Michael Lewis’ Article on the President Demonstrates by Example the Shallowness of Political Journalism
“On a whim, last November, I thought what would be a fun magazine piece to do? Boy, it would be fun to go hang out with the president. So I got Jay Carney’s email and I sent the press secretary a note and I said, there used to be a kind of journalism that could be done with the president. John Hersey, an old New Yorker writer whom I greatly admire, wrote a series of articles on President Truman, back when Truman was in office,”
“Wouldn’t it be fun,” mused Lewis to himself, “if I could take Obama and do the same thing? Just two guys kind of hanging out together.” Wouldn’t it be fun indeed. If Lewis had approached it with any kind of urgency or seriousness, it might have been educational and constructive as well. Alas, it was not to be.
And so we have “Obama’s Way,” a look into the President’s daily life which purports to “put the reader in the president’s shoes.”
Yet this goal seems to have eluded Lewis, who, talented and experienced writer that he is, ends up being derailed by his own artifice. Rather than ponder the incongruities wrapped up tightly within the fabric of the President’s day to day life, Lewis depicts several different moments on many different days. This biographical time lapse has the effect of cutting out the space in-between, rendering a finished product that feels more like a collection of worshipping glimpses than a painfully unflinching study of the ordinary human being who just happens to be the leader of the free world.
The neat and tidy thread that runs throughout Lewis’ narrative also happens to be emblematic of one of the most conspicuous tensions plaguing the article, but which its author never really works at teasing out. This is the conflict between the gravity of the matters which require the President’s attention and the superfluous but even more polarizing aspects of the presidency that have reduced it to PR Representative-in-Chief for much of the population.
“It took Obama longer than usual to make changes to the office because, as he put it, ‘we came in when the economy was tanking and our first priority wasn’t redecorating.’ Eighteen months into the office he reupholstered the two chairs in his sitting area. (‘The chairs were kind of greasy. I was starting to think, Folks are going to start talking about us.’) Then he swapped out the antique coffee table for a contemporary one, and the bust of Winston Churchill lent to Bush by Tony Blair for one of Martin Luther King Jr.”
The Oval office is a symbol of the Presidency, an institution steeped in history, and one of the clearest instances of how the media and public elevate the trivial to distractingly epic prominence. Like for instance the swapping of the Churchill bust for one of Martin Luther King Jr., which Lewis is right to remind us, “created so much stupid noise that Mitt Romney on the stump is now pledging that he will return it to the Oval Office.”
Lewis goes on to note that with each successive presidency, the White House has become more and more fixed in the public’s imagination, worshiped in a way that other important centers of stately business, Congress and the Pentagon say, are not.
“Today there is no way any president could build anything that would enhance the White House without being accused of violating some sacred site, or turning the place into a country club, or wasting taxpayer money, or, worst of all, being oblivious to appearances. To the way it will seem.”
“Seeming” is the ever present specter which haunts the President’s daily existence. For instance,
“He’s kept the desk used by Bush—the one with the secret panel made famous by John-John Kennedy. It had been brought in by Jimmy Carter to replace the one with the secret taping system in it, used by Johnson and Nixon. ‘Is there a taping system in here?’ I asked, gazing up at the crown molding.
“‘No,’ he said, then added, ‘It’d be fun to have a taping system. It’d be wonderful to have a verbatim record of history.’ Obama doesn’t come across as political or calculating, but every now and then it seems to occur to him how something would sound, if repeated out of context and then handed as a weapon to people who wish him ill. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to be careful here [about what I say].’”
But while the media spends its time trying to sniff out faux controversies, the bigger issues evolve in plain sight but outside the parameters of our popular interest or limited attention spans.
“For the better part of a year hordes of workmen have been digging and building something deep below the White House—though what it is no one who knows will really say. “Infrastructure” is the answer you get when you ask. But no one really does ask, much less insist on the public’s right to know. The president of the United States can’t move a bust in the Oval Office without facing a firestorm of disapproval. But he can dig a hole deep in his front yard and build an underground labyrinth and no one even asks what he’s up to.”
To his credit, Lewis uses both of these examples, the controversy over Churchill’s bust coupled with the lack of interest in the giant hole being dug outside the White House, as metaphors for the public relations campaigns that subsume national issues of import, like the decision to intervene in Libya.
But Lewis doesn’t take the analogy far enough. Nor does he press the President on other issues, like for instance the Administration’s infamous policy on drone warfare, to draw and even starker contrast between the surface commentary which accompanies these subjects and the core questions underlying them that must be openly debated and resolved.
