People of Northwest Public Radio
Wed September 12, 2012
In Meetings, On The Court To Discover 'Obama's Way'
Originally published on Wed September 12, 2012 1:05 pm
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.
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."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This must be a very trying day for President Obama, dealing with the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the deaths of four Americans, including our ambassador, Christopher Stevens. President Obama's decision last year to intervene in the Libyan civil war is explored in depth in a new article in Vanity Fair by my guest, journalist Michael Lewis.
Lewis wanted to know what it's like to be President Obama. He managed to get the president to agree to let him spend time over a six-month period observing the president in the White House and on his travels. Lewis' article about the tough decisions the president has to make and how he makes them is called "Obama's Way." Lewis is the author of the bestsellers "Moneyball," "Liar's Poker" and "The Big Short." His book "Boomerang," about the global financial meltdown, has just been published in paperback. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Michael Lewis, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Whose idea was writing a piece about Obama based on spending months with him, not all the time with him, but based on being with him off and on over a period of months?
MICHAEL LEWIS: It was my idea. I wrote an email to Jay Carney, the press secretary, last November and said this is sort of a flakey request, but someone should write a piece just trying to put the reader in the president's shoes, because you see all of this commentary about why Obama's done this, or why he hasn't done that, and all this hysteria around the office of the president, and it just seemed so implausible.
You just know that there's a man sitting there trying to do a job with more information about the decisions he's making than all the people who are criticizing the decisions. Let's go sit in his shoes and see what it feels like. I did not think this was going to come to anything.
I got a call the next day from Jay Carney saying we really want to do this. And I said: Who's we? And he said he really wants to do it. And I said, what about everybody else at the White House? And he said we really don't want to do it. And so there proceeded to be this kind of two-month game...
GROSS: Wait, wait. Who was the he - President Obama or Jay Carney?
GROSS: So the president wanted to do it. Jay Carney didn't want him to do it?
LEWIS: No, Jay Carney was OK with it, but the rest of the White House was - just didn't have a very good feeling about it. Nobody could see the upside of letting me in to wander around in the president's life, which is what I was asking to do. I said I've just - I've got to basically come and loiter and just kind of get to know him, and it's going to be very free-flowing.
I want to do things like play basketball with him. I said I wanted to caddy for him on the golf course. I wanted to be in meetings. I wanted to just kind of be around. And no one had ever done this. In fact (unintelligible) done this with a president in modern times. It was a radical request, and I didn't think they would do it.
So they invited me to the White House in January for what amounted to - it felt like a Goldman Sachs job interview. I was shuffled from important person to important person just to talk about my interest in this subject without any understanding that I would ever see the president. And at the end of this day, a White House press person comes running into my meeting and says, Michael, you have to leave now. And I thought they were throwing me out.
I thought that I'd offended somebody. It was entirely possible. They had no reason to think I was even pro-Obama. I mean I've been pals with McCain, and that was on the record. So she grabs me out of this meeting and kind of takes me on a race walk through the White House, and before I know it, I'm sitting in the Oval Office with him.
And it was just the two of us for 45 minutes, and we had a chat about how this might work, and he was very easy about it. And he let me get to know him.
GROSS: So in that 45-minute meeting, that first meeting that you had with President Obama, what did he want to hear from you about how this piece would proceed if he gave his permission?
LEWIS: I think the first thing he said was: So how much did you have to do with the movie "Moneyball"?
LEWIS: That was the kind of thing we were talking about. I said I didn't really have much to do. He said that's what I thought. He said - and then he wanted to talk about - he wanted to talk a bit about the financial crisis, because I think he had read "The Big Short," the book I'd written about the financial crisis.
I tell you, when I walked into his office, this is what I walked in on. He was sitting there laughing over an email somebody had sent him, and he was then coaching his two daughters in basketball. One was in the fifth grade and one was in the eighth grade. So he was coaching the fifth and eighth grade basketball teams at his children's school.
And the email he showed me was from an outraged parent of a seventh-grader at the school saying: Why wasn't the president coaching the seventh grade team, too? And he said, this is what I deal with all day, kind of thing. It was - the conversation we had in those 45 minutes, and where those 45 minutes came from, I have no idea. It was amazing to me that he had them at the time.
