Thanks obama, p.1

Thanks, Obama, page 1


Thanks, Obama

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Thanks, Obama

  (From left to right:) Not me; me; also not me.

  Courtesy of Lawrence Jackson.


  For Jacqui,

  who sees right through me

  and likes me anyway





  A Note Regarding Facts

  Introduction Arugula on Air Force One


  2 How to Not Land a White House Job

  3 Cleared to Work

  4 The Corridors of Power

  5 The Salmon in the Toilet

  6 Is Obama Toast?

  7 Going Eastwood

  8 That First Real Taste of Blood


  10 Juice in Purgatory

  11 The Holy War

  12 In the Barrel

  13 Bucket

  14 The Big Rock Candy Mountain

  15 The Finish Line

  Epilogue Squishing the Scorpion


  About the Author



  About the Publisher


  (on the theory that they still exist)

  I didn’t keep a diary while working at the White House—I didn’t want anything Congress could subpoena. This book is based on memory, vigorous Googling, and stories told and retold to family and friends. To the extent possible, it has been professionally fact-checked. Every quotation includes as much verbatim language as I can recall and preserves, at the very least, the intention of what was said. (I tried to be particularly careful when those quotes are President Obama’s.) For public figures, I used real names; for most others, I used pseudonyms.



  “That motherfucker be sliding!”

  The guy leaning out his car window doesn’t know he’s shouting at the motorcade. Nor, in all likelihood, would he care. It is January 20, 2016, and an inch of snow has fallen on the District of Columbia. That’s more than enough to throw the nation’s capital into chaos. We’re halfway between Frozen and Mad Max.

  Presidents aren’t supposed to get stuck in traffic. That’s one of the job’s best perks. Tonight, however, is an exception. The same snowstorm that emerged from nowhere to snarl Washington’s roads grounded the president’s helicopter. There wasn’t even time to clear a path for his car. The best the military office could offer was an upgrade. Ordinarily POTUS travels in “The Beast,” a tank wearing a limousine costume, but with ice on the ground, thick armor plating has been traded in for traction. Barack Obama is still commander in chief. Markets move on his decisions. Nations can be decimated at his command. But tonight, Barack Obama is also just another middle-aged dad in an SUV, struggling to make it home on time from work.

  At least he has four-wheel drive. Junior staffers like me are in ordinary fifteen-passenger vans. We’re fishtailing like crazy.

  I had not expected to leave Andrews Air Force Base and run straight into a metaphor, but that’s what happened. Washington is hopelessly gridlocked. We’re moving forward more slowly than anyone would like. It seems only fitting my last-ever POTUS trip would end this way, confident we’re heading in the right direction but concerned the wheels are coming off the bus. As we carom toward a bank of parked cars, I can even hear our self-appointed pundit deliver a fresh critique.

  “That motherfucker be sliding right now!”

  Against all odds, we regain control. Our incremental progress continues.

  When I boarded the plane that morning, I was thinking less about symbolism and more about snacks. There was a time when entering Air Force One was like stepping through a closet into Narnia. By my final flight, however, I had developed a routine. Climb the stairs, walk past the conference room, pluck a handful of grapes from the fruit bowl. Hang my jacket in the closet, grab an Ethernet cable, swipe a box of presidential M&M’s. Order an iced coffee, deploy the retractable footrest, put on the enameled metal pin reminding Secret Service agents not to shoot me. Then try to finish editing my speech before lunch.

  Whenever I saw POTUS eating on the plane it was something healthy, usually just a chicken breast and veggies. The rest of us ate food I can only assume was prepared by cannibals fattening us up. The meals were packed with calories, the menus with adjectives. On that morning’s flight out of Andrews, a short one to Detroit, we’d been served creamy Brie cheese with crispy pancetta on toasted rustic garlic bread. The fresh arugula had been topped with fresh cracked pepper and shaved Parmesan cheese.

  I once brought this up with Ted, a crew member. Why were even the “lighter options” covered in bacon bits or doused with melty cheddar?

  “An army marches on its stomach,” he replied.

  That might be true for actual armies, ones with soldiers who march long distances and burn calories killing people. As a speechwriter, I didn’t march. Enemy bullets were not a concern. Food coma was. Aboard the presidential aircraft, I ate stuffed pork chops and crab pretzels and giant cups of buffalo blue cheese dip that were, remarkably, categorized as snacks. After a last-minute edit, I’d reward myself with fun-size Twix or Snickers from the candy tray by the window. Then there were the actual desserts. Who knows how many pecan pies and strawberry parfaits, apple tarts and brownies à la mode I polished off in service to my country?

  IF YOU’D ASKED ME TEN YEARS EARLIER WHAT I MIGHT BE DOING AT age twenty-nine, clogging my arteries on Air Force One would not have made the list. True, I went to Yale, the kind of fancy-pants university where a sizable number of students have been running for office since birth. But not me. I imagined spending my twenties squeezing every drop of adventure from life. I would trek through far-flung landscapes and learn new languages and develop six-pack abs. I would disrupt institutions. I would subvert them or transcend them. But join them? Never. That would be pathetic.

