To understand how air-force navigator Tyler Stark ended up in a thornbush in the Libyan desert in March 2011, one must understand what it’s like to be president of the United States—and this president in particular. Hanging around Barack Obama for six months, in the White House, aboard Air Force One, and on the basketball court, Michael Lewis learns the reality of the Nobel Peace Prize winner who sent Stark into combat.
Even after his parachute opened, Tyler Stark sensed he was coming down too fast. The last thing he’d heard was the pilot saying, “Bailout! Bailout! Bail—” Before the third call was finished, there’d come the violent kick in the rear from the ejector seat, then a rush of cool air. They called it “opening shock” for a reason. He was disoriented. A minute earlier, when the plane had started to spin—it felt like a car hitting a patch of ice—his first thought had been that everything was going to be fine: My first mission, I had my first close call. He’d since changed his mind. He could see the red light of his jet’s rocket fading away and also, falling more slowly, the pilot’s parachute. He went immediately to his checklist: he untangled himself from his life raft, then checked the canopy of his chute and saw the gash. That’s why he was coming down too fast. How fast he couldn’t say, but he told himself he’d have to execute a perfect landing. It was the middle of the night. The sky was black. Below his feet he could see a few lights and houses, but mainly it was just desert.
When he was two years old, Tyler Stark had told his parents he wanted to fly, like his grandfather who had been shot down by the Germans over Austria. His parents didn’t take him too seriously until he went to college, at Colorado State University, when on the first day of school he had enrolled in the air-force R.O.T.C. program. A misdiagnosis about his eyesight killed his dreams of being a pilot and forced him into the backseat, as a navigator. At first he was crushed by the news, but then he realized that, while an air-force pilot might be assigned to fly cargo planes or even drones, the only planes with navigators in them were fighter jets. So the mix-up about his eyesight had been a blessing in disguise. The first years of his air-force career he’d spent on bases in Florida and North Carolina. In 2009 they’d shipped him to England, and to a position where he might see action. And on the night of March 21, 2011, Captain Tyler Stark took off in an F-15 from a base in Italy, with a pilot he’d only just met, on his first combat mission. He now had reasons to think it might also be his last.
Even so, as he floated down, he felt almost calm. The night air was cool, and there was no sound, only awesome silence. He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it. He’d never met a Libyan. Drifting high over the desert he had no sense that he was at once an expression of an idea framed late one night in the White House by the president himself, writing with a No. 2 pencil, and also, suddenly, a threat to that idea. He didn’t sense these invisible threads in his existence, only the visible ones yoking him to his torn parachute. His thoughts were only of survival. He realized, If I can see my plane exploding, and my chute in the air, so can the enemy. He’d just turned 27—one of only three facts about himself, along with his name and rank, that he was now prepared to divulge if captured.
He scanned the earth beneath his dangling feet. He was going to hit hard, and there was nothing he could do about it.
At nine o’clock one Saturday morning I made my way to the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House. I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said.Your mouth guard?I think.Why would you need a mouth guard?
“Hey, Doc,” he shouted to the van holding the medical staff that travels with him wherever he goes. “You got my mouth guard?” The doc had his mouth guard. Obama relaxed back in his seat and said casually that he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out this time, “since we’re only 100 days away.” From the election, he meant, then he smiled and showed me which teeth, in some previous basketball game, had been knocked out. “Exactly what kind of game is this?” I asked, and he laughed and told me not to worry. He doesn’t. “What happens is, as I get older, the chances I’m going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four.” He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we traveled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.
Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, “That’s my dad on your shirt. He’s the head coach at Miami.” Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn’t played in college, and even in high school he hadn’t started. Plus, he hadn’t played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?
The president ran a couple of laps around the gym, then shouted, “Let’s go!” He himself divvied up the teams so each one had roughly the same number of giants and the same number of old people. Having put me on his team, he turned to me and said, “We’ll sit you first, until we get a little bit of a lead.” I thought he was joking, but actually he wasn’t; he was as serious as a heart attack. I was benched. I took my place in the wooden stands, along with a few of the other players, and the White House photographer, the medical team, the Secret Service, and the guy with the buzz cut who carried the nuclear football, to watch the president play.
Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.
“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.
“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.
I thought to myself, It must be hard not to take it easy on the president.
The point guard laughed, turned to another guy on the bench, and said, “Remember Rey?”
“Who’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey pump-faked, turned, and just connected with the president right in the mouth,” the other guy said. “Gave him 16 stitches.”
“Where’s Rey?” I asked.
“Rey hasn’t been back.”
Obama could find a perfectly respectable game with his equals in which he could shoot and score and star, but this is the game he wants to play. It’s ridiculously challenging, and he has very little space to maneuver, but he appears happy. He’s actually just good enough to be useful to his team, as it turns out. Not flashy, but he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all. (He smiles when he misses; when he makes one, he looks even more serious.) “Spacing is big. He knows where to go,” said one of the other players as we watched. “And unlike a lot of lefties, he can go to his right.”
And he chattered constantly. “You can’t leave him open like that!” … “Money!” … “Take that shot!” His team jumped ahead, mainly because it took fewer stupid shots. When I threw one up I discovered the reason for this. When you are on the president’s basketball team and you take a stupid shot, the president of the United States screams at you. “Don’t be looking to the sidelines all sheepish,” he hollered at me. “You got to get back and play D!”
At some point I discreetly moved up to where I belonged, into the stands beside the guy who was operating the clock. His name was Martin Nesbitt. When I had pointed him out to Obama and asked who he was, Obama, sounding like he was about 12 years old, said, “Marty—well, Marty’s my best friend.”
Nesbitt does an extremely good impression of a man who could just barely give a shit that his best friend is the president of the United States. After the fifth game, with the president’s team up 3–2, guys started drifting toward their gym bags in the way they do when everyone thinks it’s over.
“I could go one more,” said Obama.
Nesbitt hooted. “He’s actually going to take the risk of letting this thing get tied up?That’sout of character.”
“He’s that competitive?” I asked.
“Even games we never play. Shuffleboard. I don’t know how to play shuffleboard. He doesn’t know how to play shuffleboard. But if we play, it’s like ‘I can beat you.’”
