us who believe the show is kind of a necessary evil and comes with the territory and is kind of how you get policy done, we’re living in this upside-down world. Obviously, there’s always been this relationship between policy and politics, but it’s gone incredibly far in one direction this time.

So there isn’t really a serious national infrastructure conversation happening in these terms, but on the other hand, there is a lot of talk about the Green New Deal.
I view it as promising. I think we should acknowledge that what we’ve seen is really more a set of goals than it is a fully set-out plan, but I think that’s the right place to begin. Really for two reasons: One, it correctly identifies climate as an emergency and something whose impact is on the scale of the Great Depression or a major war, which is why it calls for us to mount an equivalent effort, and the only difference is, unlike the Depression or war, this is something that we see coming, which means there is all the more urgency about doing something about it. And the other thing that’s really important is it looks at how the way we’ve responded to some other national emergencies wound up being a source of economic opportunity. World War II was one of the things that led to the end of the Great Depression. The upside here is it shouldn’t require a war in order to see that kind of transformative economic benefit from mounting a major national effort to deal with a crisis before it’s wreaked all the destruction that it can. Obviously, there’s a lot to be worked out, in terms of articulating the details, policy framework, understanding how we would bend the cost curves on some of the measures that would be required down. But I think with the right level of R&D and the right level of political will, we can act aggressively and make a big difference. Everyone, as the conversation goes on, will add their features to it. One that I didn’t see much on that I would consider very important as a mayor is a lot more to promote urban infrastructure at the urban level, because you can make huge sustainability gains just by promoting growth and a certain level of density, walkability, efficient heating, things like that that really tie back to urban planning. And there are other features that need to be added, but as a framework, as a goal, I think it’s moving us in the right direction.

One of the criticisms has been that it may be moving in the right direction, but some of the set goals may not be attainable in the stated time frame. Is this a legitimate concern or not particularly productive at this point?
I think that’s more meaningful if actual specific investments are being proposed, and then we can weigh whether they’re going to be effective compared to the next best investment, but the reality is the time to get the level of carbon emissions to what the Green New Deal calls for, the actual year that needs to happen, is today or yesterday. So criticizing this for coming too soon kind of misses the point.

To go back to your point about policy and politics for a second, that dichotomy has obviously been around forever, but you write in your book about having to learn the power of ceremony as mayor. Is this something the presidency has lost or has seen diminished? Does that matter?
Yeah, I do. It didn’t begin with Trump. And some of the loss of reverence may actually come from some good places, like healthy skepticism of expertise and, kind of, democratization, peeling back layers. But still, the president is a walking symbol of this country, and the same way I learned as a mayor I’m a walking symbol of the city, that there is great power to do things that it comes with but also great responsibility.

Ah, the presidency as Spider-Man.
Yeah, the diminished presidency is going to pose a very real problem, because there are times that that office is very important, and irreplaceable, for the purposes of calling Americans together, for the purposes of legitimizing certain moments or groups or activities, places. For establishing what’s important and what isn’t, for letting Americans know what is a real emergency and what’s not. You’ve got the symbolism of the Oval Office address, right? There’s this gravity to it. So when he uses his first Oval Office address to talk about kind of a manufactured crisis, it forever diminishes the usefulness. The most searing memory obviously is President Kennedy letting us know that the world might get nuked pretty soon if we don’t fix it.

Trump cares about the show more than anything — but it turns out there’s substance in the symbols, too. In fact, when I’m in a heavily symbolic moment, most of my energy goes into thinking about what not to do. Editing, kind of, my comments, keeping them sparse. There’s all these things you might do to diminish the moment, and you’re mostly thinking of how not to do them, even if it results in this numbing moment of just sitting there.

What’s an example?
You want to crack a joke, the way I generally want to. And if you do, it just reduces people’s sense of reverence for the moment. If you show vulnerability in the wrong way — that’s actually something I usually lean heavily on in building relationships, or even in political rhetoric — in sort of symbolic moments, that makes it more about you, and takes it away from the moment. Also, the Congress — when I was a high-schooler and I got the chance to go to the Capitol Building and see the Congress, like, that was a thing. I felt more important because I was invited to see that place.

But was that not, in some way, the reverence that comes with the innocence of youth?
Yeah, some.

I don’t mean to diminish it …
But what if you’re coming of age now? What do you see? There was a piece of research done where they asked people to describe the president in generic terms, just the presidency in general: What’s the president like? Is the person well spoken or not? Ethical, tall, short, old, young? And the attributes people reply with in that survey wind up matching basically who was president at the time of their 10th birthday. And the lesson is, you form your concept of the office based on who’s in there at a certain age. And there may be a difference between people who, in my case it’d be Bill Clinton, and people who were George W. Bush. But what the hell do you think of this office if your concept is under President Trump?

When was the first time you met your fellow Indianan Mike Pence?
I think it was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was a congressman. I think I’d just been nominated for mayor. Maybe when I was running for treasurer I saw him every now and then.

