Berkeley Journalist Michael Lewis Profiles Barack Obama

Vanity Fair reporter Michael Lewis played basketball with the president during his six months of reporting. (Pete Souza: The White House)

Vanity Fair reporter Michael Lewis played basketball with the president during his six months of reporting. (Pete Souza: The White House)

It was a “flakey” idea, one almost certain to go nowhere.

“Someone should write a piece just trying to put the reader in the president’s shoes,” Berkeley journalist Michael Lewis told Terry Gross on Fresh Air this week. He was describing an email he had sent to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. He was requesting near-unprecedented access to President Obama. Lewis got a call the next day.

And much to his surprise, his pitch was accepted. Lewis, author of Moneyball and Liar’s Poker, observed the president over a period of six months last year — in meetings, on Air Force One, even on the basketball court — largely to learn about what it’s like to be president: what your day is like, what it’s like to make decisions a president must make — and how he makes them. Lewis’ article, Obama’s Way, appears in the October issue of Vanity Fair.

Lewis told Gross of many scenes from countless meetings, crises and travels. But his trip to Obama’s “favorite place” in the White House particularly resonates. As Lewis described it, you could almost imagine what it would be like to walk along with the President into his home:

To get to the Truman balcony, you have to go up in the residence. So he took me up in the residence, which he just doesn’t do. His staff doesn’t go up to the residence. He clearly hadn’t prepared the family that he was dragging a stranger home after work. …. 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 apologized, I said to her, ‘I’m sorry to invade your house.’ And she kind of laughed and said, ‘It’s his house, he can do whatever he wants.’ And he starts walking me around the residence. …

He loves the Truman balcony as it turns out, because it’s the one place in presidential life where he feels outside. He said you feel outside the bubble and it’s true; it’s gorgeous. Surrounded by trees. You can see crowds below on the south lawn. It’s an almost normal place to be sitting. And as he’s showing me this sanctuary of his, he turns around and points to the spot where a gunman’s bullet hit a year ago. A crazy gun with a gun, a high-powered rifle had shot at the Truman Balcony … and hit basically where Obama would be sitting in his sanctuary. And I realize, this is his one spot and he still gets shot at here.

Terry Gross recorded her interview with Michael Lewis the day before the news from Libya of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Lewis was at the White House last year on the day President Obama had to decide whether the U.S. should go into Libya to save the people of Benghazi — the people Libyan president Gadhafi had vowed to kill. Lewis described how Obama avoided articulating his own view:

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. …

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.

Gross asked Lewis if there were ground rules around the access — and the final article. Lewis says he did not show the White House the article before publication, but he did submit quotes for review.

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.

The complete interview runs about 40 minutes and is definitely worth listening to. (What’s it like to play basketball with President Obama? Don’t defer to him or you won’t be invited back.)

The complete 15,000 word Vanity Fair article can be found here.