Martin Nesbitt, C.E.O. of an airport-parking company, met Obama before Obama ever ran for public office, playing pickup basketball with him in Chicago. Well into their friendship he knew next to nothing of Obama’s achievements. Obama had neglected to inform him that he had gone to Harvard Law School, for example, or been editor of itsLaw Review,or really anything that would convey his status off the basketball court. “At some point after we’d known each other a long time, he gives me this book he’s written,” said Nesbitt. “I, you know, just put it up on the shelf. I thought it was like a self-published thing. I still didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t care.” One day Marty and his wife were cleaning house, and he found the book on the shelf.Dreams from My Father,it was called. “The thing just fell off. So I opened it and started reading. And I was like, ‘Holy shit, this guy can write.’ I tell my wife. She says, ‘Marty, Barack is going to be president one day.’”
From the time his wife goes to bed, around 10 at night, until he finally retires, at 1, Barack Obama enjoys the closest thing he experiences to privacy: no one but him really knows exactly where he is or what he’s up to. He can’t leave his house, of course, but he can watch ESPN, surf his iPad, read books, dial up foreign leaders in different time zones, and any number of other activities that feel almost normal. He can also wrestle his mind back into the state it would need to be if, say, he wanted to write.
And so, in a funny way, the president’s day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things. He arrives at the gym on the third floor of the residence, above his bedroom, at 7:30. He works out until 8:30 (cardio one day, weights the next), then showers and dresses in either a blue or gray suit. “My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become,” he says. He’d moved a long way in this direction before he became president, but the office has moved him even further. “It’s not my natural state,” he says. “Naturally, I’m just a kid from Hawaii. But at some point in my life I overcompensated.” After a quick breakfast and a glance at the newspapers—most of which he’s already read on his iPad—he reviews his daily security briefing. When he first became president he often was surprised by the secret news; now he seldom is. “Maybe once a month.”
One summer morning I met him outside the private elevator that brings him down from the residence. His morning commute, of roughly 70 yards, started in the ground-floor center hall, and continued past a pair of oil paintings, of Rosalynn Carter and Betty Ford, and through two sets of double doors, guarded by a Secret Service officer. After a short walk along a back porch, guarded by several other men in black, he passed through a set of French doors into the reception area outside the Oval Office. His secretary, Anita, was already at her desk. Anita, he explained, has been with him since he campaigned for the Senate, back in 2004. As political attachments go, eight years isn’t a long time; in his case, it counts as forever. Eight years ago he could have taken a group tour of the White House and no one would have recognized him.
Passing Anita, the president walked into the Oval Office. “When I’m in Washington I spend half my time in this place,” he said. “It’s surprisingly comfortable.” During the week he is never alone in the office, but on weekends he can come down and have the place to himself. The first time Obama set foot in this room was right after he’d been elected, to pay a call on George Bush. The second time was the first day he arrived for work—and the first thing he did was call in several junior people who had been with him since long before anyone cared who he was so they might see how it felt to sit in the Oval Office. “Let’s just stay normal,” he said to them.
When a new president is elected, the White House curatorial staff removes everything from the office the departing president put in it, unless they worry it will cause a political stir—in which case they ask the new president. Right after the last election they removed a few oil paintings of Texas. It took Obama longer than usual to make changes to the office because, as he put it, “we came in when the economy was tanking and our first priority wasn’t redecorating.” Eighteen months into the office he reupholstered the two chairs in his sitting area. (“The chairs were kind of greasy. I was starting to think, Folks are going to start talking about us.”) Then he swapped out the antique coffee table for a contemporary one, and the bust of Winston Churchill lent to Bush by Tony Blair for one of Martin Luther King Jr. And he took one look at the bookshelves, filled with china, and thought, This won’t do. “They had a bunch ofplatesin there,” he says, a little incredulously. “I’m not a dish guy.” The dishes he replaced with the original applications for several famous patents and patent models—Samuel Morse’s 1849 model for the first telegraph, for instance, which he pointed to and said, “This is the start of the Internet right here.” Finally, he ordered a new oval rug inscribed with his favorite brief quotations from people he admires. “I had a bunch of quotes that didn’t fit [on the rug],” he admitted. One quote that did fit, I saw, was a favorite of Martin Luther King Jr.’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
And that’s it—the sum total of the Obamas’ additions and subtractions to his workspace. “I tend to be a spare guy anyway,” he said. But the changes still generated controversy, especially the removal of the Churchill bust, which created so much stupid noise that Mitt Romney on the stump is now pledging that he will return it to the Oval Office.
He’s kept the desk used by Bush—the one with the secret panel made famous by John-John Kennedy. It had been brought in by Jimmy Carter to replace the one with the secret taping system in it, used by Johnson and Nixon. “Is there a taping system in here?” I asked, gazing up at the crown molding.
“No,” he said, then added, “It’d be fun to have a taping system. It’d be wonderful to have a verbatim record of history.” Obama doesn’t come across as political or calculating, but every now and then it seems to occur to him how something would sound, if repeated out of context and then handed as a weapon to people who wish him ill. “Actually,” he said, “I’ve got to be careful here [about what I say].”
“When people come here, are they nervous?” I asked him, to change the subject. Even in the White House lobby you can tell who works here and who doesn’t by the sound of their conversation and their body language. The people who don’t work here have the checked-my-actual-personality-at-the-door look of people on TV for the first time in their lives. In the presence of the president himself even celebrities are so distracted that they cease to notice all else. He’d make an excellent accomplice to a pickpocket.
“Yes,” he said. “And what’s true is that it is true of just about everyone who comes here. I think that the space affects them. But when you work here you forget about it.”
He pulled me down a short hallway toward his private office, the place he goes when he wants his staff to leave him be.
Along the way we passed a few other things he had installed—and that he must know his successor is going to have a hell of a time removing: a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation; an odd, stark snapshot of an old, fat Teddy Roosevelt dragging his horse up a hill (“Even the horse looks tired”); the announcement of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. We entered his private study, its desk piled high with novels—on top is Julian Barnes’sThe Sense of an Ending.He pointed to the patio outside his window. It was built by Reagan, he says, on a lovely quiet spot in the shade of a giant magnolia.
