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Marianne Williamson: A Politico or Apolitical?

Marianne Williamson was invoking Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy and Thoreau, barefoot in a brownstone in Brooklyn. “If everything you’re doing is making everybody happy, you’re not doing the right stuff yet,” she said to a room of about 30 people.

That September day, Ms. Williamson, the author, spiritual teacher and erstwhile presidential candidate, was wearing dramatic draping sleeves like a wizard’s. The attendees were mostly writers, including the playwright Leah Nanako Winkler and Derek Simonds, the showrunner of “The Sinner,” and were there by private invitation.

What drew this crowd was the same thing that has pulled audiences toward Ms. Williamson for almost 40 years. It was the first time she had spoken at an in-person event since the pandemic began, a radical change for a person whose career is tied to public speaking. What Ms. Williamson ultimately advised, knowing her audience, was this: that each of us should sit down and pray, “Dear God, let me write one true sentence.”

Ms. Williamson, 69, presents with the same fire that has fueled her career from the beginning, when she made a reputation for herself speaking around Los Angeles in the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis hit. (“In a very real way, gay men in Los Angeles gave me my career,” she said in an interview.)

After ending her presidential campaign in January 2020, Ms. Williamson moved from New York to Washington, D.C. (by way of Iowa), where she has continued her speaking career on Zoom and churned out a virtual tsunami of content, including a daily newsletter, a morning meditation and a podcast with a political focus.

But it was her presidential run that raised her profile, and earning potential, exponentially. Many Americans encountered her for the first time, via the persona — the parody version — that quickly enveloped her, that of a crystal-worshiping, anti-vaccine (this was pre-Covid vaccines), new-age weirdo who would dare talk about love in a political debate. Who would dare to make love the very center of her platform, in fact.

Ms. Williamson announcing her presidential campaign at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Calif.Credit…Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Thinking Big

I first met Ms. Williamson in Los Angeles, late in the fall of 2017, at a conference called Summit, hosted by four tech entrepreneurs. Ms. Williamson was scheduled to give a speech.

Before it began, I was looking for a seat when a woman introduced herself to me as a friend of Ms. Williamson’s. Earlier that day, she said, Marianne had broken her toe, so she was likely to speak sitting down, rather than pace the stage as usual. Yet a few minutes later, there was Ms. Williamson, pacing back and forth in stunningly high heels. She stayed on her feet the whole time, as if nothing were the matter at all.

Ms. Williamson became famous at 40, when she published her first book, “A Return to Love,” and Oprah Winfrey, pre-book club, had her on the show. The book was inspired by and based on “A Course in Miracles,” by Helen Schucman, which Ms. Williamson credits with saving her from a rootless youth of cabaret singing and “bad boys and good dope,” as she writes in the book. (No more than what others of her age were doing, she is quick to clarify now.)

But though she began by writing about miracles and is now preparing to write a book about Jesus — “for people who do not necessarily relate to the dogma or the doctrine of the Christian religion” — she is very direct about one point. “I’m a Jew,” she said. “You’re born a Jew, you die a Jew.” Her spirituality is intended as ecumenical, and she has been building and refining it for decades. She sees her effort to branch out into politics — running for a California congressional seat in 2014, then for president in 2020 — as a natural extension of her earlier work.

“Spirituality isn’t some lane off to the side somewhere,” she said. “It’s an understanding of the dynamics that underlie everything. This isn’t a matter of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if America decided to change?’ It’s a matter of ‘We must change, or we will lose it all.’”

Diagnosis: ‘Kooky’

One of Ms. Williamson’s top Google hits to this day is from The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts humor column, in which she is fictionally quoted as saying, “I’d like to reallocate the government money that we’re spending on vaccinating children to something useful, like taking mediums underwater to ask eldritch spirits, ‘Who are we? Why are we all here?’”