But he - he just wanted to talk. He didn't really ask what do you need, or what's your angle or - never in all of our dealings did he ask a question like that.
GROSS: So what were the ground rules that you negotiated with President Obama or with Jay Carney about what your access would be and about whether the piece would need to be vetted by the Obama administration before publication? Because the rules, as I understand it from the Obama administration now, is anything that's quoted from anyone in the administration, anything that's quoted on the record, has to be emailed to that person, who then basically has to get it approved by the administration.
LEWIS: I wanted - 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 in 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 the piece is massive. It's a 15,000-word piece, and there probably are six or seven pages of quotes, mainly from him. So I send those in. And they did almost nothing to them - very, very little. They had said we're probably going to be very generous with you, but we need to see them.
So I did show them the quotes. 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, and he doesn't have a kind of filter - oh, how is this going to sound?
What he does instead is he says what's on his mind, and then he says, look, you can't use that, or you can't - I can't have - I can't talk about this. And the truth is that the things that they didn't want me to write about were mostly kind of tedious. They mostly 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.
GROSS: How come you were so agreeable to having President Obama and members of the administration vet the quotes in your piece?
LEWIS: That's not uncommon. It isn't just the White House that does this. I mean this happens, this happens - well, in the first place, I'd already read the front page piece in the New York Times where they were describing how they insisted on doing this with everybody. I didn't really see why I should be that much of an exception.
But it isn't just President Obama who requires you to vet their quotes. You write a piece about an important person and they grant you an interview, sometimes they do demand the right to vet quotes. You write about a CEO of a Wall Street firm, very likely those are the terms. So that wasn't that unusual.
What was worrying to me was that they would vet the quotes and gut the spirit of the thing or gut the truth of the thing, that they would actually distort what I was doing, and they didn't do that. They didn't do that at all. I mean, the piece was written and polished when they saw these things, and I didn't have to do very much to adapt to the few things they needed me to change.
In addition, so much of the information that I was gathering was not quotes from President Obama. It was just the tone, texture, the energy of the place, the feel of the office, who this man was, in my eyes, having actually gotten to know him. So so much of the - so much of the material, as it were, was just stuff they were never going to be able to lay hands on.
GROSS: So you didn't send them that part, you just sent them the actual quotes?
LEWIS: Oh yeah, I didn't send the piece, absolutely. Yeah, they just send them the quotes.
GROSS: And they didn't demand that you send it?
LEWIS: Oh no, they wouldn't, they didn't - they didn't dare suggest it. So there was never - I realize that what they were asking to vet was - it wasn't trivial, but it really wasn't the meat of what I was up to.
GROSS: One of the things you say in the piece is that there were times you felt guilty taking up his time because you know he had so many things to do. I'd like to ask you to describe a day that you witnessed when President Obama seemed to have an especially enormous amount of major decisions that had to be made.
LEWIS: You could pick almost any day. The day where I started to feel like if I were him, I wouldn't want me around, I had asked him to meet me at the end of the day and take me to his favorite place in the White House. And on that day, he'd had - you know, it hadn't been an especially heavy day. He'd had meetings with his generals. He had meetings with Hillary Clinton. He'd had lunch with Joe Biden. He had spent - had spent some time with a Make-A-Wish child, some child who was going to die very soon, and their last wish was to spend some time with the president.
He had been on the phone a lot with the Israeli prime minister, talking about a busload of Israeli tourists who had been bombed in Bulgaria. He was grappling with this Syrian uprising, and there'd been reports of new atrocities of innocents, and he was trying to figure out what, if anything, we could do.
It was one thing after - and on that day, I think he also was preparing for his debate, first debate with Mitt Romney. And that's probably about half of what he had on his schedule. At the end of the day, he'd just come back from - from a fundraiser, too, and grabbed me and took me to what turned out to be his favorite place, was the Truman Balcony.
