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In Meetings, On The Court To Discover 'Obama's Way'

Contributing editor Michael Lewis played basketball with President Obama while working on a piece for <em>Vanity Fair.</em>
Pete Souza
The White House
Contributing editor Michael Lewis played basketball with President Obama while working on a piece for Vanity Fair.

Author Michael Lewis made a radical request to the White House that he says he was almost certain would be denied: He wanted to write a piece about President Obama that would put the reader in the president's shoes.

To do this, the Vanity Fair contributing editor would need inside access. So what did he propose?

"I've got to basically come and loiter and just kind of get to know him. It's going to be very free-flowing; I want to do things like play basketball with him," Lewis tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I said I wanted to caddy for him on the golf course. I wanted to be in meetings, I just wanted to be around, and no one had ever done this."

To Lewis' surprise, access was granted because, according to Lewis, Obama wanted to do it.

"He was very easy about it, everybody else seems to be very nervous for him," Lewis says. "He's not nervous for himself."

Over the next six months, Lewis accompanied Obama on Air Force One and talked with him extensively about the challenges, surprises and decision-making processes that come with being commander in chief.

His article in the October issue of Vanity Fair delves into how the president balances the public relations aspect of the job with the endless string of decisions that have to be made — and how Obama is both powerful and powerless.

"The office of the presidency has these god-like powers especially with regard to our foreign affairs," Lewis says. "The president can be so powerful in some ways and in other ways, particularly with regard to domestic affairs, he's hamstrung, so this weird disjuncture between his powers and his powerlessness is really striking."

Lewis is the author of Moneyball, The Big Short and Liar's Poker, based in part on Lewis' experience working as an investment banker on Wall Street.

Michael Lewis is a contributing editor to <em>Vanity Fair</em> and the author of <em>Moneyball</em>, <em>The Big Short</em>, <em>Liar's Poker </em>and<em> Boomerang</em>.
/ Tabitha Soren
Tabitha Soren
Michael Lewis is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar's Poker and Boomerang.

Interview Highlights

On Lewis' approach to writing the profile and the White House vetting process

"My whole goal was to create a very natural environment so I could observe him without lots of people worrying about how it was going to be made to look in print. So the agreement I had with him was, 'Don't worry about me. I don't mind you vetting his quotes, and if you set me up with an interview with someone else in the White House and I want to quote that person, I'll show you those quotes, too, and that ended up happening. ...

"So I sent those in, and they did almost nothing to them. Very, very little. ...

"The other thing — and it wasn't ever stated — but his natural instinct, he doesn't come across when you're with him as a political person. You don't see the wheels turning in his head when he's talking. He doesn't have a kind-of filter of, 'How is this gonna sound?' What he does instead is he says what's on his mind, and then he says, 'Look, you can't use that,' or, 'I can't talk about this.'

"And the truth is, the things they didn't want me to write about were mostly kind of tedious, mostly they weren't things I was going to write about anyway. To the extent they were filtering, they were filtering for this weird reality distortion field that's out there. They were thinking, 'How could this be made to seem if someone took this out of context and ratcheted it up?' It didn't affect my game very much."

On Obama, the person

"What I noticed is that that office takes your personality and exaggerates it — you become a caricature of who you are. And he has a personality trait that costs him politically, and it's the personality trait of a writer. He really is at bottom a writer, and the trait is — he's in a moment and not in a moment at the same time. He can be in a room but detach himself at the same time. It's almost as if he's writing about it at the same time he's participating in it. It's a curious inside-outside thing, and the charge that he's aloof grows right out of this trait. So he's got these traits that are of ambiguous value to the job, but you can't do anything about it, it's who he is. His politics — he's essentially a pragmatist. His nature is problem solving. He's not an ideologue, so it's a little hard to get too worked up either way about his politics."

On how Obama makes decisions with his advisers

"He tries not to queer the process of the meeting itself by expressing what his view is. Instead, he insists on people who are around the room who are junior people, who have different views of the Libyan situation [at the time, then president Gadhafi was threatening to kill citizens living in the city of Benghazi], he insists on hearing their views, knowing that they will say, 'We need to at least consider saving these people.' So he elicits the views of people who normally wouldn't be included in this discussion. ...

"What's so interesting about this, in addition to the president having to solicit an option that his advisers didn't give him, was that that there wasn't anybody, no senior person in his administration, who wanted him to do what he ends up doing. He has no constituency to go and save those people. The system is telling him don't do it, or do something that protects you politically."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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