Ms. Williamson has never been easy to categorize, and she believes there are deeper reasons for her ridicule. “Those who were invested in calling me kooky didn’t do it because they thought what I was saying was silly,” Ms. Williamson said. “Making me appear ridiculous was the chosen way to marginalize my message.”

It was one week after her Brooklyn salon, and we were in the dining room of the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. There was extra security in the lobby and temporary metal detectors — it was rumored the Israeli prime minister was in the hotel — but Ms. Williamson had entered casually, having shown her required proof of vaccination.

On that subject, by the way, she said that her views on vaccination are an example of the ways in which she has been misrepresented. During her campaign, before the coronavirus had entered the picture, Ms. Williamson called mandatory vaccinations “draconian” and “Orwellian,” but then walked her position back on Twitter the next day: “I am sorry I made comments which sounded as though I question the validity of life-saving vaccines. That is not my feeling and I realize that I misspoke.”

Now, she told me, “it was one of several areas where the truth of who I am was deeply mischaracterized.” She also acknowledges, however, that she has questioned the pharmaceutical industry in the past, including the safety of some vaccines. In 2012, as Andrew Kaczynski reported on CNN.com, “Williamson said she ‘agonized’ as a mother over the decision to vaccinate her children and that she could see ‘both sides’ of the issue.”

More recently, Ms. Williamson alluded to this background when she said to me: “What big pharma does, if you make any statement questioning the safety of vaccines, they call you anti-vax.”

And don’t get her started on the crystals. “In all of my books, and in thousands of my online lectures and seminars,” she said, “you will never find the word ‘crystal.’” (On this point, I’ll have to take her word for it, such is the volume of output.)

The Outsider Onstage

Throughout her presidential campaign, she was dogged by criticisms that went beyond crystals: that she had been controlling and temperamental at organizations she created in the 1990s to provide free services to AIDS patients; that in her spiritual teachings, she had made some of her followers feel they should have been able to will away their disease; that her book on weight loss was anti-fat. And, more generally, and perhaps more fatally, that with her lack of political experience and her emotion-based language, she simply did not belong on that stage.

Nothing could have highlighted her outsider status more than the optics of the first Democratic debate, in Miami, in the summer of 2019. In contrast to the unbroken line of candidates in dark blues and blacks, she wore a sea foam green suit and stood on the very edge of the stage. She did not speak at all until minute 14 of the broadcast, when she could be heard saying, faintly, “I’m sorry,” in an unsuccessful attempt to break into the discourse about student loan debt.

Ms. Williamson at the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami in 2019, with fellow candidates John Hickenlooper and Andrew Yang.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

But it wasn’t until Minute 27, well after a cringe-worthy intervention by Kirsten Gillibrand on Ms. Williamson’s behalf, that Ms. Williamson was finally granted the floor. This was when she was able to make her larger point: that the Democrats weren’t going to beat Donald Trump with a “shallow” health care plan. “Ladies and gentlemen, we don’t have a health care system in the United States,” she said. “We have a sickness care system in the United States.” Her first answer of the night earned rousing applause.

Many of Ms. Williamson’s admirers are drawn to her progressive positions and the refreshing and unapologetic way in which she expresses them. She is against the “military industrial complex.” She has called for reparations for Black Americans since 1998 when her book “Healing the Soul of America” was published.

“I do not believe the average American is racist, but I believe the average American does not truly realize how tilted our public resources are away from American black citizens and in the direction of America’s richer white citizens,” she writes in that book. “We do not have in America today a consensus that there is even a debt to be paid. What is this in our national temperament? Why is it that we resist the recognition of the tremendous moral debt we owe to a people brought here against their will and enslaved for centuries?”

She was asked about reparations in the second Democratic debate. “It’s not $500 billion in ‘financial assistance,’” she said, echoing the moderator’s phrasing. “It’s 200 to 500 billion dollars of payment of a debt that is owed.” Around the time of the debate, she told me, she had been acutely aware that “race in America was about to blow.”