And to get to the Truman Balcony, you have to go - it's up in the residence. So he took me up in the residence, which he just doesn't do. You know, his staff doesn't go up to the residence. And he clearly had not prepared the family for the fact he was dragging a stranger home after work. And I could see on his face as we were going up in the elevator, this look - it was exactly the expression I would be wearing if I brought home someone unannounced to our house. What the hell is my wife going to say? You know, I should have told her.
And we get off the elevator, and luckily Michelle is not there, but his mother-in-law is there, and she's clearly shocked. You know, who's Barack bringing in? And I said to her, you know, I'm sorry to invade your house. And she kind of laughed and says, it's his house, he can do what he wants.
And he starts walking me around the residence and takes me out to his favorite place. And he loves the Truman Balcony, it turns out, because it's the one place in presidential life where he feels - you kind of feel outside. He says you feel outside the bubble. And it's true. You step - it's gorgeous, surrounded by trees. You just - you can see crowds down below the South Lawn. You feel - it's almost a normal place to be sitting.
And as he's showing me this sanctuary of his, he turns around and he points to the spot where the gunman's bullet hit a year ago. A guy with - a crazy guy with a gun, high-powered rifle, had shot at the Truman Balcony and hit basically where Obama would be sitting in his sanctuary. And I just realized this is his one spot, and he still gets shot at here. And I started to feel guilty about being this writer invading his space.
And I told him, I said I feel - you know, I feel a little creepy being here because you clearly value this space. You work very hard to preserve a sense of normalcy in this very abnormal job, and here I am screwing it up for you. And he got it. He laughed. But he persisted, and once he had me in the place, just kind of showing me what was important to him in the place.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Lewis. His article "Obama's Way" is in the October edition of Vanity Fair. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Michael Lewis. His article "Obama's Way" is in the October edition of Vanity Fair. Lewis was given an unusual amount of access to the president in the White House and on his travels and was granted several interviews. Today, the president is dealing with the attack on the American consulate in the Libyan city Benghazi, and the murder of four Americans, including our ambassador.
Lewis writes in detail about how the president made the difficult decision to intervene in the Libyan civil war that overthrew President Gadhafi last year. When I spoke with Lewis yesterday, we talked about how the president made that decision.
LEWIS: That was a year before I came on the scene, and when I first started talking to him about what it was like to be president, it became pretty clear that you come in with this master plan of what you want to do, and then the world throws crisis after crisis at you, and you have to respond very quickly. And so you create an environment for yourself where you maximize the likelihood that you're going to make good decisions.
And he led me to the general idea that I should frame this piece around a single decision, and the decision about Libya was so interesting because at the time it seemed very, very risky. It was a decision to essentially invade an Arab country by a president who had campaigned on getting out of wars, and it was something that was just thrust upon him from left field.
These Arab uprisings, the Arab spring starts and all of a sudden he's got problem after problem on his hands. And the Libyan situation was even more interesting than some of the others because it was a real-time event that he had to respond to very quickly. Gadhafi was on the move across the Libyan desert, on his way to massacre a city full of Libyans in Benghazi, and there were somewhere north of a million people in this city, and Gadhafi had pledged to go house to house and cleanse Libya of the rats, as he put it.
And all the intelligence said that, you know, this could be a genocide. And the question was, what do we do about it? And you were on a clock. It was just a question of how long it took Gadhafi to get to these people. The French and the English were pushing for creating a no-fly zone over Libya, and the no-fly zone would prevent, of course, Gadhafi's jets from flying, but the problem was, Gadhafi wasn't flying. He was on the ground. It didn't matter. It wasn't going to save these people.
So Obama's in this situation when, you know, a million other things are going on. He's evaluating the plans to assassinated Osama bin Laden. He's grappling with arguments over the budget with congressional Republicans. He's got one thing after another to do, and then in the middle of his day, he has to go to a meeting about this. What are we going to do about Gadhafi murdering a million people in Libya?
He gets to this meeting, and it's a meeting of his - a large number of his Cabinet, and they're sitting around a table, and they offer him his options. The options - the Pentagon offers the options. The options are do nothing at all or join the French and the British in creating this no-fly zone.
GROSS: So President Obama basically asks, and if we do a no-fly zone, is that going to be effective? He's basically told no, it's not.
