Sometimes, you just need to ask.
Michael Lewis asked – and look where it got him.
Lewis had the crazy idea to find out what it was like to be the president of the United States. So the business journalist and author of Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker and other books on business and culture, asked if he could hang with Barack Obama for six months.
And Obama said yes.
The result of Lewis’ efforts is “Obama’s Way,” an insider’s look at the daily life, decision-making process and frustrations of the current president, in the October issue of Vanity Fair.
Lewis followed Obama through the Oval Office, rode with him on Air Force One and shot hoops with him on the White House basketball court. He used the opportunity to observe when the POTUS gets up (7:30 a.m.), how long his commute is to work (70 yards), and lots of other minutiae about the man and the job. He uses several specific examples to explain the weird juxtaposition of secrecy and openness, of power and powerlessness, that comes with leading the most powerful nation on earth:
Crossing the White House lawn on the way out that morning I passed a giant crater, surrounded by heavy machinery. 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.
The initial buzz about “Obama’s Way” focused on the fact that the White House vetted the quotes Lewis used in the story. But in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross — In Meetings, On Court, to Discovers ‘Obama’s Way” — Lewis said he was OK with that, and in the end, not much was changed:
“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. …
Whether or not you approve of quote approvals or care about Obama, it’s worth reading the profile, and the stories about it, to appreciate a superb interviewer at the height of his game.
It’s also a good reminder not to talk yourself out of a crazy idea. Because unless you ask, you’ll never know if the answer would have been “Yes.”
Here are some other good reads for writers from this week:
Publications around the country honored the 11th anniversary of 9/11 by running or re-running stories about the attack. Two of the more powerful I read were:
- The Falling Man (Esquire) – The story of one image, and one man, captured the collective sorrow of a nation, and the unease that comes with facing harsh truths. The magazine picked this story by Tom Junod as one of the seven best it’s ever run.
- Father’s note changes family’s 9/11 account (SFGate.com) – What happens when the version of history you’ve taken as the truth for a decade changes overnight.