Here’s my favorite paragraph from the shockingly good Obama portrait by Michael Lewis in the upcoming Vanity Fair, Obama’s way. It’s March 2011, and Obama is meeting with his top advisors to decide what, if anything, to do about Qaddafi, who is advancing toward Benghazi with the stated intention of going house to house to cleanse the rebel city in what will surely be a bloodbath. In the meeting, the advisors focus on two choices: do nothing, or impose a no-fly zone. But Obama doesn’t like either option. The generals from the Pentagon admit that the no-fly zone would not stop Qaddafi; it would basically be a butt-covering move. Unusually, Obama opens up the meeting, soliciting opinions from the people who normally don’t speak, the staffers and speechwriters and whatnot who don’t have a seat at the table.
Public opinion at the fringes of the room, as it turned out, was different. Several people sitting there had been deeply affected by the genocide in Rwanda. (“The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room,” as one puts it.) Several of these people had been with Obama since before he was president—people who, had it not been for him, would have been unlikely ever to have found themselves in such a meeting. They aren’t political people so much as Obama people. One was Samantha Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell, about the moral and political costs the U.S. has paid for largely ignoring modern genocides. Another was Ben Rhodes, who had been a struggling novelist when he went to work as a speechwriter back in 2007 on the first Obama campaign. Whatever Obama decided, Rhodes would have to write the speech explaining the decision, and he said in the meeting that he preferred to explain why the United States had prevented a massacre over why it hadn’t. An N.S.C. staffer named Denis McDonough came out for intervention, as did Antony Blinken, who had been on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, but now, awkwardly, worked for Joe Biden. “I have to disagree with my boss on this one,” said Blinken. As a group, the junior staff made the case for saving the Benghazis. But how?
The whole thing is very compelling. Like an Aaron Sorkin version of the Obama presidency, with hyper-articulate and self-aware people making pithy observations about their roles as they stride purposefully through the corridors of the West Wing.
Does that mean it’s necessarily fictional schmaltz, like a Sorkin teleplay? I don’t know. Maybe?
Metaphors and stories convey meaning in an otherwise random, chaotic world. They’re how we think. To a significant degree, they’re what thinking is. That’s how our evolutionary investment in our ridiculously big, expensive brains pays off. Reading this story paid off for me. If you hate Obama, you might think you see the scaffolding. The story’s fake! It’s tugging on your heartstrings because it’s designed to tug on your heartstrings. Jesus; wake up, sheeple!
Not me. I choose to believe it’s true. At least to the limit of what this writer, with this access and this deadline and this editor, was able to pull off.
Update: David Atkins and digby at Hullabaloo disagree with each other about the piece. According to Atkins, it’s a very personal, nuanced view of an imperfect but thoughtful man in the crucible of some very difficult decisions. digby, on the other hand, thinks it’s bullshit.