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Loitering with Obama

Essential: This is the NPR Terry Gross interview with Michael Lewis publicising Lewis’ piece, Obama’s Way, in October’s Vanity Fair. (The Yanks always seem a month ahead of us.)

Pete Souza/The White House. Michael Lewis with President Obama.

The article is extreme journalism in which Michael Lewis gets to “loiter” around Obama for six months; sure his request would be denied Lewis explains that he got the go-ahead because Obama okayed it over the advice of the White House office. It’s a very long piece and I haven’t read it yet but the podcast has many eyeopening details.

Lewis’ reason for doing the piece exactly answers the crucial question about speculations and criticisms of people in power, people who are, of course, very well shielded. You don’t have to agree with what they do, but it’s fascinating — and makes an empathy difference — to hear about the atmosphere in which they do it. His approach was as a corrective to all armchair pundits.

His proposal to the WH press sec.: “This is a sort of flaky request, but someone should write a piece to kind of put the reader into the President’s shoes because you see all of this commentary about why Obama has done this or why he hasn’t done that and all this hysteria around the office of the President and it seems so implausible — you just know there’s a man sitting there trying to do a job with more information about the decisions than all the people who are criticising the decision. Let’s go sit in his shoes and see what it feels like.”

An example of a tiny, telling detail — in order to clear his mind of mundane decisions he never decides what to eat, it’s just presented to him. And “he chucked out all his suits except for his blue and grey suits, so he doesn’t have to think about what to put on in the morning.”

And the journalist to journalist question — Terry Gross asks: “Do you feel you were a little seduced (by the White House)?”

Michael Lewis: “The honest answer is No … for me, I began with a kind of mild curiosity. I wasn’t going to be making my living from it; in fact it was going to be kind of an expensive project for me … it was a pain in the neck to do this piece of journalism, I just thought it was a useful piece of journalism to do.”

ML: “That office takes your personality and exaggerates it, you becoem a caricature of who you are. And, he has a personality trait that costs him politically, and it’s the personality trait of a writer. He really is at bottom a writer. … He can be in a room and detach himself at the same time. It’s almost as if he is writing about it at the same time he is participating in it. It’s a curious inside outside thing … the charge that he is aloof, it grows right out of this trait.”

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