Journalists often play dumb as a way of drawing information from a reluctant source. But they are just as quick to act smart—to assume an air of authority over a topic with which they have been only briefly acquainted. Michael Lewis, the financial journalist and author of many bestsellers, is now an authority on Barack Obama. He’s been speaking with great familiarity about our president ever since last week, when Vanity Fair published Lewis’s heavily hyped profile of him, under the title “Obama’s Way.”
“I would say he loves people,” he told a gathering at Bloomberg News in New York. “He’s got odd social habits for someone like him. What he really likes is non-transactional relationships, when you and I don’t want anything from each other.” He went on: “He doesn’t like people flattering him.” And on: “He’s got a gift for making people happy.” And on and on: “When he was a young man, he thought he was going to be a writer, I think—he won’t completely admit that. . . . He spends half his life laughing. He’s a very happy, warm person.”
Lewis acquired his expertise, as Vanity Fair publicists repeated frequently last week, over the course of six months during which he was allowed, off and on, to see the president and often to speak with him. “Unprecedented access,” the publicists called it, and interviewers repeated the phrase. It was his own idea, Lewis told the NPR interviewer Terry Gross in a publicity blitz, “to sit in the president’s shoes and see what it feels like.” Last year he sent off a request to the president’s press secretary. To his surprise, he says, he heard back the next day: Come on down!
I’m surprised that Lewis was surprised. He doesn’t write about politics much, but he’s never tried to bury his sympathies as a liberal Democrat, standard-issue. He is also the best-known, most successful, and, in an unlikely coincidence, most talented magazine writer in the country, with a wide range and a sly humor and a frictionless prose style that never fails to make a pleasing impression on the page. Perhaps more important, Lewis agreed to give Obama’s staff a veto over what material he could include in his article. He explained to Terry Gross that he agreed to this demand after he’d read a much-discussed front-page article in the New York Times, which said such an arrangement was typical between political reporters and politicians. (The Times story appeared in July 2012, seven months after Lewis began following Obama.) In the event, Lewis said, the president’s men didn’t make him delete much. Ninety-five percent of his original draft, he said, met with their approval.
This shouldn’t surprise us much either. It must be said that in addition to his tireless industry and gift as a teller of tales, Lewis is often played for a chump by the people he writes about. In the early 1990s, for a book called Pacific Rift, a group of Japanese and American capitalists convinced him of the Japanese economy’s indomitable strength, just as the Japanese economy began its long descent.
In Moneyball a baseball executive convinced Lewis that he had turned the sport into a “social science,” deploying statistics to assemble winning teams as no one had done before. It wasn’t true, as the subsequent failure of the teams showed. It made for a cracking good yarn, though, and a hugely popular book.
In the late 1990s, an entrepreneur named Jim Clark convinced Lewis that American capitalism, thanks to digital technology, was entering an unprecedented era of “pure possibility.” All that the era really was, was a tech bubble, which popped just as Lewis’s book about Clark was published. We could go on.
Along with his willingness to give Obama’s staff editorial veto power, Lewis’s professional gullibility weakens the article’s value as an objective peek into Obama’s world. At the same time it makes the piece more interesting than it might have been otherwise. As reporter and writer, whether consciously or not, Lewis in effect joined the team, and he was happy to remain under close supervision, watching what he was meant to watch and staying away when he was told to bug off.
“Obama’s Way,” in other words, is exactly how the Obama administration wants you the reader—you the voter—to think of the president. It’s as close to an official portrait as we are likely to get until the president himself writes his memoirs in his own soaring prose.