Lewis and his profile are themselves a part of the circus that promotes appearances over realities; trivialities over substance. Lewis paints a perfect picture of the media optics surrounding the intervention in Libya, remarking about President Obama,
“He was especially alive to the power of a story to influence the American public. He believed he had been elected chiefly because he had told a story; he thought he had had problems in office because he had, without quite realizing it, ceased to tell it. If the pilot had fallen into the wrong hands, or landed badly, or shot the dog, it would have been the start of a new narrative. Then the story would no longer have been a complex tale ignored by the American public about how the United States had forged a broad international coalition to help people who claimed to share our values rid themselves of a tyrant…
The story would have become a much simpler one, ripe for exploitation by his foes: how a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another. If Stark had come to grief, the Libyan intervention would no longer have been the hole in the White House lawn. It would have been the Churchill bust. That is why Obama says that, as obvious as it seems in retrospect to have prevented a massacre in Benghazi, it was at the time ‘one of those 51–49 decisions.’”
Here is perhaps the most subversive point in Lewis’ entire piece: part of the Administration’s job is to keep major issues of national import from becoming Churchill busts. Better the hole on the White House lawn that no one pays attention to than a controversy which provokes shallow analysis by the pundits, and opportunistic criticism by political partisans.
What’s subversive isn’t the idea that the Administration does in fact try to do just that, this is something any self-respecting citizen already knows. What’s subversive is that Lewis locates this fact as a point of sympathy, a reason for readers to feel closer to, and of a kind with the President by virtue of how volatile the optics of any decision he makes can be.
Never mind that Obama made the decision to go to war with Libya (in Libya?) unilaterally and without regard for Congress, the nation’s primary representative, deliberative, and legislative body. Lewis skips right past that fact, intentionally conflating opposition to the President’s decision on legal and procedural grounds with those simply eager to be critical and contrary with regard to the President’s policies,
“All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, “We don’t need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn’t have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, “It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was “Why aren’t you doing anything?” The next it was “What have you gotten us into?” As one White House staffer puts it, “All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That’s because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine.”
Passages like the above are why chills run down my spine when people like Andrew Sullivan gush about “our greatest nonfiction writer” and the “oasis of public calm” who is that nonfiction writer’s subject. Despite making the Libya crisis the central context for his insight into the President, Lewis never, at any point, asks the President how he views his role with regard to Congress or the legal and historical traditions to which the office he occupies is bound.
Instead, Lewis’ profile of the President is representative of the very fetishization and reality TV coverage that isolates the President and his Administration. His focus on narrative is exactly the kind of misguided emphasis that disrupts the presidency to the point that the occupier of that office must willfully seek to keep the country ignorant of, or at the very least, uninterested in, the issues with which it deals.
Lewis talks about his opportunity to do the profile as if it were a long shot. He couldn’t believe when the White House actually said yes, even though part of the agreement, which he was all too happy to surrender to, required that no quotes make it into the article without the Administration’s consent.
Even in these circumstances, Lewis never asks within the body of the piece why in fact he was offered the opportunity. Even when he runs such a clear risk of playing right into the White House’s marketing strategy. Lewis has said that barely anything was kept out of his article. The details the White House wanted cut were for the most part tedious, he claims. Which only goes to show that his narrative must have been something like what the White House had approvingly in mind back when they originally accepted his offer.
And yet, having read and enjoyed his work, I can’t imagine Lewis is that dense. Surely he knows that he is the proxy for a version of the President that the Administration has deemed politically expedient. And when Lewis so clearly has no interest in asking any question that might get at some of the deeper conflicts at the heart of the presidency (doing what you think is right even if it subverts the rule of law vs. upholding the law of the land even if it might lead to a worse outcome), you have to wonder if he really hasn’t thought any more deeply about it.
At the end of his piece, Lewis writes,
“Back inside I had had a feeling unhelpful to the task at hand: I shouldn’t have been there. When a man with such a taste and talent for spacing is given so little space in which to operate it feels wrong to take the little he does have, like grabbing water to brush one’s teeth from a man dying of thirst. “I feel a little creepy being here,” I said.”
It is here in the last paragraph that Lewis seems to glimpse the irony of his profile, a story of what an American President must contend with, by virtue of the secret and all encompassing authority granted to them on matters of war in the 21st century. He and his article are themselves hopelessly trivial when compared to the subject matter they seek to document. Not necessarily of course, but because that is the neutered project Lewis decided to take up, and the only one in exchange for which the White House would grant him the kind of access necessary for such a blockbuster cover story (though perhaps not long enough to make an actual blockbuster out of it, unfortunately).