A century ago presidents, when they took office, would auction the contents of the place on the White House lawn. Sixty-five years ago Harry Truman could rip apart the south side of the White House and build himself a new balcony. Thirty years ago Ronald Reagan could create a discreet seating area hidden from public view. Today there is no way any president could build anything that would enhance the White House without being accused of violating some sacred site, or turning the place into a country club, or wasting taxpayer money, or, worst of all, being oblivious to appearances. To the way it willseem.Obama looked at the Reagan patio and laughed at the audacity of building it.
Crossing the White House lawn on the way out that morning I passed a giant crater, surrounded by heavy machinery. For the better part of a year hordes of workmen have been digging and building something deep below the White House—though what it is no one who knows will really say. “Infrastructure” is the answer you get when you ask. But no one really does ask, much less insist on the public’s right to know. The president of the United States can’t move a bust in the Oval Office without facing a firestorm of disapproval. But he can dig a hole deep in his front yard and build an underground labyrinth and no one even asks what he’s up to.
Bruce and Dorene Stark, parents of Tyler, live in the Denver suburb of Littleton, which is actually bigger than you might think. In mid-March of last year, when they heard from their son out of the blue, they’d been planning a trip to England to visit him. “We get this odd e-mail from him,” says Bruce. “It doesn’t even say, ‘Hi, Mom and Dad.’ It says, ‘I’m no longer in the U.K., and I don’t know when I’ll be back.’” They didn’t know what it meant, but, as Dorene Stark puts it, “you get this creepy feeling.” A week later, on a Monday night, the phone rang. “I’m watching some TV show,” recalls Bruce. “I pick up the phone and it says, ‘Out of the area,’ or something like that.” He answered anyway. “It’s Tyler. He doesn’t say hi or anything. He just says, ‘Dad.’ And I say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He says, ‘I just need you to do me a favor: I’m going to give you a number, and I want you to call it.’ I say, ‘Hold on. I don’t have anything to write with.’”
Bruce Stark found pen and paper, then picked up the phone again. Tyler then gave his father the phone number of his air-force base in England. “And then,” remembers Bruce, “he says, ‘I just need you to tell them I’m alive and I’m O.K.’
“‘What do you mean you’re alive and you’re O.K.?’” asked Bruce, understandably.
But Tyler was already gone. Bruce Stark hung up, called his wife, and told her he’d just had the strangest phone call from Tyler. “I said to Bruce, ‘Something has happened,’” says Dorene. “As a mother you just get this sixth sense. But Bruce says, ‘Oh no, he sounded fine!’” They still had no idea where in the world their son might be. They searched the news for some hint but found nothing, except a lot of coverage of the Fukushima tsunami and growing nuclear disaster. “I have a pretty good relationship with God,” says Dorene. She decided to pray about it. She drove to her church, but it was locked; she pounded on the door, but no one answered. Seeing how late it was in England, Bruce simply sent his son’s base an e-mail relaying Tyler’s strange message.
At 4:30 the next morning they received a phone call from their son’s commanding officer. The polite lieutenant colonel apologized for waking them but wanted to let them know before they heard it elsewhere that the plane they were now showing on CNN was indeed Tyler’s. “He says they have determined that Tyler is on the ground somewhere and O.K.,” says Dorene. “And I thought, Your definition of O.K. and mine are clearly going to be different. They send people home without limbs.”
The Starks turned on their television and found CNN, where, sure enough, they were airing footage of a completely destroyed airplane, somewhere in the desert of Libya. Until that moment they didn’t know that the United States might have invaded Libya. They did not care for Barack Obama and would never vote for him, but they didn’t question whatever the president had just done, and they didn’t pay much attention to the various criticisms of this new war being made by various TV commentators.
But the sight of their son’s plane’s smoldering wreckage was deeply disturbing. “That was just a sick feeling at that point,” recalls Bruce. Dorene found it strangely familiar. She turned to her husband and asked, “Doesn’t this remind you of Columbine?” Tyler had been a freshman at Columbine High the year of the shootings. That afternoon, before anyone knew anything, his parents had watched the news and seen that some of the kids who happened to be in the school library at the time had been killed. The shooting had happened during study hall, exactly when Tyler was meant to be in the library. Now as she watched the CNN report of her son’s plane crash she realized she was in the same state of mind she had been in when she’d been watching news reports of the Columbine massacre. “Your body is almost numb,” she says. “Just to protect you from whatever news might happen.”
We were on Air Force One, somewhere between North America and South America, when a hand shook my shoulder, and I gazed up to find Obama staring down at me. I’d been seated in the cabin in the middle of the plane—the place where the seats and tables can be easily removed so that if the president’s body needs to be transported after his death there’s a place to put his coffin. Apparently, I’d fallen asleep. The president’s lips were pursed, impatiently.
“What?” I said, stupidly.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said, and gave me one more shake.
There are no wide-open spaces in presidential life, only nooks and crannies, and the front of Air Force One is one of them. When he’s on his plane, small gaps of time sometimes open in his schedule, and there are fewer people around to leap in and consume them. In this case, Obama had just found himself with 30 free minutes.
“What you got for me?” he asked and plopped down in the chair beside his desk. His desk is designed to tilt down when the plane is on the ground so that it might be perfectly flat when the plane is nose up, in flight. It was now perfectly flat.
“I want to play that game again,” I said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”
This was the third time I’d put the question to him, in one form or another. The first time, a month earlier in this same cabin, he’d had a lot of trouble getting his mind around the idea that I, not he, was president. He’d started by saying something he knew to be dull and expected but that—he insisted—was nevertheless perfectly true. “Here is what I would tell you,” he’d said. “I would say that your first and principal task is to think about the hopes and dreams the American people invested in you. Everything you are doing has to be viewed through this prism. And I tell you what every president … I actually think every president understands this responsibility. I don’t know George Bush well. I know Bill Clinton better. But I think they both approached the job in that spirit.” Then he added that the world thinks he spends a lot more time worrying about political angles than he actually does.