LEWIS: So he asks - so these are my options you've given me, is this going to save these people? And the answer is no. But this happens often in the life of a president. The people who are giving him advice don't give him all his options. The advise is biased because they don't - the Pentagon does not want to go into Libya.
So he has to make them go back to come up with an option that would save these people so he can at least contemplate it. But what's interesting is the way he does this. He doesn't - he tries not to queer(ph) 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, 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. At the end of this first meeting, the Pentagon goes away to come up with another option in two hours. And Obama goes to some state dinner. Comes back two hours later, and they give him this third option. The third option is to bomb Gadhafi on the ground. And it's an operation that the U.S. has to take the lead in.
And what was so interesting about this, in addition to the president having to solicit an option that his advisor didn't give him, was that there wasn't anybody who - 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, create a no-fly zone, but don't actually take action and put the American military on the line.
GROSS: So what does - how does he decide to handle that?
LEWIS: His vice president and his chief of staff, Biden and Daley, are saying there's absolutely no political upside to you going in and doing anything. This could only go wrong. The Pentagon people are saying we're stretched thin as it is and there's a real likelihood if we go in with the French and the English, if it goes wrong or gets messy, it's going to be our problem.
So he says no, we're going to make sure it's not going to be our problem. And he goes and he makes - he goes and calls Sarkozy and Cameron, the leaders of France and England, and makes sure they're on the hook for the operation after we've done the initial dirty work.
But nevertheless, he takes - it was interesting that - this decision was so interesting to me because unlike many of the issues that the president is engaged with, this was a case where he had enormous power and could have his way. He could sort of express who he was through the decision. It wasn't like a budget negotiation with the Republicans were essentially the Congress has - can have his way with him(ph).
He had real latitude. You could see his fingerprints on the thing. You could see in some way express who he really was by the way he went about this. And you could also see the pressures in the world on the president as he did this thing. In the lead-up to the bombing of Gadhafi's troops, he was getting enormous grief for not having done anything, for letting Gadhafi move through the desert unimpeded.
Republicans, Democrats were screaming at him to do something. The minute he turns and does something, the same people, the very same people who were screaming at him to do something on cable news, are screaming at him for doing it. Look what you've got us into. It's going to end badly, so on and so forth.
You saw that in some weird way your job as president is just to be abused by everybody who isn't, while you take - while you try to do the thing that you think is the best to do.
GROSS: My interview with Michael Lewis was recorded yesterday. We'll hear more of it in the second half of the show. Lewis' article "Obama's Way" is in the current edition of Vanity Fair. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Michael Lewis about his article "Obama's Way," in the October issue of Vanity Fair.
Lewis was given unusual access to the president in the White House and on his travels and was granted several interviews. Lewis is also the author of the bestsellers "Moneyball," "The Big Short" and "Liar's Poker." His book "Boomerang," about the global financial crisis, has just been published in paperback.
One of the things you talked to President Obama about was what it was like to be opposed every step of the way politically by Republicans in the House and the Senate. And he tells you that he underestimated how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, and to oppose them now merely because Obama supported them. What else did he have to tell you about the opposition that he continues to face politically?
LEWIS: Well, when we - the way we got onto the subject, actually, is I was talking to him about the powers of the modern presidency. On the one hand, he has these godlike powers to go save whole cities in Libya. On the other hand, when he gets up and talks, nobody listens anymore.
And I was talking to him about the bully pulpit. You know, there is a school of thought that argues that the president's chief source of power is the bully pulpit. And he was saying the bully pulpit's broken. It's not what it was. It's broken and fractured because of the nature of the media climate that we operate in, and it's broken in part because of the attitude of the opposition to me, as he put it.
And his point was that if he gets up and advocates something, the Republicans in Congress have had a strategy of opposing it simply because he's for it, so that it can be the worst sort of strategy for him to get up and advocate something if he wants to get anything done.
And he said that he, you know, recognized when he came into office that that was the climate he was in, but he assumed that the American people would punish the other side for being so obstructionist. And he said that what happened instead was the approval ratings of Congress as a whole plummeted to basically zero, but individual politicians didn't pay a price.
