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Vanity Fair's Michael Lewis admires fellow writer named Obama

September 17, 2012|By James Rainey
  • Author Michael Lewis, seen here in 2010, has written a glowing, even fawning, profile of President Obama for Vanity Fair.
Author Michael Lewis, seen here in 2010, has written a glowing, even fawning,… (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles…)

It was the advice of relatively junior aides and the memory of the U.S. standing idle during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s that helped push President Obama toward the bombing of Moammar Kadafi’s army, which staved off a potential slaughter in the undefended city of Benghazi, Libya, last year, according to a Vanity Fair article.

The article by Michael Lewis portrays Obama as an introspective soul, who purportedly pays little heed to political ramifications in making the biggest decisions, finds wisdom outside the regular centers of power and focuses on some of his most important decisions by writing.

It’s a glowing profile — even fawning — and more likely to become the first draft of the official Obama biography than to change many voters’ minds in the current campaign.

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The account by Lewis, the author of fabulously popular nonfiction books like “Moneyball,” will thrill supporters of the president and disgust opponents who view Obama as a craven, relentlessly political inside operator.

Lewis got broad access to the president to write his piece and, as the New York Times reported, agreed to give the White House approval of which quotes he could use.

His access included time on Air Force One and on the court with Obama for his regular basketball game. The White House obviously didn’t give that kind of opportunity to someone they worried would execute a withering dissection of the 44th president. And Lewis fit the bill.

The result, not surprisingly, is a tremendously admiring account of Obama and the way he goes about a job that Lewis depicts as inherently unfathomable — with the leader of the free world skipping from photo ops with victorious athletes to life-and-death councils of war.

On the basketball court, the writer presents Obama as endlessly competitive — inviting only tough players who will cut him no slack on the court. Lewis depicts him as a team player and even debunks a favorite joke of conservatives — that the left-handed president “can only go to his left.” One of his court-mates insists Obama “can go to his right.”

Lewis’ extended rumination on the presidency worries how occupants of the White House maintain even a semblance of normality. Obama talks about the importance of exercise, avoiding cable news (which the writer says the president views as “genuinely toxic”) and cutting out small decisions (like what to wear; Obama simply rotates gray and blue suits) to leave more energy for the big ones.

The heart of the story describes Obama coping with the crisis in Libya created when Kadafi tried to crush a revolution with the still-powerful remnants of his army. With the U.S. already bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the view in the White House was that Americans would not stand for yet another war in the Middle East.

Military advisors suggested there was not a specific security objective for America to mount a substantial campaign in the North African nation. The fact that Kadafi’s army had been bearing down on more than 1 million residents in Benghazi was troubling, but not an immediate threat to U.S. interests, Lewis writes.

The writer describes how Obama was presented with two alternatives — doing nothing and contributing to an internationally-backed no-fly zone over the troubled country. But Obama became distressed when he was told the no-fly zone would do nothing to ward off the potential slaughter.

Lewis describes how, in one crucial meeting, Obama turned to relatively junior aides, such as Samantha Power, speech writer Ben Rhodes, National Security Council staffer Denis McDonough and vice presidential aide Antony Blinken. They wanted an alternative that stopped Kadafi from more killing.

Obama asked the military command staff to go back to the drawing board and, within two hours, to come back to him with an option that would stop Kadafi. They did — a proposal to attack the dictator’s forces directly — and the president adopted it. The U.S. also pursued, and obtained, a U.N. resolution to use all means necessary to protect Libyan civilians.

As for the option to do nothing, Lewis writes that Obama said: “That’s not who we are.”

The episode has become, at best, an afterthought as Obama pursues a second term. But he mused with the Vanity Fair writer of how different the story might have become if pilots involved in the U.S. mission had been killed.

“He was especially alive to the power of a story to influence the American public,” Lewis writes of Obama. “He believed he had been elected chiefly because he had told a story; he thought he had had problems in office because he had, without quite realizing it, ceased to tell it.”

Obama’s invitation to the writer to come to the White House appears to have been one measure designed to help him recapture the narrative.

Twitter: @latimesrainey


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