With Great Access Comes Great Responsibility
In addition to some kind words from many commenters’, I’ve also gotten some substantial push back on what I thought was a rather uncontroversial position (so much so that I felt a bit guilty making the point originally; surely someone else had already shot the fish in the barrel). Let me clarify then.
There are three questions to address in evaluating Michael Lewis’ doting Vanity Fair profile of the President (note to BlaiseP: in both cases forgetting the hyperlink was unintentional. Also, see prior post for lots of excerpts, i.e. me citing the article directly and at length).
- Is it well written and entertaining?
- Is it educational and worthwhile?
- Is he obligated to his readers to provide an essay that is any of those things?
The answer to the first and third questions is yes, while the second inquiry must confront a resounding no.
On substance, North called me out for criticizing the President for taking on executive powers above and beyond what the law permits but not raising issue with the Congress for so happily ceding them in the first place. This is true and legitimate.
Yet with regard to Lewis’ piece, the fact that both of these branches of the Federal government share responsibility for creating the imperial presidency, Obama is the one who actually has to occupy that office. Furthermore, since Lewis is doing his piece on what it’s like to have Obama’s job, it’s not unthinkable that he would consider that question in light of past presidencies and how the office has changed over the years, especially since the inspiration for his journalistic enterprise was a profile of Truman from over fifty years ago.
With that in mind, a benign question to the effect of, “Do you think the job has gotten harder over the years, not just because of how the world has change, but because of how the office has evolved?” would have sufficed. Or perhaps something like, “Since the media and public hold you responsible for everything that happens in the country, to one degree or another, are you ever tempted to take the initiative on certain issues, despite the fact that as President, the powers vested in you are actually quite limited?”
This last question would have been uniquely fitting in fact, since the intervention in Libya is the single through line that Lewis as a writer uses to tie his essay together. And what was one of the central issues regarding that subject if not whether the President had the power to take the United States to war with Libya without Congress first authorizing it?
You see, it’s not like I’m asking Lewis to do something completely unrelated to the kind of piece that he himself has decided to write. All of the questions that I’m concerned with, and which he didn’t ask, are ones that address topics central to (1) what it’s like to be a modern President and (2) what was at stake in the intervention in Libya? That was a can of worms that Lewis decided to open. That he then decided not to go fishing for something better with each of these little wiggling threads is on him.
BlaiseP’s rebuke is addressed more or less on those grounds. He argues that,
“A thousand jealous pundits wants to say this is a puff piece. It’s anything but a puff piece. Obama comes across as a calculating man, more in tune with the odds than managing by objective. That’s not how I manage but then running a software project isn’t exactly being a Chief Executive. Obama’s job is a lot bigger than one man. People get killed, even if he makes the right decision. He sits at the nexus of control, a civilian in charge of the world’s most powerful military engine. The military doesn’t dissent from his orders but a fickle public will never entirely agree with any decision he makes. That’s not a good place to be as an executive. The Roman Republic used to separate those roles. We don’t here in the USA. We like the idea of a civilian in charge of the military, lest the military commanders turn on the elected government…
…The gamble for Libya might yet pay off for Obama. Michael Lewis’ account of the Libya decision making process is likely the most objective we’re likely to get in present times: the historians will have their say in years to come.”
The problem with Michael Lewis’ account of the decision making process is that he never inquires as to Obama’s decision not to consult Congress on the matter, nor does he draw attention to this fact either. That is not an objective account: it is a highly skewed one.
Perhaps it was Lewis’ intent to give us events as Obama saw them. But there is more than enough evidence within the piece itself to demonstrate that Lewis is perfectly willing to weigh in on events as he encounters them. And yet he is either ignorant of or uninterested in this key issue.
People do in fact get killed when Obama makes decisions. This IS serious business. And it is Lewis who has decided to meet the moment with decidedly less gravity than it warrants.
“Obama’s Way” is well written and entertaining. That is beyond dispute. Although I think it could have been a much better essay, both in form and content, if Lewis had scrutinized the circumstances surrounding the profile (Why was Lewis granted such precious insider time? Why is telling the story he’s telling important enough to take precious time away from the decider of last resort?) it remains print story telling on a spielbergian scale. And in that regard he satisfies his obligation to entertain his audience
But the basic question that confronts any piece of writing remains an insurmountable one in this case. Why did you write what you wrote, and why should anyone care? As I wrote in the comments section of my original critique:
When you are in a position to do an extended profile of a sitting President with prolonged and unprecedented access—use it wisely. Don’t tell us things we already know (e.g. the trappings of the job: it’s tough, lots of decisions, always busy, hard to find time alone), don’t use it to do an “Ain’t it tough being green?” piece…no shit being POTUS is a hard, lonely, and thankless job!
Use the opportunity instead to write the truth, whatever it is, as you encounter it, but knowing full well the whole time that you won’t encounter truth by chance, you can’t sit around and wait for it, or look from afar waiting for it to pop out into the open on a whim…you have to tease it out. It can be uncomfortable, messy, and tiring—but that’s how you get at truth.
The most uncomfortable moment in Michael’s piece was at the end, when he feels like he is intruding on the President’s alone time. It doesn’t come from a tough exchange with a man he ultimately respects and admires: it comes because he at long last has realized, on some level, the superficiality of what he’s doing. He actually feels like he’s wasting the President’s time by the end. The only person responsible for his feeling that way his himself.
Michael Lewis has a “right” to write about what he wants, including the President, and if he can get special access, great for him. I am not a pundit, and it’s not like Lewis getting this opportunity somehow rankles me, since I clearly wasn’t in the running for it.
But just because he can write about whatever he wants (and I hope by now I’ve demonstrated in enough detail how he fails even by his own standards), doesn’t mean he’s immune to blame, critique or condemnation on that front. To the degree that anyone believes there is a difference, an important one, between doing something of more value rather than less, and doing something that straddles the unlikely divide between fan fiction and propaganda, there is a difference, and important one, between what Michael Lewis could have wrote, and what he in fact did write.