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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Journalist With Rare Access to Obama Had to Play by Quote Rule


Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” was granted extraordinary access to President Obama for his latest article in Vanity Fair.

But with that access came one major condition.

Like other journalists who write about Washington and presidential politics, Mr. Lewis said that he had to submit to the widespread but rarely disclosed practice of quote approval.

During a discussion at Lincoln Center on Monday night with Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, Mr. Lewis volunteered to the audience that as a condition of cooperating with his story, the White House insisted on signing off on the quotes that would appear.

Mr. Lewis said that ultimat ely the White House disallowed very little of what he asked to use. And he described having access to the president that was unusually unfettered. About 95 percent of what he witnessed was on the record, he said.

What the White House asked to leave off the record, Mr. Lewis added, was usually of little relevance to his article anyway - like a discussion between Mr. Obama and his political strategists about their electoral strategy in Florida.

Mr. Lewis said there was one particularly moving exchange with the president that he wished he could have described in greater detail. But the White House nixed the idea, perhaps wary of having the commander in chief described as in tears.

Mr. Lewis declined to delve into too much detail because he said he did not want to violate the ground rules he agreed to, but he did offer that the president explained to him how the job exacts a heavy emotional toll. The president told Mr. Lewis how on e evening after a particularly trying day, he sat down to watch a movie and surprised himself by suddenly tearing up.

In the discussion with Mr. Carter on Monday, Mr. Lewis described a White House staff that seemed to be extremely wary of his presence around the president. He said that in one exchange with Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, Mr. Carney expressed reservations about cooperating. But ultimately, Mr. Lewis recalled Mr. Carney saying, his concerns didn't matter because the boss wanted to do the story.

That meant Mr. Lewis was allowed to peek behind the White House curtain in a way that few journalists ever have.

Over an eight-month period, Mr. Lewis conducted multiple interviews with the president. He rode in the official presidential limousine. He was given a special lapel pin that designated him to the Secret Service as someone who was allowed to be in close proximity to the president.

When he flew with the president on several foreign and domestic trips, he sat not with the rest of the press corps in the back of Air Force One, but near the front. And the president even allowed Mr. Lewis to play on his basketball team.

But that pursuit did not end quite as Mr. Lewis had hoped. The president benched him.