Mitch McConnell does not pay a price for adopting that strategy. His base back home in Kentucky celebrates his actions. Obama personally pays a price. His approval ratings are lower, because he seems to not be getting so much done with Congress.
So the only relationship that we talked about that he has that's anything like that in his life is with Russia, in Putin's Russia. He says, you know, when the United States wants to do something, the Russians are instinctively against it just because we want to do it, like going and saving a million people in Libya. Why would the Russians disapprove of that? They disapprove of it simply because we want to do it.
And it creates a - but it was funny, because he said that with the Russians, you know, he's made some progress, that there's, that he can get beyond that sometimes and find common ground. With the Republicans, there's been very little progress.
GROSS: Did you get a sense of how President Obama reacts to being hated by so many people on the far right who think he's a communist or a Muslim and that he's really lying about his faith, or that he's lying about being an American citizen because he's not really?
LEWIS: Yes, I did. We talked about it often. At one point, I was just sitting with him, and there were five newspapers on his sofa. And I said: You know, one of the things I wonder about if I was president is how I would feel, like, well, picking up the newspaper every morning or turning on cable news every afternoon and seeing people saying nasty things about me, or making stuff up about me. I think I would be - I'd say - it would just make me - I'd be angry all the time.
And he - he laughed at me. He said that what you've got to realize - and you would realize instantly when you're in the job, you learn this on the campaign, he said - is that virtually everything that's said about you is not about you. It's about the person who's doing the speaking. And this isn't just negative stuff. It's positives stuff, too. The Barack Obama that they're talking about is an expression of people's fears of out-of-control liberalism or black hope and pride, but it's not you.
And so he's very good, just psychologically, at putting distance between himself and what's said about him, a kind of just stepping back and looking at it as if it's about another person. And I think he feels that way about it. And he says but the problem is in that environment, where so much of what is said is nonsense, you've got to filter for the few things that actually make sense, or else you're living in a fantasyland.
But he's already, for example, decided that nothing on cable news is worth listening to. He doesn't watch it. He thinks it's totally toxic, like it affects your brain, and he won't turn on the TV. But he does read the newspapers.
GROSS: Because he has to make so many very difficult decisions as president, you say that President Obama eliminates a lot of the decisions that most of us have to make in our daily lives. What are some of the decisions he consciously has tried to eliminate from life?
LEWIS: And it is very conscious. It's interesting. He's, you know, he's actually aware of research that shows that the more decisions you have to make, the worse you get at making decisions. And he analogizes to going shopping at, like, a Costco. And you go to a Costco and you don't know what you want, you come out exhausted because you're just - you're making - your mind is making all these decisions, and he wants to take those kind of decisions out of his life.
So he chucked out all his suits except for his blue and his gray suits, so he doesn't have to think about what he puts on in the morning. Food is just arranged for him and he doesn't - he's not making any decisions about what he's eating. Essentially, what most people spend most of their life deciding about, he's had those decisions removed from his life. So he does this so he creates an environment - a mental environment - where he's got full energy for the decisions that are really important decisions.
GROSS: What is his routine?
LEWIS: OK. He gets up at - I think of his day as starting the night before, because he's such a night owl. Left to his on devices, he'd stay up till four in the morning and sleep till noon, I think.
He - his wife goes to bed at 10 o'clock. He has, from about 10 to one, when he goes to bed, as a stretch of time, it's really his time. It's when he can write, for example. It's when he can read, really, read books. It's when he can dial up foreign leaders who are in different time zones. But he has that period in the residence. It's really kind of sacred, I think, for him.
He goes to bed at one. He gets up at seven. He putzes around for 15 minutes, and then he goes to the gym just above his bedroom. He's in and out of there in an hour. He reads his security briefing report, and he walks to the Oval Office at nine o'clock. Unless he's traveling, he's done at six and he's home having dinner with the kids at six. But his - so that's kind of the frame of his day.
GROSS: So you did some traveling with President Obama on Air Force One. Describe how Air Force One is different from the kind of planes the rest of us fly on.
LEWIS: Well, first off, it's louder, because it's heavier. It's got all of this strange equipment on it, so they have extra big engines. And it gets louder and louder as you get to the back of it.