This time he covered a lot more ground and was willing to talk about the mundane details of presidential existence. “You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”
There are several aspects of his job that seem obvious to him but strike me as so deeply weird that I can’t help but bring them up. For example, he has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it, and then, on top of it all, the news to which he must respond is often abouthim.
On the leather sofa beside me were the five newspapers that are laid out for him every time he travels. “In every one of those someone is saying something nasty about you,” I said to him. “You turn on the television and you could find people being even nastier. If I’m president, I’m thinking, I’ll just walk around pissed off all the time, looking for someone to punch.”
He shook his head. He doesn’t watch cable news, which he thinks is genuinely toxic. One of his aides told me that once, thinking the president otherwise occupied, he’d made the mistake of switching the Air Force One television from ESPN, which Obama prefers, to a cable news show. The president walked into the room and watched a talking head explain knowingly to his audience why he, Obama, had taken some action. “Oh, so that’s why I did it,” said Obama, and walked out. Now he said, “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you. I learned that on the campaign.” Then he added, “You have to filter stuff, but you can’t filter it so much you live in this fantasyland.”
The other aspect of his job I have trouble getting comfortable with is its bizarre emotional demands. In the span of a few hours, a president will go from celebrating the Super Bowl champions to running meetings on how to fix the financial system, to watching people on TV make up stuff about him, to listening to members of Congress explain why they can’t support a reasonable idea simply because he, the president, is for it, to sitting down with the parents of a young soldier recently killed in action. He spends his day leaping over ravines between vastly different feelings. How does anyone become used to this?
As I was still a little groggy and put my question poorly, he answered a question it hadn’t occurred to me to ask: Why doesn’t he show more emotion? He does this on occasion, even when I’ve put the question clearly—see in what I’ve asked some implicit criticism, usually one he’s heard many times before. As he’s not naturally defensive, it’s pretty clearly an acquired trait. “There are some things about being president that I still have difficulty doing,” he said. “For example, faking emotion. Because I feel it is an insult to the people I’m dealing with. For me to feign outrage, for example, feels to me like I’m not taking the American people seriously. I’m absolutely positive that I’m serving the American people better if I’m maintaining my authenticity. And that’s an overused word. And these days people practice being authentic. But I’m at my best when I believe what I am saying.”
That was not what I had been after. What I had wanted to know was: Where do you put what you actually feel, when there is no place in your job to feel it? When you are president you are not allowed to go numb to protect yourself from whatever news might happen. But it was too late; my time was up; I returned to my seat in the cabin.
When they give you the tour of Air Force One they show you the extra-large doors in the middle of the plane, to accommodate a president’s coffin—as they did Reagan’s. They tell you about the boxes of M&M candies embossed with the presidential seal, the medical room prepared for every emergency (there’s even a bag that says, “Cyanide Antidote Kit”), and the conference room refitted with fancy video equipment since 9/11 so that the president doesn’t need to land to address the nation. What they don’t tell you—though everyone who rides on it nods when you point it out—is how little sense it gives you of your relationship to the ground. There are no announcements from the pilot and no seat-belt signs; people are up and walking around during takeoff and landing. But that’s not all. The president’s plane simply does not give you, the moment before you land, the same feeling of an impending collision that you get in other airplanes. One moment you are up in the air. The next—bam!
Tyler Stark hit the desert floor in what he believed was a perfect position. “I thought I did a pretty good job, but halfway through I hear this ‘pop’ and I fall on my butt.” He’d torn tendons in both his left knee and his left ankle. He looked around for shelter. There was nothing but a few chest-high thornbushes and some small rocks. He was in the middle of a desert; there was no place to hide. I need to get away from this area, he thought. He collected the gear he wanted, stuffed the rest in a thornbush, and began to move. “The moment of serenity had gone away,” he recalled. It was his first combat mission, but he’d felt the way he now felt once before: during Columbine. He’d been shot at once in the cafeteria by one of the killers, and then many times by the other one as he had raced down the hall. He’d heard the bullets zipping past his head and exploding into the metal lockers. “It’s the feeling not really of terror,” he said, “but of not knowing what is going on. You just go with your gut decision to get to safety.” The difference between this and that was that he’d trained for this. “For Columbine I didn’t have any training, so I was just going.”
He wandered the desert until he realized there was no place to go. In the end he found a thornbush a little bigger than the others and got himself inside it as best he could. There he callednatocommand, to let them know where he was. He established contact, but it wasn’t easy—in part because of the dog. What appeared to be a border collie had found him, and every time he moved to pick up his communications gear the dog moved in on him and started barking. He reached for and armed his 9-mm. pistol, but then thought, What am I going to do? Shoot a dog? He liked dogs.
He’d been on the loose for two hours when he heard voices. “They were coming from the direction where the parachute was. I didn’t speak Arabic, so I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but to me it kind of sounded like ‘Hey, we found a parachute.’” Out of nowhere a spotlight appeared, on top of some sort of vehicle. The light passed right over the thornbush. Tyler was now flat on the ground. “I’m trying to think as thin as possible,” he said. But he could see that the light had stopped moving back and forth and had settled on him. “I initially wouldn’t acknowledge or accept it,” he said. Then someone screamed, “American, come out!” “And I think, Nope. Not quite that easy.” Another shout: “American, come out!” At length, Tyler rose and started walking toward the light.
The gist of Obama’s advice to any would-be president is something like this: You may think that the presidency is essentially a public-relations job. Relations with the public are indeed important, maybe now more than ever, as public opinion is the only tool he has for pressuring an intractable opposition to agree on anything. He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said. “L.B.J. operated in an environment in which if he got a couple of committee chairmen to agree he had a deal. Those chairmen didn’t have to worry about a Tea Party challenge. About cable news. That model has progressively shifted for each president. It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no. And these days you don’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to withhold an earmark,’ or ‘I’m not going to appoint your brother-in-law to the federal bench.’”