You have a complicated relationship.
Very. Yeah, because we worked together, he said nice things about me. I was leading this group of urban mayors and I would go visit his office and talk about mayor stuff, and he would always make time for that. The big Studebaker factory [in South Bend], the state was part of making that [renovation] happen, that was a deal we were very proud of and happy with, and then we developed. And he was noticeably moved by my deployment. He called me the day I was driving to the base. And then he just couldn’t help himself. He went into this disastrous social-extremism thing. We were all waiting to see, having watched [former Republican governor Mitch] Daniels successfully navigate partisanship in Indiana, we were all waiting to see: Can Pence be like Daniels, or will he sooner or later give in to his worst social instincts? And time proved the answer to that question.

You haven’t talked to him recently, have you?
No. I haven’t talked to him since he became vice-president.

Did you talk to him while he was Trump’s running mate in 2016?
Yeah, he was still governor and we had conversations, especially during the flood that we had in the summer of 2016. He reached out, and we talked about what we needed from a disaster-preparedness perspective. I don’t recall speaking to him after that. I may have exchanged texts with him.

Did you perceive any change in him when you talked then?
It was pretty straightforward. Obviously, he had a lot of things on his mind but he was still engaged at that level. I decided it probably wasn’t the right moment to express my concern about some of the things that might have contributed to extreme weather in South Bend, and I let him know that I was praying for strength and wisdom on his part, because I was trying to think of something to say that was nice but also true.

So have you been surprised by how he’s handled the last two years?
His existence in this White House is, like, totally surprising, and yet it’s politically obvious. It’s obvious why he and this president needed each other. As some of the recent exposés have suggested, the one thing they didn’t account for in forming that alliance was the idea that they would win. It’s interesting that a lot of the anecdotes about them being shocked revolve around Mike and Karen just being, like, stunned. Because who would think that this Über-Evangelical Christian would go down in history as the midwife of the porn-star presidency?

And yet, he seems pretty intent on keeping up the ceremonial side of the role.
Yes, he was always more attuned to that. You could argue he was always better at that than policy.

And his wife just took a job at a school …
There are all these weird parallels. His wife’s into arts education, my husband’s into arts education. But the resemblance kind of ends there. I mean, I love the idea that the president’s or vice-president’s spouse could be teaching. But did it have to be there?

Jill Biden was a teacher, too.
Yeah, great. Probably at a place that didn’t fire gay people.

Right. Correct. On that front, though, I’ve noticed it’s become pretty common for some of your TV interviewers to ask, “You’d be the first gay president, are people ready for that?” And you invariably say, “There’s only one way to find out.” Which is fair! But is there some sense of external pressure or responsibility
Yep. The only real signpost I have on this is the way that President Obama negotiated race. I think that’s pretty instructive in many ways. Because it was a very important fact about his persona, but he didn’t let it hem him in. So I think about that a lot. I’m aware of the historic nature of a candidacy like this. I’m aware of the difference it might make, too.

The most moving responses I got to my coming out in the first place was people, like teenagers, letting me know that it made their lives easier in some way. But it’s a weird paradox to get your head around, because the thing we’re solving for is the day when it’s not even newsworthy, and what’s been so odd, and split, about my experience so far is, for some, it’s just that. I give interviews where it doesn’t come up because they just want to know what I think about Venezuela, or whatever, and there are others where of course that’s the substance of the whole interview, or at least the top takeaway.

So I think about it a lot, I think about what it means, given that we’re not that many years out from a time in my life when I simply assumed that I could either be out or I could be in politics, but not both.

You don’t talk a lot about your time in Tunisia, where you learned Arabic in 2005.
It was interesting in several ways. So it was my first time really living under a dictatorship — my only one, I suppose. And there’s not a lot of Americans there, so it was just different from being in a U.S. study-abroad program. Tunisians are very friendly. They’ll befriend you at the drop of the hat, they’re like Egyptians. At first you think there’s something shady going on, they’re trying to get something out of you, because if somebody comes up to you on the street trying to get a cigarette or asking what time it is, next thing you know they’re inviting you to coffee, and you’re like, What is this? Especially if you’re from New York, I’m sure there’d be only more suspicion. But they’re just friendly. So then what I tried to do, as I do when I travel, is understand the politics of the place. I couldn’t get anyone to talk about politics. The conclusion I reached was that they had successfully created a generation that didn’t care about politics. And that conclusion was evidently wrong, because it was Tunisia of all places where the Arab Spring began six years after I was there.

Not to draw too clumsy a parallel here, but here you obviously see a younger generation getting more and more engaged, so do you recognize some similarity?
I hope so. You know, when I was a student I worked on the Harvard Institute of Politics poll about young people in politics, and you know there was this interesting spike in 9/11 when confidence in institutions and interest in politics were just tragically low. And it was especially tragic because, as a student, I was studying the ways that young people made profoundly historic change in the ’60s, and so now there’s clearly this kind of awakening that’s going on. The Parkland phenomenon is interesting, it’s more generationally interesting than it is in any other way. But I don’t know where it goes. I don’t know how sustained it is. That’s what we’ll have to find out, by testing it.