GROSS: What kind of strange equipment is on it?
LEWIS: Well, they've got all this navigation equipment. I can explain. When you go to the cockpit, it doesn't look like a cockpit of a normal commercial airliner. They explain to you also how that the plane has never landed off more than three seconds off its scheduled arrival time. But there's a, you know, there's an operating room. There's a - but it's - so, anyway, it's loud because he's got...
GROSS: As in surgery operating room?
LEWIS: Yeah, so he can be operated on. You know, I went and poked around the doctor's closets. The most curious thing I found was an anti-cyanide kid. It looked like something out of a James Bond.
But the back of the plane is where they keep the press pool. And then there's - right in front of them is a whole cabin full of essentially ninjas, guys with machine guns and, you know, machetes and so on and so forth who protect the president. And in front of that, there's a room where I was seated, which is it's a room with big, wide doors on the other side of the plane. It's used - it was designed so that a president's coffin can come in and out of the plane easily.
You are reminded - this is - you are reminded over and over when you're with a president of the morbidity of the - I mean, you've got press following him because he might get shot. You've got, you know, a place for his coffin in the plane. You know, you are - that's the thing that kind of - one of the strange things about this job is the way, when you're in it, you are constantly reminded that people want you dead.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Lewis. His article, "Obama's Way," is in the October edition of Vanity Fair.
LEWIS: We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis, and we're talking about his new story in the current edition of Vanity Fair called "Obama's Way." It's based on a period of six months when he had access to President Obama, spent time with him, traveled with him, and also did several interviews with him.
One of the things you did with President Obama was play basketball with him. What did you learn about him from playing basketball?
LEWIS: Quite a bit. I think it's generally true that you learn much more about a person doing something with them than just talking to them. And he - I asked to play basketball with him and having no idea what his game, what the game was like, and he didn't really warn me.
I showed up at the White House one morning, and he comes down - and actually, he was preceded by the valet caring his Under Armour red, white and blue high-top sneakers. And he comes down, and he's looking for his mouth guard. And I said why - this is basketball. Why do you need a mouth guard? He goes: Sometimes I get teeth knocked out. And the election's in 100 days, and I don't want to get my teeth knocked out before the election. I said, you know, what kind of game is this? He goes, well, it's - it can get rough.
LEWIS: And we went to the - the basketball court we played on was in the FBI. We drove over to the FBI. And on the court is what looks like - it's not exactly an NBA team, but they were - the guys were serious basketball players. Everybody had been in - had played at a major college level, and a lot of the guys had played professionally. And it's a regular basketball game that meets three or four times a week that Obama slots into every now and then.
And I was shocked at the level of competition. I thought, my God, the president's 50 years old. He didn't start for his high school basketball team. How good could he be? But he was actually good enough to function in this environment.
And when you watched him play - or played with him - you noticed a few things. One was his insistence that no one treat him like he was the president. He was - you would - just watching the game, you would never guess which one was the president. People were - he got exactly as much respect and was exactly as abused as a person of his caliber of play should have been in that game.
If he found himself isolated on a better player on the other team, the other player just took it to him. If he was open for a shot on his team, but there was someone who was a better shooter who was also open, that other person got the ball.
And I said this to one of the players. I said, you know, it's kind of amazing that nobody defers to him. And the player said, you know, if you defer to him, you're not invited back. He doesn't want that. So that told you a lot.
He wants to be, one, in a very challenging environment. Two, he really likes relationships between equal - he likes normalcy. He likes to be treated like some - like a normal person. And then the third thing was he was shrewd, shrewd as can be on the basketball court. He was sort of, like, was - he spaced the court very well, and he found ways to get open. And in what looked like a very riskless game, like he was playing a very low-key riskless game, every now and then, he'd strike. And he has a really good three-point shot.
So he took, in the course of five games we played, or six games, he took maybe five shots and made all but one of them. And he had kind of orchestrated himself to - he had worked very hard to get to the point where he could take the shot and get a good shot. He also screams at you if you - if you're on his team and you take bad shots, he doesn't put up with it. He was hollering at me.