But if you happen to be president just now, what you are faced with, mainly, is not a public-relations problem but an endless string of decisions. Putting it the way George W. Bush did sounded silly but he was right: the president is a decider. Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
The second week in March of last year offered a nice illustration of a president’s curious predicament. On March 11 a tsunami rolled over the Japanese village of Fukushima, triggering the meltdown of reactors inside a nuclear power plant in the town—and raising the alarming possibility that a cloud of radiation would waft over the United States. If you happened to be president of the United States, you were woken up and given the news. (In fact, the president seldom is awakened with news of some crisis, but his aides routinely are, to determine if the president’s sleep needs to be disrupted for whatever has just happened. As one nighttime crisis vetter put it, “They’ll say, ‘This just happened in Afghanistan,’ and I’m like, ‘O.K., and what am I supposed to do about it?’”) In the case of Fukushima, if you were able to go back to sleep you did so knowing that radiation clouds were not your most difficult problem. Not even close. At that very moment, you were deciding on whether to approve a ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. You were arguing, as ever, with Republican leaders in Congress about the budget. And you were receiving daily briefings on various revolutions in various Arab countries. In early February, following the lead of the Egyptians and the Tunisians, the Libyan people had revolted against their dictator, who was now bent on crushing them. Muammar Qaddafi and his army of 27,000 men were marching across the Libyan desert toward a city called Benghazi and were promising to exterminate some large number of the 1.2 million people inside.
If you were president just then and you turned your television to some cable news channel you would have seen many Republican senators screaming at you to invade Libya and many Democratic congressmen hollering at you that you had no business putting American lives at risk in Libya. If you flipped over to the networks on March 7 you might have caught ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper saying to your press secretary, Jay Carney, “More than a thousand people have died, according to the United Nations. How many more people have to die before the United States decides, O.K., we’re going to take this one step of a no-fly zone?”
By March 13, Qaddafi appeared to be roughly two weeks from getting to Benghazi. On that day the French announced they were planning to introduce a resolution in the United Nations to use U.N. forces to secure the skies over Libya in order to prevent Libyan planes from flying. A “no-fly zone” this was called, and it forced Obama’s hand. The president had to decide whether to support the no-fly-zone resolution or not. At 4:10p.m.on March 15 the White House held a meeting to discuss the issue. “Here is what we knew,” recalls Obama, by which he means here is what I knew. “We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time—somewhere between two days and two weeks. We knew they were moving faster than we originally anticipated. We knew that Europe was proposing a no-fly zone.”
That much had been in the news. One crucial piece of information had not. “We knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Benghazi,” says Obama. “The no-fly zone was an expression of concern that didn’t really do anything.” European leaders wanted to create a no-fly zone to stop Qaddafi, but Qaddafi wasn’t flying. His army was racing across the North African desert in jeeps and tanks. Obama had to have wondered just how aware of this were these foreign leaders supposedly interested in the fate of these Libyan civilians. He didn’t know if they knew that a no-fly zone was pointless, but if they’d talked to any military leader for five minutes they would have. And that was not all. “The last thing we knew,” he adds, “is that if you announced a no-fly zone and if it appeared feckless, there would be additional pressure for us to go further. As enthusiastic as France and Britain were about the no-fly zone, there was a danger that if we participated the U.S. would own the operation. Because we had the capacity.”
On March 15 the president had a typically full schedule. Already he’d met with his national-security advisers, given a series of TV interviews on the No Child Left Behind law, lunched with his vice president, celebrated the winners of an Intel high-school science competition, and spent a good chunk of time alone in the Oval Office with a child suffering from an incurable disease, whose final wish had been to meet the president. His last event, before convening a meeting with 18 advisers (which his official schedule listed simply as “The President and the Vice-President Meet With Secretary of Defense Gates”), was to sit down with ESPN. Twenty-five minutes after he’d given the world his March Madness tournament picks Obama walked down to the Situation Room. He’d been there just the day before, to hold his first meeting to discuss how to kill Osama bin Laden.
In White House jargon this was a meeting of “the principals,” which is to say the big shots. In addition to Biden and Gates, it included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon (who had organized the meeting), and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (on a video screen from New York). The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. “Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” says one participant. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.” Says another person at the meeting, “He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do.”
Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qaddafi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. “The intelligence was very abstract,” says one witness. “Obama started asking questions about it. ‘What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?’” It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they’d be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to “cleanse Libya, house by house.”) The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”
Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” he says. “Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-making.” But it’s more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but theoldpeople. The man has his status needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established status structures. After all, he became president.
Asked if he was surprised that the Pentagon had not presented him with the option to prevent Qaddafi from destroying a city twice the size of New Orleans and killing everyone inside the place, Obama says simply, “No.” Asked why he was not surprised—if I were president I would have been—he adds, “Because it’s a hard problem. What the process is going to do is try to lead you to a binary decision. Here are the pros and cons of going in. Here are the pros and cons of not going in. The process pushes towards black or white answers; it’s less good with shades of gray. Partly because the instinct among the participants was that … ” Here he pauses and decides he doesn’t want to criticize anyone personally. “We were engaged in Afghanistan. We still had equity in Iraq. Our assets are strained. The participants are asking a question: Is there a core national-security issue at stake? As opposed to calibrating our national-security interests in some new way.”
The people who operate the machinery have their own ideas of what the president should decide, and their advice is pitched accordingly. Gates and Mullen didn’t see how core American security interests were at stake; Biden and Daley thought that getting involved in Libya was, politically, nothing but downside. “The funny thing is the system worked,” says one person who witnessed the meeting. “Everyone was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. Gates was right to insist that we had no core national-security issue. Biden was right to say it was politically stupid. He’d be putting his presidency on the line.”
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 bookA 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 president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.
Back on October 9, 2009, Obama had been woken up in the middle of the night to be informed that he’d been given the Nobel Peace Prize. He half thought it might be a prank. “It’s one of the most shocking things that has happened in all of this,” he says. “And I immediately anticipated that it would cause me problems.” The Nobel Prize Committee had just made it a tiny bit harder for him to do the job he’d just been elected to do, as he could not at once be commander in chief of the most powerful force on earth and the face of pacifism. When he sat down some weeks later with Ben Rhodes and another speechwriter, Jon Favreau, to discuss what he wanted to say, he told them he intended to use the acceptance speech to make the case for war. “I need to make sure I was addressing a European audience that had recoiled so badly from the Iraq war, and that may have been viewing the conferring of the Nobel Prize as a vindication of inaction.”