In your book, your college years are very much framed around 9/11. Did they feel that way in the moment, or is that just in retrospect?
Yeah, that dominated the psychology of my time in college. It was like we lost our innocence. I took it very personally, even though I didn’t know anybody there. I had dreams about it for months. And then, of course, it led more or less directly to the Iraq War. It was such an innocent time, when we were dropped off at college we were listening to Dave Matthews, and the internet’s a thing, and Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes are the worst thing to worry about in politics. And then in that last innocent summer before 9/11, I was an intern on Capitol Hill. People were walking freely about the Capitol. It’s like we didn’t realize how innocent that was until afterwards.

You talk a lot about how we haven’t had a president who served overseas in years. How do you think that played out in the Obama years, the fact that he didn’t have that experience?
Well, it was the norm in that neither did his predecessor, really, unless you count the Guard, or his successor. It’s a good question. Maybe as a community organizer he got this in a different way, but as a wartime veteran you have the benefit of just a vocabulary for talking to people very different from you, because you are thrown into a difficult project with them, Maybe you get that as an organizer, I don’t know. But it’s certainly something that you saw in even very elite people, like President Kennedy or George H.W. Bush, that they had some ability to relate to people, because they had to. By the way, if you ever watch Prince Harry on a panel or giving a talk, you can tell that as royals go, he’s comparatively normal, and I think that’s largely because he had a workplace experience with people with radically different social backgrounds.

Well, this idea of talking to people from totally different worlds — do you see Trump’s inability to do this as a defining quality of his? Or can he, in some way?
Interesting question. He can in a certain way. He says these things and connects with people. But in this very dumbed-down way that I think is also insulting to his audience. But I certainly don’t get the sense that he can relate to other human beings. Now, I don’t know how much of this is a consequence of his elite lifestyle and how much of this is just a function of his psyche. But relating to other people is just not his thing. Which is odd, because it’s such an important part of the presidency. On the one hand, by being a lofty leadership role it’s going to be remote in a sense, at least while you’re in that office. But relating, understanding what people are going through, is obviously — it’s the very stuff of political rhetoric. Part of the case I made is it should also be the core of policy-making. In the same way it is the core of literature.

What are you reading these days?
I’m not reading enough right now. There’s a great book about writing, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4; it’s a collection of essays. I just read Michael Lewis’s [new book]. There’s a new novel I just noticed a few weeks ago, South Pole Station it’s called. I’d like to pick that up. I might return to Wolf Hall. I think that’s good for somebody doing what I’m doing — it’s a really good book about humanity in power.

There’s been a decent amount written about the idea that this president doesn’t read, including fiction, that it hems in his way of thinking, his view of the world.
I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s convincing. Because reading is a way of putting yourself in someone else’s experience, especially reading fiction. You could, I guess, watch a movie or a play and get some of that effect, but it doesn’t seem like he does that, either. I haven’t heard of him watching a movie. Maybe he does, all I’ve heard is he watches cable. So, yeah, I mean, you read a novel and you get into somebody else’s world, and it makes you more compassionate and more attentive to why things matter. One respect in which I’m very much my father’s son is how I feel about Joyce. Ulysses is very much about daily life, when you get into this other guy’s life and you learn about the things he cares about, and why he cares about them. And then, very indirectly, very subtly, you learn why politics has impacted his life, too.

So Joyce, or fiction broadly, then, guided you to public service?
Totally, I mean if I were a better writer, I would try to be a novelist. But in many ways it’s the same instinct, I think. Seeing where other people are, getting in their story, sharing yours, making something come out of that exchange.

Do you think about Graham Greene much these days?
About innocence?

I meant specifically what you wrote about in college, but sure, innocence too.
Not as much. I mean, I wrote about it then because the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq had my attention. But, you know, [The Quiet American] is a book about how people with good intentions cause problems. We’re in a moment that’s not really about people with good intentions, we’re in a moment that’s about nihilism. And somewhere along that slippery slope from moral laziness — which all of us have — to outright nihilism hangs the future of our republic, I think.

Your thesis is, there’s a new generation here to combat that.
I mean, first of all, the younger you are, the less likely you are to do nihilism. The cliché is not without substance, of idealism and youth. There’s the ending monologue in Lawrence of Arabia where one of the old sheikhs tells Lawrence that the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future. And he says the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution. There’s a due date on nihilism. Bad things happen specifically to people, and those people will be us if we don’t bend the trajectory here.

But how do you now see the character of the country and society changing because of the emergence of the millennial generation as the biggest voting bloc, even aside from this election?
I mean, we’ll have to see how that cashes out, but I think now, as young people are more inclined to question the way things are, we’re not going to take “This is the way things have always been done” as a reason or an excuse to do things a certain way. And obviously there’s a more pluralistic character of our generation. I think there’s a kind of general openness that is very American, but maybe it’s slipped a little bit. And maybe the empowerment of a new generation can bring that up.

This article has been edited and condensed from two conversations.