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Inside Obama's Decisions: From Libya To Lunch

Sep 11, 2012
Originally published on September 11, 2012 9:57 am

To try to get a sense of what it really means to be the president of the United States, writer Michael Lewis spent six months in President Obama's shadow. Lewis hoped to find out just what it's like to be in the president's shoes — down to something as simple as how he decides what to wear every day.

"He had very self-consciously sought to eliminate all trivial decision-making from his life, such as what he wears to work," Lewis tells NPR's Renee Montagne about his interviews with the president for his piece in the October issue of Vanity Fair. "So, he says, 'I got rid of all the clothes I have except for gray suits and blue suits, so I don't even have to think about what I put on.'"

Why? The president "started talking about research that showed the mere act of making a decision, however trivial it was, degraded your ability to make a subsequent decision," Lewis says. "A lot of ... the trivial decisions in life — what he wears, what he eats — [are] essentially made for him."

Lewis has previously written about everything from the business of baseball in his book Moneyball to Wall Street in Liar's Poker. His latest book, Boomerang, was just released in paperback.


Interview Highlights

On how any decision can create a firestorm

"At some point, [Obama] decides he'd really like to have a bust of his hero, Martin Luther King, in his office. He has two of these [former British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill busts that are identical. One's up in his residence; the other one was a loaner from Tony Blair to George W. Bush. He thinks, 'I'll just move that one out.' To this day, you know, Mitt Romney is on the stump saying, among other things, when he gets the White House, he's going to restore the Churchill bust. This is ginned up into this kind of controversy."

On the president's powers

"At the center of the magazine piece is this decision whether or not to intercede in the Libyan revolution. It's a moment when [then-leader Moammar] Gadhafi and his army are marching across the desert to exterminate a city full of Libyan rebels within a few days. And the president has to decide whether he's going to do anything about it. Because if he doesn't, nobody does."

On making the decision to intervene in Libya

"He had been told that the French and the British were proposing to create a no-fly zone over Libya. His military people told Obama that a no-fly zone actually wouldn't stop Gadhafi, because Gadhafi wasn't flying. It was basically political cover — 'Look, we're doing something' kind of thing. So he goes to a meeting and he's presented with two options: One is do nothing at all, and the other is establish this no-fly zone, which he's already figured out actually doesn't do anything. So, what he does, to get an argument he's not getting from the important people in the room, is he says to the junior people in the room, 'Tell me what you think we should do.' And several of those people around the room say, 'We need to figure out a way to stop this slaughter.' ...

"And Obama turns to his generals and says, 'Go back to the Pentagon. Come back with an option that actually prevents this slaughter.' But you step back from this process and you think, here's a president basically making a decision all by himself that his top advisers would not have him make. And the consequence is, you know, a hundred-thousand people in Libya are now alive who would have been dead. To me ... it's a breathtaking power. And it's one that goes in this election season sort of hardly mentioned. Because in this case, except peripherally, it didn't seem to affect Americans very much."

On Obama's favorite place in the White House

"His favorite place turns out to be the Truman Balcony. And we go out on the Truman Balcony. He explains to me how he will just come out here at night and sit, and he likes it so much because it's the only place he gets where he feels outside the bubble. And this was one of the spine-tingling moments I had with him. Because while we're talking about how this is the normal place, how he and Michelle can come out and have a drink on the patio at midnight, and no one knows they're there kind of thing, he turns around and he points to the spot — it's right behind his head — where the bullet from the high-powered rifle hit a year ago. ...

"[A gunman] shot down from across the South Lawn, and the bullet hit the window right where Obama sits when he's having his moment of privacy and peace. And I thought, there's the presidency for you. You know, here is the place where you regard as the safe place, the place you can come and be comfortable and be normal, and people are still shooting at you."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Writer Michael Lewis has written about everything from the business of baseball in his book "Moneyball" to a behind the scenes look at Wall Street in "Liar's Poker." One thing that all his books share is a compelling narrative that offers readers a granular look at who did what when and what that means in the larger context.

His latest story in the October issue of Vanity Fair involves six months basically of hanging out with President Obama onboard Air Force One, in the White House, on the basketball court. He was given extraordinary access to find out what it's like to be in the president's shoes. In fact, one of the things Michael Lewis discovered is how the president decides what to wear every day.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He had very self-consciously sought to eliminate all trivial decision-making from his life, such as what he wears to work. So, he says, I got rid of all the clothes I have except for gray suits and blue suits, so I don't even have to think about what I put on.