Both Rhodes and Favreau, who have been with Obama since early in his first presidential campaign, are widely viewed as his two most adept mimics when it comes to speeches. They know how the president sounds: his desire to make it seem he is telling a story rather than making an argument; the long sentences strung together by semicolons; the tendency to speak in paragraphs rather than sound bites; the absence of emotion he was unlikely to genuinely feel. (“He really doesn’t do artifice well,” says Favreau.) Normally, Obama takes his speechwriters’ first draft and works from it. “This time he just threw it in the garbage can,” says Rhodes. “The main reason I’m employed here is I have an idea of how his mind works. In this case, I totally screwed up.”
The problem, in Obama’s view, was his own doing. He’d asked his speechwriters to make an argument he had never fully made and to state beliefs that he had never fully expressed. “There are certain speeches that I have to write myself,” says Obama. “There are times when I’ve got to capture what the essence of the thing is.”
Obama asked his speechwriters to dig up for him writings about war by people he admired: Saint Augustine, Churchill, Niebuhr, Gandhi, King. He wanted to reconcile the nonviolent doctrines of two of his heroes, King and Gandhi, with his new role in the violent world. These writings came back to the speechwriters with key passages underlined and notes by the president to himself scrawled in the margin. (Beside Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” Obama had scribbled “Can we analogize al-Qaeda? What level of casualty can we tolerate?”) “Here it wasn’t just that I needed to make a new argument,” says Obama. “It was that I wanted to make an argument that didn’t allow either side to feel too comfortable.”
He’d received the unusable speech on December 8. He was due to be onstage in Oslo on December 10. On December 9 he had 21 meetings, on every subject under the sun. The only slivers of time on his schedule for that day that even faintly resembled “free time to write a speech to the entire world that I have to give in two days” were “Desk Time” from 1:25 to 1:55 and “potusTime” from 5:50 to 6:50. But he also had the night, after his wife and children had gone to bed. And he had something he really wanted to say.
That evening he sat down at his desk in the White House residence, in the Treaty Room, and pulled out a yellow legal pad and a No. 2 pencil. When we think of a presidential speech we think of the bully pulpit—the president trying to persuade the rest of us to think or feel in a certain way. We do not think of the president sitting down and trying to persuade himself to think or feel a certain way first. But Obama does—he subjects himself to a kind of inner bully pulpit.
Actually, he didn’t toss his speechwriters’ work in the garbage can, not right away. Instead he copied it out, their entire 40-minute speech. “It helped organize my thoughts,” he says. “What I had to do is describe a notion of a just war. But also acknowledge that the very notion of a just war can lead you into some dark places. And so you can’t be complacent in labeling something just. You need to constantly ask yourself questions.” He finished around five in the morning. “There are times when I feel like I’ve grabbed onto the truth of something and I’m just hanging on,” he says. “And my best speeches are when I know what I’m saying is true in a fundamental way. People find their strength in different places. That’s where I’m strong.”
A few hours later he handed his speechwriters six sheets of yellow paper filled with his small, tidy script. In receiving a prize for peace, speaking to an audience primed for pacifism, he’d made the case for war.
When the president handed him this speech, Rhodes had two reactions. The first was that there is no obvious political upside to it. His second reaction: “When did he write it? That’s what I wanted to know.”
On the plane to Oslo, Obama would fiddle with the speech a bit more. “We were actually still putting in edits as I was walking onto the stage,” he tells me, laughing. But the words he spoke that evening were mainly those he wrote that long night at his desk in the White House. And they explained not only why he might respond, as he was about to do, to an impending massacre of innocents in Benghazi, but also why, if the circumstances were even a little bit different, he might respond in another way.
The principals reconvened in the Situation Room at 7:30 p.m. The Pentagon now offered the president three options. The first: do nothing at all. The second: establish a no-fly zone, which they had already conceded would not prevent a massacre in Benghazi. The third: secure a resolution from the U.N. to take “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians and then use American airpower to destroy Qaddafi’s army. “By the time I go to the second meeting I’m viewing the choices differently,” says Obama. “I know that I’m definitely not doing a no-fly zone. Because I think it’s just a show to protect backsides, politically.” In his Nobel speech he’d argued that in cases such as these the United States should not act alone. “In these situations we should have a bias towards operating multilaterally,” he says. “Because the very process of building a coalition forces you to ask tough questions. You may think you are acting morally, but you may be fooling yourself.”
He was trying to frame the problem not just for America but for the rest of the world too. “I’m thinking to myself, What are the challenges, and what are the things we can do uniquely?” He wanted to say to the Europeans and to other Arab countries: We’ll do most of the actual bombing because only we can do it quickly, but you have to clean up the mess afterward. “What I didn’t want,” says Obama, “is a month later a call from our allies saying, ‘It’s not working—you need to do more.’ So the question is: How can I cabin our commitment in a way that is useful?”
Obama insists that he still had not made up his mind what to do when he returned to the Situation Room—that he was still considering doing nothing at all. A million people in Benghazi were waiting to find out whether they would live or die, and he honestly did not know. There were things the Pentagon might have said to deter him, for instance. “If somebody had said to me that we could not take out their air defense without putting our fliers at risk in a significant way; if the level of risk for our military personnel had been ratcheted up—that might have changed my decision,” says Obama. “Or if I did not feel Sarkozy or Cameron were far enough out there to follow through. Or if I did not think we could get a U.N resolution passed.”
Once again he polled the people in the room for their views. Of the principals only Susan Rice (enthusiastically) and Hillary Clinton (who would have settled for a no-fly zone) had the view that any sort of intervention made sense. “How are we going to explain to the American people why we’re in Libya,” asked William Daley, according to one of those present. “And Daley had a point: who gives a shit about Libya?”
From the president’s point of view there was a certain benefit in the indifference of the American public to whatever was happening in Libya. It enabled him to do, at least for a moment, pretty much whatever he wanted to do. Libya was the hole in the White House lawn.
Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, “That’s not who we are,” by which he means that’s not whoIam. The decision was extraordinarily personal. “No one in the Cabinet was for it,” says one witness. “There was no constituency for doing what he did.” Then Obama went upstairs to the Oval Office to call European heads of state and, as he puts it, “call their bluff.” Cameron first, then Sarkozy. It was three a.m. in Paris when he reached the French president, but Sarkozy insisted he was still awake. (“I’m a young man!”) In formal and stilted tones the European leaders committed to taking over after the initial bombing. The next morning Obama called Medvedev to make sure that the Russians would not block his U.N. resolution. There was no obvious reason why Russia should want to see Qaddafi murder a city of Libyans, but in the president’s foreign dealings the Russians play the role that Republicans currently more or less play in his domestic affairs. The Russians’ view of the world tends to be zero-sum: if an American president is for it, they are, by definition, against it. Obama thought that he had made more progress with the Russians than he had with the Republicans; Medvedev had come to trust him, he felt, and believed him when he said the United States had no intention of moving into Libya for the long term. A senior American official at the United Nations thought that perhaps the Russians let Obama have his resolution only because they thought it would end in disaster for the United States.
And it could have. All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, “We don’t need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on theTodayshow to say he wouldn’t have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, “It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was “Why aren’t you doing anything?” The next it was “What have you gotten us into?” As one White House staffer puts it, “All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That’s because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine.”
The minute the president made his decision a lot of people were obviously waiting for it to go wrong—for something to happen that could be seized upon to symbolize this curious use of American power and define this curious president. On March 21, Obama flew from Brazil to Chile. He was on a stage with Chilean leaders, listening to a folk-rock band called Los Jaivas singing the story of the earth’s formation (their signature piece) when someone whispered in his ear: one of our F-15s just crashed in the Libyan desert. On his way to dinner afterward his national-security adviser Thomas Donilon told him that the pilot had been rescued but the navigator was missing. “My first thought was how to find the guy,” recalls Obama. “My next thought was that this is a reminder that something can always go wrong. And there are consequences for things going wrong.”
The soldiers from the Libyan rebel militia who found Tyler Stark weren’t entirely sure what to make of him, as he didn’t speak Arabic and they didn’t speak anything else. At any rate, he didn’t seem inclined to talk. The Libyans were now of course aware that someone was dropping bombs on Qaddafi’s troops, but they were a little unclear about who exactly was doing it. After taking a good long look at this pilot who had fallen from the sky they decided he must be French. And so when Bubaker Habib, who owned an English-language school in Tripoli, and was then hunkered down with fellow dissidents in a hotel in Benghazi, received the phone call from a friend of his in the rebel army, the friend asked him if he spoke French. “He tells me there is a French pilot,” says Bubaker. “He’s crashed. Because I spent 2003 in France, I still have some French words. So I said yes.”
The friend asked if Bubaker would mind driving the 30 kilometers or so out of Benghazi to talk to the “French pilot,” so they could figure out the best way to help him. Even though it was the middle of the night, and you could hear bombs exploding and guns firing, Bubaker jumped in his car. “I found Stark sitting there, holding his knee,” says Bubaker. “He was, to be honest with you, frantic. He doesn’t know what is going on. He was surrounded by the militia. He doesn’t know if they are friends or enemies.”
“Bonjour,” said Bubaker, or maybe not—he has forgotten the first thing out of his mouth. But in response Tyler Stark said something and Bubaker instantly recognized the accent. “Are youAmerican?” asked Bubaker. Stark said he was. Bubaker leaned over and told him that he actually had friends in the U.S. Embassy who had fled in the early days of the war, and that if Stark would come with him back to Benghazi he could put them in touch. “He looked at me, astonished,” remembers Bubaker.
On the drive to Benghazi, Bubaker sensed that Stark was both shocked and wary. At any rate, as much as Bubaker might have wanted to know more about why America was dropping bombs on Libya, Stark would not tell him. And so Bubaker put on some 80s music and changed the subject to something other than war. The first song that came on was Diana Ross and Lionel Richie singing “Endless Love.” “You know what,” said Bubaker. “This song reminds me of my second marriage.” They talked the rest of the way, says Bubaker, “and we didn’t mention anything of any military action.” He drove the “American pilot” back to the hotel and instructed the militia to surround the place. Even in Libya they understood the fickle nature of American public opinion. “I told them, ‘We have an American pilot here. If he gets caught or killed it’s the end of the mission. Make sure he is safe and sound.’” Bubaker then called his friend, the former staffer in the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, now removed to Washington, D.C.
It took a few hours for someone to come and fetch Stark. As he waited with Bubaker inside the hotel, word spread of this French pilot who had saved their lives. When they’d arrived at the hotel a man had handed Tyler Stark a rose, which the American found both strange and touching. Now women from across the city came with flowers to the front of the hotel. When Stark entered a room full of people they stood up and gave him a round of applause. “I’m not sure what I was expecting in Libya,” he says, “but I was not expecting a round of applause.”
Bubaker found doctors to treat Stark’s leg and one of the doctors had Skype on his iPod. Stark tried to call his base, but he couldn’t remember the country code for Britain, so he called the most useful phone number he could remember, his parents’.
At some point Bubaker turned to him and asked, “Do you know why you are in Libya?”
“I just have my orders,” said Stark.
“He didn’t know why he’d been sent,” says Bubaker. “So I showed him some video. Of kids being killed.”
At that moment there was a curious balance of power between the leader and the led. Tyler Stark was in harm’s way because of a decision Barack Obama had made, more or less on his own. He was at the mercy of another man’s character. The president’s decision reached forward into the impersonal future—Qaddafi would be killed, Libya would hold its first free elections—but it also reached back into the personal past, to the things that had made Obama capable of walking alone into a room with a pencil and walking out a bit later with a conviction.
At the same time, the president was exposed to Tyler Stark. “That pilot” is the first thing Obama mentioned when asked what might have gone wrong in Libya. He was especially alive to the power of a story to influence the American public. 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. If the pilot had fallen into the wrong hands, or landed badly, or shot the dog, it would have been the start of a new narrative. Then the story would no longer have been a complex tale ignored by the American public about how the United States had forged a broad international coalition to help people who claimed to share our values rid themselves of a tyrant.