Sipping an Arnold Palmer at the Regency, Ms. Williamson recalled that running for president was both inspiring and scorching.She was exhilarated by the primary state voters and their commitment to their role in American politics, but at the same time,“it is such a brutal and brutalizing experience to run, and in my case even more so,” she said.

“I was the most Googled person in 49 states after the second debate, and clearly someone very high up said get that woman off the stage. If I had been in the third debate, I think I might have been an inconvenience to a few people.” Along with other candidates, she didn’t qualify because her campaign did not meet certain finance requirements.

Ms. Williamson ended her candidacy on Jan. 10, 2020. By then, rumors of an infectious new virus were growing more insistent every day. She had run out of money, and most of the infrastructure of her campaign was gone.

But Ms. Williamson now says she regrets stepping down when she did. At the very end, when she was deciding whether to quit, she noticed that it was her female friends who urged her to be done with it already and her male friends who urged her to keep going, often with sports analogies, like “you still have time on the clock.” Which amused her, because she knows next to nothing about sports. “I didn’t enter the race with the a tough enough skin,” she told me.

“When people lie about you and create false narratives about you and misrepresent you, is that bruising? Yes. However, what is that compared to the fact that the Taliban has announced they are going to start public executions and cutting peoples’ hands off again? I have perspective.”

And yet. “It took me a year to forgive myself and others,” she said.

Credit…Molly Matalon for The New York Times

‘Car Mechanics’ of Washington

The next time I saw Ms. Williamson, she seemed more guarded, more vulnerable, and a touch more exasperated than she had in New York. We met in her home in Washington, a modern glass-walled apartment less than a mile from the White House. She moved into it soon after ending her candidacy, she said, so she could “keep an ear to the ground.”

To her, Washington is still essentially business as usual. “D.C. has a lot of good political car mechanics,” she said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is that the car is on the wrong road. The car is heading towards a cliff.”

The week before, the Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel had tweeted a photo of Ms. Williamson and Andrew Yang, onstage at an event for Mr. Yang’s new book. Mr. Weigel quoted Ms. Williamson saying, “We don’t want to be Jill Steins, but in any other country, any other advanced democracy, they have multiple political parties.” The tweet predictably triggered speculation about what, exactly, Ms. Williamson intends to do next.

She may not want to be Jill Stein — the Green Party candidate whose presidential run is often cited as a reason Mr. Trump won — but she also doesn’t want to dismiss Jill Stein. After all, Ms. Williamson said, “we need a viable other. I support any third-party effort that makes a thoughtful, articulate critique of the fundamental flaws in contemporary capitalism and its effects on people and the planet” When she ran for Congress in California, in 2014, it was as an independent.

Ms. Williamson sees the two-party system of today as blighted and controlled by corporate interests. “Republican policies represent a nosedive for our democracy,” she said. “And Democratic policies represent a managed decline.” And yet she also believes that this is the year it will change. “The status quo is unsustainable,” she said. “There is too much human despair out there.”

She is not willing to say whether she’ll run again, and dodged the question over the course of our many conversations. About two weeks ago, when Politico published an article suggesting that President Biden would face a primary challenge from a progressive candidate, “such as former Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner, 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson or millionaire and $18-an-hour minimum wage advocate Joe Sanberg,” Ms. Williamson declined to comment.

James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, is skeptical. “She ran before and she didn’t get a lot of votes,” he said. “She’s kind of an interesting person to say the least, but I don’t think politics is her calling. She always struck me as a new age Bernie Bro.”

In some ways, Ms. Williamson is like a Rorschach test: Many thrill to her message, while others doubt her sincerity and believe she is feeding into the speculation about a second presidential run only in order to linger on the stage.