Because - and he then started talking about research that showed the mere act of making a decision, however trivial it was, degraded your ability to make a subsequent decision. So with a lot of the trivial decisions in life - what he wears, what he eats - it's essentially made for him.

MONTAGNE: The heart of your piece is about decision making, but also about how any of the president's decisions can cause a firestorm. One example, the most mundane possible thing is he's trying to rearrange the Oval Office when he comes in, which is allowed, and he swaps out a bust of Winston Churchill for one of Martin Luther King, Jr. And that suddenly comes back to haunt him. And that's almost equal to a different decision that he made that involved thousands of lives, and that was intervening in Libya.

LEWIS: You know, the Churchill bust has probably gotten more attention. Think about this. He walks into his office. At some point he decides he'd really like to have a bust of his hero Martin Luther King in his office. He has two of these Churchill busts that are identical. One's up in his residence, the other one was a loaner from Tony Blair to George W. Bush. He thinks, I'll just move that one out. And to this day, you know, Mitt Romney is on the stump saying, among other things, when he gets the White House, he's going to restore the Churchill bust. This is ginned up into this kind of controversy.

On the other hand, it is amazing the powers of the office. And at the center of the magazine piece is this decision whether or not to intercede in the Libyan revolution. It's a moment when Gadhafi and his army are marching across the desert to exterminate a city full of Libyan rebels within a few days. And the president has to decide whether he's going to do anything about it, because if he doesn't, nobody does.

MONTAGNE: Tell us in brief how he made that decision.

LEWIS: He had been told that the French and the British were proposing to create a no-fly zone over Libya. His military people told Obama that a no-fly zone actually wouldn't stop Gadhafi because Gadhafi wasn't flying. He was marching across the desert with an army and tanks and he was just going to slaughter people on the ground. It was basically political cover. Look, we're doing something, kind of thing.

So he goes to a meeting and he's presented with two options. One is do nothing at all and the other is establish this no-fly zone, which he's already figured out actually doesn't do anything. So, what he does, to get an argument he's not getting from the important people in the room, is he says to the junior people in the room: Tell me what you think we should do. And several of those people around the room say: We need to figure out a way to stop this slaughter.

They were junior people who one or another had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda and left feeling we should've done something when we didn't. So just having those people in the room is an expression of the president's character. There's no question.

And Obama turns to his generals and says: Go back to the Pentagon, come back with an option that actually prevents this slaughter. But, you know, step back from this process and you think, here's a president basically making a decision all by himself that his top advisers would not have him make. And the consequence is, you know, a hundred thousand people in Libya are now alive who would have been dead.

To me it's a breathtaking power. And it's one that goes in this election season sort of hardly mentioned. Because in this case, except peripherally, it didn't seem to affect Americans very much.

MONTAGNE: You asked the president to take you to his favorite place in the White House, and he did. He actually took you there. I think you were a bit surprised to find yourself there, because you found yourself in the family quarters.

LEWIS: I found myself in his house. Yes. We get in the elevator that takes him up to the residence. And when we come off the elevators and there we are in the residence. And his mother-in-law is sitting there reading, you know, in a deep chair. And his favorite place turns out to be the Truman Balcony.

And we go out on the Truman Balcony. He explains to me how he will just come out here at night and sit, and he likes it so much because it's the only place he gets where he feels outside the bubble. And this was one of the spine-tingling moments I had with him, because while we're talking about how this is the normal place, how he and Michelle can come out and, you know, have a drink on the patio at midnight, and no one knows they're there kind of thing. He turns around and he points to the spot - it's right behind his head - where the bullet from the high-powered rifle hit a year ago.

MONTAGNE: A guy who shot at the White House.

LEWIS: The guy who shot...

MONTAGNE: Kind of randomly in a weird way.

LEWIS: Yeah. He shot down from across the South Lawn, and the bullet hit the window right where Obama sits when he's having his moment of privacy and peace. And I thought, there's the presidency for you. You know, here is the place where you regard as the safe place, the place you can come and be comfortable and be normal, and people are still shooting at you.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. But did it feel safe with you?

LEWIS: I was a little shocked that the Truman Balcony, that he's even allowed on it. You know, it's an incredibly an unnatural job, being president of the United States. You are cut off in such an odd way from the rest of the world. And for some people, that may not be that big a deal. But for someone who is sort of sensitive like a writer, and has the ability to interact with the world the way he did, it's got to be very difficult to deal with.

MONTAGNE: Michael Lewis is the author of "Boomerang," which is out in paperback now. This latest article in Vanity Fair magazine is titled "Obama's Way."

Thank you very much for joining us.

LEWIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.