The story would have become a much simpler one, ripe for exploitation by his foes: how a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another. If Stark had come to grief, the Libyan intervention would no longer have been the hole in the White House lawn. It would have been the Churchill bust. That is why Obama says that, as obvious as it seems in retrospect to have prevented a massacre in Benghazi, it was at the time “one of those 51–49 decisions.”
On the other hand, Obama had helped make his own luck. This time when we invaded an Arab country we Americans were genuinely treated as heroes—because the locals didn’t see our incursion as an act of imperialism.
The president’s schedule on a recent summer day wasn’t quite as full as usual: 30 minutes with Hillary Clinton, another 30 with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, lunch with the vice president, a long talk with his secretary of agriculture to discuss the drought. He’d also hosted the Lady Bears of Baylor national-championship basketball team, done one TV interview, taped his weekly address, stopped in at a fund-raiser in a Washington hotel, and sat down, for the first time, to prepare for the coming debates with Mitt Romney. “The days that are challenging are not when you have a lot on your schedule,” he said. “Today was a little bit tougher than usual.” What made it tough was the bomb that had exploded on a Bulgarian tour bus, killing a bunch of Israeli tourists, and some reports out of Syria about civilians’ being murdered.
A few days earlier I’d asked him the same question I’d put to him on his airplane, about the range of emotional states that the presidency now required, and the speed with which the president was expected to move from one to the other. “One of my most important tasks,” he’d said, “is making sure I stay open to people, and the meaning of what I’m doing, but not to get so overwhelmed by it that it’s paralyzing. Option one is to go through the motions. That I think is a disaster for a president. But there is the other danger.”
“It’s not a natural state,” I had said.
“No,” he had agreed. “It’s not. There are times when I have to save it and let it out at the end of the day.”
I asked if he would take me to his favorite place in the White House. Leaving the Oval Office he retraced his steps along the South Portico. The private elevator rose to the second floor. On the way up Obama seemed just a tiny bit tense, as if for the first time calculating the effects on his own domestic politics of bringing a stranger home unannounced. We exited into a great hall, half the length of a football field, which appeared to function as the family living room. The space, ridiculously impersonal, still felt homey compared with the rest of the White House. Michelle was in Alabama at a public event, but Obama’s mother-in-law sat reading in a deep, soft chair. She looked up, curiously: she wasn’t expecting company.
“Sorry to invade your house,” I said.
She laughed. “It’shishouse!” she said.
“My favorite place in the White House,” said the president, “is this way.”
We walked down the living room, passing his study—a huge, formal room with a well-used feel to it. “You know,” he’d said to me once, after I’d asked him what it was like to move into the White House, “the first night you sleep in the White House, you’re thinking, All right. I’m in the White House. And I’m sleeping here.” He laughed. “There’s a time in the middle of the night when you just kind of startle awake. There’s a little bit of a sense of absurdity. There is such an element of randomness in who gets this job. What am I here for? Why am I walking around the Lincoln Bedroom? That doesn’t last long. A week into it you’re on the job.”
We turned right, into an oval room painted yellow, apparently known as the Yellow Room. Obama marched to the French doors on the far end. There he flipped a few locks and stepped outside. “This is the best spot in the whole White House,” he said.
I followed him out onto the Truman Balcony, to the pristine view of the South Lawn. The Washington Monument stood like a soldier in front of the Jefferson Memorial. Potted poinsettias surrounded what amounted to an outdoor living room. “The best spot in the White House,” he said again. “Michelle and I come out here at night and just sit. It’s the closest you can get to feeling outside. To feeling outside the bubble.”
Aboard Air Force One, I’d asked him what he would do if granted a day when no one knew who he was and he could do whatever he pleased. How would he spend it? He didn’t even have to think about it:
When I lived in Hawaii, I’d take a drive from Waikiki to where my grandmother lived—up along the coast heading east, and it takes you past Hanauma Bay. When my mother was pregnant with me she’d take a walk along the beach. . . . You park your car. If the waves are good you sit and watch and ponder it for a while. You grab your car keys in the towel. And you jump in the ocean. And you have to wait until there is a break in the waves. . . . And you put on a fin—and you only have one fin—and if you catch the right wave you cut left because left is west. . . . Then you cut down into the tube there. You might see the crest rolling and you might see the sun glittering. You might see a sea turtle in profile, sideways, like a hieroglyph in the water. . . . And you spend an hour out there. And if you’ve had a good day you’ve caught six or seven good waves and six or seven not so good waves. And you go back to your car. With a soda or a can of juice. And you sit. And you can watch the sun go down …
When he was done, he thought again and said, “And if I had a second day … ” But then the airplane landed, and it was time for us to get off.
“If I were president I think I might keep a list in my head,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “That’s my last piece of advice to you. Keep a list.”
Now, standing on the Truman Balcony, little came between him and the outside world. Crowds milled about on Constitution Avenue, on the other side of the south gate. Had he waved, someone might have noticed him and waved back. He motioned to the place from which, last November, a man with a high-powered rifle fired at the White House. Turning, with only the slightest trace of annoyance, Obama pointed to the spot directly behind his head where the bullet struck.
Back inside I had had a feeling unhelpful to the task at hand: I shouldn’t have been there. When a man with such a taste and talent for spacing is given so little space in which to operate it feels wrong to take the little he does have, like grabbing water to brush one’s teeth from a man dying of thirst. “I feel a little creepy being here,” I said. “Why don’t I get out of your hair?” He laughed. “C’mon,” he said. “As long as you’re up here, there’s one more thing.” He led me down the hall and into the Lincoln Bedroom. There was a desk, upon which rested some obviously sacred object, covered by a green felt cloth. “There are times when you come in here and you’re having a particularly difficult day,” said the president. “Sometimes I come in here.” He pulled back the cloth and revealed a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address. The fifth of five made by Lincoln but the only one he signed, dated, and titled. Six hours earlier the president had been celebrating the Lady Bears of Baylor. Four hours earlier he’d been trying to figure out what, if anything, he would do to save lives of innocents being massacred by their government in Syria. Now he looked down and read the words of another president, who also understood the peculiar power, even over one’s self, that comes from putting your thoughts into them.