Weekends with Obama (profile)

Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Lewis spent six months hanging around the White House, aboard Air Force One, and on the basketball court grabbing five minutes here, five minutes there with President Obama, for a fascinating profile piece. Below are some of my favourite extracts, but I thoroughly recommend you see the original piece here.

I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said. Your mouth guard? I think. Why would you need a mouth guard?

Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we travelled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can.

“We’ll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead.” I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn’t; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.

Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president.

Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It’s ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to manoeuver, but he appears happy. He’s actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.)

And he chattered constantly. “You can’t leave him open like that!” … “Money!” … “Take that shot!” His team jumped ahead, mainly because it took fewer stupid shots. When I threw one up I discovered the reason for this. When you are on the president’s basketball team and you take a stupid shot, the president of the United States screams at you. “Don’t be looking to the sidelines all sheepish,” he hollered at me. “You got to get back and play D!”

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From the time his wife goes to bed, around 10 at night, until he finally retires, at 1, Barack Obama enjoys the closest thing he experiences to privacy: no one but him really knows exactly where he is or what he’s up to. He can’t leave his house, of course, but he can watch ESPN, surf his iPad, read books, dial up foreign leaders in different time zones, and any number of other activities that feel almost normal. He can also wrestle his mind back into the state it would need to be if, say, he wanted to write.

And so, in a funny way, the president’s day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things. He arrives at the gym on the third floor of the residence, above his bedroom, at 7:30. He works out until 8:30 (cardio one day, weights the next), then showers and dresses in either a blue or gray suit. “My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” he says. He’d moved a long way in this direction before he became president, but the office has moved him even further. “It’s not my natural state,” he says. “Naturally, I’m just a kid from Hawaii. But at some point in my life I overcompensated.” After a quick breakfast and a glance at the newspapers—most of which he’s already read on his iPad—he reviews his daily security briefing. When he first became president he often was surprised by the secret news; now he seldom is. “Maybe once a month.”

When a new president is elected, the White House curatorial staff removes everything from the office the departing president put in it, unless they worry it will cause a political stir—in which case they ask the new president. Right after the last election they removed a few oil paintings of Texas. 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. And he took one look at the bookshelves, filled with china, and thought, This won’t do. “They had a bunch of plates in there,” he says, a little incredulously. “I’m not a dish guy.” The dishes he replaced with the original applications for several famous patents and patent models—Samuel Morse’s 1849 model for the first telegraph, for instance, which he pointed to and said, “This is the start of the Internet right here.” Finally, he ordered a new oval rug inscribed with his favorite brief quotations from people he admires. “I had a bunch of quotes that didn’t fit [on the rug],” he admitted. One quote that did fit, I saw, was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr.’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

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“When people come here, are they nervous?” I asked him, to change the subject. Even in the White House lobby you can tell who works here and who doesn’t by the sound of their conversation and their body language. The people who don’t work here have the checked-my-actual-personality-at-the-door look of people on TV for the first time in their lives. In the presence of the president himself even celebrities are so distracted that they cease to notice all else. He’d make an excellent accomplice to a pickpocket.

“Yes,” he said. “And what’s true is that it is true of just about everyone who comes here. I think that the space affects them. But when you work here you forget about it.”

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We were on Air Force One, somewhere between North America and South America, when a hand shook my shoulder, and I gazed up to find Obama staring down at me. I’d been seated in the cabin in the middle of the plane—the place where the seats and tables can be easily removed so that if the president’s body needs to be transported after his death there’s a place to put his coffin. Apparently, I’d fallen asleep. The president’s lips were pursed, impatiently.

“What?” I said, stupidly.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said, and gave me one more shake.

There are no wide-open spaces in presidential life, only nooks and crannies, and the front of Air Force One is one of them. When he’s on his plane, small gaps of time sometimes open in his schedule, and there are fewer people around to leap in and consume them. In this case, Obama had just found himself with 30 free minutes.