LEWIS: In fact, he hollered at me so much - he hollered at me - he was so - I was so embarrassed by being outclassed and feeling like he was going to be pissed off at me if we lost, that I, at some point, I kind of snuck out of the game and went and sat with the scorekeeper. But the first time I jacked up a shot that he thought I shouldn't take, he started screaming at me.
And at that the - when the game was over and it was clear his team had won four of the six games, you could see that the reason that his team had won was that the players on his team didn't take stupid shots because they were afraid the president was going to scream at them if they did.
GROSS: So what do you think you learned either about President Obama in particular or the presidency in general that you didn't know before, and that you wouldn't have known had you not been an eyewitness for a period of time?
LEWIS: So much of it is just sort of the tone and energy of the place that I would never have had this kind of feeling for. It was just this alien job to me. I suppose I didn't appreciate just how insane the job was. It's - I think it's more insane than it's ever been. It's because of technology, because of the way news is speeded up.
As Obama himself pointed out to me, he said, you know, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy didn't say anything for 10 days. Can you imagine? He says, you know, he said - when he was telling me this, he said, you know, there was a coup in Mali this morning. I had no idea there was a coup in Mali, but over breakfast, he had not only to hear the news of the coup of Mali, but he had to form some response to it. That anything that happens in the world now, if it's a sufficient crisis, arrives on the president's desk instantly and he is expected to have some response to it more or less instantly.
That's weird: the feeling of the difficulty of having any kind of natural, normal relationship with the outside world. Every room you walk into is prepared for you. I mean, I think he's become inured to this. We went to Cartagena, and we arrive at the Hilton Hotel in Cartagena and they've got this beautiful new gym. It doesn't even occur to him that this gym had been hastily thrown together three days before he got there, for him. You know, the president - not only when he's president, but after he's president - will never have the kind of joy of anonymity, the joy of walking into a place and being able to watch it in a natural way. Everything is sort of staged for him, and that screws with your mind, I think.
That was striking. The other thing is the office of the presidency has these god-like powers, especially with regards to our foreign affairs. The president can be so powerful in some ways, and in other ways - particularly with regard to domestic affairs - he is hamstrung. So this weird disjuncture between and his powers and his powerlessness is really striking.
GROSS: Do you worry at all that you were kind of seduced by being close to the president? You know, not being a White House correspondent, not having this kind of access before, not living around the White House and having a chance to get kind of, you know, hardened.
GROSS: By, you know, just by being there all the time, you know, dealing with the press secretary and all that. Do you fear you were a little seduced?
LEWIS: The honest answer is no because this wasn't - for me I began with a kind of mild curiosity and I wasn't going to be making my living off this. In fact, it was kind of an expensive project for me to do. So I wasn't - it was some part of me that if he had said I can't do this anymore, I'd have been relieved because it was a pain in the neck to do this piece of journalism. I just thought it was a useful piece of journalism to do.
And I don't have any political ambitions. And when I was with - the truth is, when I was with him, you kind of forgot he was president. He was just a guy who was in this job. So I didn't feel seduced. I felt sometimes irritated I had to get on a plane to go chase after him. So it didn't - no. I didn't worry about that.
Some part of me, to the extent I was worried about my role vis-a-vis this man in power, it was that I was going to become so kind of loose that I'd find some way to bring down the country without knowing it.
LEWIS: Because I was naive. You know, that I was kind of oblivious to the implications of what I was doing.
GROSS: So having observed President Obama, do you have any criticisms of him to share?
LEWIS: 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.
That 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. It means - and what this does, you know, the charge that he's aloof, I think, 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. He's just like a - his nature is problem-solving. So it's a little hard to - he's not an ideologue so it's a little hard to get too worked up either way about, you know, his politics.
GROSS: Michael Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.
LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: My interview with Michael Lewis was recorded yesterday. His article "Obama's Way" is in the current edition of Vanity Fair. You'll find a link to it on our website freshair.npr.org. Lewis' book "Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World" has just been published in paperback. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Marco Roth's new memoir, "The Scientists," about growing up in a highly educated family that had a lot of secrets. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.