Ms. Williamson campaigning in New Hampshire in 2019. She is not willing to say whether she’ll run again.Credit…Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times

The night Mr. Trump was elected, Ms. Williamson was speaking at the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, as she did every Tuesday. A childhood friend, Geri Roper, was in the audience. Afterward, “sad and shocked,” the two women drank Lillet and Perrier cocktails at the bar at the NoMad Hotel, Ms. Roper recalled. “You should run for president,” Ms. Roper told her friend.

There are a lot of things, big and small, that Ms. Williamson does not want in the public discourse. She is particularly private on the subject of her daughter. A single mother, Ms. Williamson has never revealed who her daughter’s father is, and is in fact a bit touchy on the subject — on the grounds of, this is 2022, why should she or any woman have to explain?

Her daughter, India Williamson, 31, is newly married and is working toward a Ph.D. in history in London. She watched her mother’s campaign closely, and the two were in constant contact. She called the characterization of her mother as a woo woo new-age type in some of the media coverage of her as “so off the mark that it was humorous.”

“She’s not crystal fuzzy,” she said, describing her mother as a fearless businesswoman. “The thought of her as the crystal lady is just not the woman I’ve known since the day I was born.”

Though Marianne is guarded about her personal life, an accidental “we” slipped out when I asked her where she was on Jan. 6, as in “we watched it on TV like everyone else.” She may not reveal much about her intimate life, but she lights up when she talks about her father, the late Houston immigration lawyer Sam Williamson, whose politics still reverberate throughout her own.

A favorite story of Ms. Williamson’s is from 1965, when American involvement in the Vietnam War was rapidly expanding. “I came home from school in the seventh grade, and I told my parents that my social studies teacher had said that if we didn’t fight on the shores of Vietnam, we would be fighting on the shores of Hawaii,” she said. “And I proceeded to explain to them the domino theory. My father’s face turned so white and he stood up, and said to my mother, ‘Dammit Sophie Ann, get them visas, we’re going to Saigon.’”

The family flew to Vietnam, where Ms. Williamson remembered that her father “explained to us that the war was wrong. And he explained to us about the military industrial complex. And he explained to us about American imperialism.” Afterward, her mother said: “Sam, now that the children are adequately informed about the military industrial complex, can we please stop in Paris on the way home?”

Ms. Williamson’s childhood friend Carrie Shoemake wasn’t particularly surprised when Marianne’s father took his family to Vietnam to witness the war. “The spirit of right and wrong moved more strongly in their family than in any other family I’d ever hung out with,” Ms. Shoemake said.

Credit…Molly Matalon for The New York Times

The ‘Horse Race’

Ms. Williamson was resistant to providing a lot of details about how her campaign had affected her, perhaps because she didn’t want to sound self-pitying.

Only after several repeated questions did she tell a story about the day when she was in her hotel room in Los Angeles and she turned on the news and there, Joe Lockhart, a former presidential press secretary, was saying she was “dangerous and crazy.”

“I just sat there with my jaw dropped open,” she said. Later, she DM’d him. He replied, Ms. Williamson, said: “The difference between you and me is that my politics are based on logic and yours are based on feelings.”

“I thought: This man knows nothing about my politics.” Ms. Williamson paused. “But that’s just part of politics.” More important to her, she said, were experiences on the other end of the spectrum. Like the woman who sent $10 to support her campaign and wrote, “When I get paid next week, I’ll send another ten.”

In New York, Ms. Williamson had told me: “I’m not at an age where I can take any more five- or 10-year detours. I’m at an age where, whatever the last chapter is, it has to be deliberate, intentional and well done.”

Asked again, this week, if she was ready to announce that she intends to run for president, she just laughed and declined to answer. Later she sent a text. “The media is always interested in the horse race, but to me that’s not what matters most,” it read. “What matters most is not just the who but the what. The ‘what’ is that we have someone, both as a candidate and as a president, who stands for a fundamental course correction.”

So, that means … what, exactly? The text ended with this: “Whatever role I can best play in that is the role I’d like to play.”

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