“What you got for me?” he asked and plopped down in the chair beside his desk. His desk is designed to tilt down when the plane is on the ground so that it might be perfectly flat when the plane is nose up, in flight. It was now perfectly flat.

“I want to play that game again,” I said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”
This was the third time I’d put the question to him, in one form or another. The first time, a month earlier in this same cabin, he’d had a lot of trouble getting his mind around the idea that I, not he, was president. He’d started by saying something he knew to be dull and expected but that—he insisted—was nevertheless perfectly true. “Here is what I would tell you,” he’d said. “I would say that your first and principal task is to think about the hopes and dreams the American people invested in you. Everything you are doing has to be viewed through this prism. And I tell you what every president … I actually think every president understands this responsibility. I don’t know George Bush well. I know Bill Clinton better. But I think they both approached the job in that spirit.” Then he added that the world thinks he spends a lot more time worrying about political angles than he actually does.

This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

The other aspect of his job I have trouble getting comfortable with is its bizarre emotional demands. In the span of a few hours, a president will go from celebrating the Super Bowl champions to running meetings on how to fix the financial system, to watching people on TV make up stuff about him, to listening to members of Congress explain why they can’t support a reasonable idea simply because he, the president, is for it, to sitting down with the parents of a young soldier recently killed in action. He spends his day leaping over ravines between vastly different feelings. How does anyone become used to this?

As I was still a little groggy and put my question poorly, he answered a question it hadn’t occurred to me to ask: Why doesn’t he show more emotion? He does this on occasion, even when I’ve put the question clearly—see in what I’ve asked some implicit criticism, usually one he’s heard many times before. As he’s not naturally defensive, it’s pretty clearly an acquired trait. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” he said. “For example, faking emotion. Because I feel it is an insult to the people I’m dealing with. For me to feign outrage, for example, feels to me like I’m not taking the American people seriously. I’m absolutely positive that I’m serving the American people better if I’m maintaining my authenticity. And that’s an overused word. And these days people practice being authentic. But I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.”

That was not what I had been after. What I had wanted to know was: Where do you put what you actually feel, when there is no place in your job to feel it? When you are president you are not allowed to go numb to protect yourself from whatever news might happen. But it was too late; my time was up; I returned to my seat in the cabin.

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But if you happen to be president just now, what you are faced with, mainly, is not a public-relations problem but an endless string of decisions. Putting it the way George W. Bush did sounded silly but he was right: the president is a decider. Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
Aboard Air Force One, I’d asked him what he would do if granted a day when no one knew who he was and he could do whatever he pleased. How would he spend it? He didn’t even have to think about it:

When I lived in Hawaii, I’d take a drive from Waikiki to where my grandmother lived—up along the coast heading east, and it takes you past Hanauma Bay. When my mother was pregnant with me she’d take a walk along the beach. . . . You park your car. If the waves are good you sit and watch and ponder it for a while. You grab your car keys in the towel. And you jump in the ocean. And you have to wait until there is a break in the waves. . . . And you put on a fin—and you only have one fin—and if you catch the right wave you cut left because left is west. . . . Then you cut down into the tube there. You might see the crest rolling and you might see the sun glittering. You might see a sea turtle in profile, sideways, like a hieroglyph in the water. . . . And you spend an hour out there. And if you’ve had a good day you’ve caught six or seven good waves and six or seven not so good waves. And you go back to your car. With a soda or a can of juice. And you sit. And you can watch the sun go down …

When he was done, he thought again and said, “And if I had a second day … ” But then the airplane landed, and it was time for us to get off.

“If I were president I think I might keep a list in my head,” I said.

“I do,” he said. “That’s my last piece of advice to you. Keep a list.”

Now, standing on the Truman Balcony, little came between him and the outside world. Crowds milled about on Constitution Avenue, on the other side of the south gate. Had he waved, someone might have noticed him and waved back. He motioned to the place from which, last November, a man with a high-powered rifle fired at the White House. Turning, with only the slightest trace of annoyance, Obama pointed to the spot directly behind his head where the bullet struck.

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