  Fast-forward a decade. I have taken zero journeys of self-discovery, but own a robust menagerie of ties. I carry a thin stack of business cards in my wallet and a thicker stack of backup cards in my bag. Each time I fly for work, an Air Force officer hands out warm towels and addresses me, without irony, as “sir.”

  When I’m not careful, I even start to think I deserve it.

  But events have a way of cutting staffers down to size. Two months before my Detroit trip, I went to see President Obama record his weekly address. I usually hid discreetly in the corner for these tapings, but this time, for reasons that now escape me, I sat front and center. When POTUS glanced toward the teleprompter, we accidently locked eyes.

  Few activities offer less upside than a staring contest with the president. But now, having started one, I didn’t know how to stop. I considered averting my gaze, like a shy maiden in a Jane Austen novel, but that would only make things more awkward. I kept looking at President Obama. President Obama kept looking at me. Finally, after what seemed like hours, he spoke.

  “What are you doing here?” He wasn’t annoyed, exactly. He just seemed to find my presence unexpected, the way you might be surprised to discover your dog in the living room instead of in its crate.

  A different young staffer would have handled the situation gracefully. Perhaps they might have tried a high-minded approach: “I’m here to serve my country.” Or they might have kept things simple: “I’m hoping to catch typos.”

  Here is what I did instead. First, in a misguided effort to appear casual, I gave the leader of the free world a smile reminiscent of a serial killer who knows the jig is up. Then I said the following:

  “Oh, I’m just watching.”

  POTUS took a shallow breath through his nose. He raised his eyebrows, looked at our ca
meraman, and sighed.

  “It always makes me nervous when Litt’s around.”

  I’m 90 percent sure President Obama was half joking. Still, two months later, on my final POTUS trip, my stomach full of arugula and Brie, I was careful to avoid his eyes. Backstage in Detroit, POTUS went through his usual prespeech routine, shaking hands with the prompter operators and joking with personal aides. Then he stepped onstage to remind a roomful of autoworkers about the time he saved their industry seven years before.

  I had written plenty of auto speeches for President Obama. There was nothing especially new in this one. But as POTUS reached his closing paragraph, my eyes filled with tears. I had tried to prepare myself for each milestone: my last set of remarks for the president, my last ride in the motorcade, my last flight on Air Force One. Still, the nostalgia left me reeling. I fled the staff viewing area and found a men’s room. With my left hand, I steadied myself against the sink. With my right, I held all but the first page of my speech.

  You’re supposed to be an adult, I reminded myself. And adults don’t cry in front of their boss’s boss.

  I pulled it together, took a deep breath, and returned to the hold room to wait. Presidential trips are like that. One moment your fortunes are tied, inextricably, to the most important person on earth. The next moment you’re killing time in someone’s abandoned third-grade classroom or empty office suite. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Then a voice rang out from the hall.


  It was POTUS. With his left hand he clutched the first page of my speech, now inscribed with his unmistakable signature. He held his right hand palm up, for a shake.

  “You didn’t tell me you were leaving,” he said.

  “Well, actually, I’m trying to sneak out.” By my low standards, this was remarkably good banter. The president bantered back.

  “You didn’t do a very good job. I caught you.”

  He started to ask a question, but one of his aides gestured toward cameras set up for a post-speech interview. “Never mind,” he said. “We’ll talk more on the plane.”

  We didn’t, of course. On the flight home, the president was busy being the president, and I was busy eating Cuban picadillo with a fresh side salad and keeping my feelings at bay. It wasn’t until we were about a half hour from Andrews Air Force Base that I heard the phrase “bad weather call.” Not long after that we landed in the snowstorm. Not long after that, we loaded the motorcade only to find every inch of asphalt choked with cars.

  And now we’re going nowhere. The light turns red. The motorcade once again grinds to a halt, this time beside a Chick-fil-A. Another metaphor. I’m frustrated and nervous, wondering if anyone has a plan.

  On cue, Sarah Palin’s voice pops into my head. She’s always doing this, showing up when my spirits are lowest. It’s like I have a fairy godmother who hates me.

  “So,” she asks, “how’s that whole hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya?”

  It’s a line she started using in 2010, when President Obama’s approval ratings were plummeting and the Tea Party was on the rise. And here’s the thing: if you ignore her mocking tone and that annoying dropped G, it’s a good question. I spent the lion’s share of my twenties in Obamaworld. Career-wise, it went well. But more broadly? Like so many people who fell in love with a candidate and then a president, the last eight years have been an emotional roller coaster. Groundbreaking elections marred by midterm shellackings. The exhilaration of passing a health care law followed by the exhaustion of defending it. Our first black president made our union more perfect simply by entering the White House, but a year from now he’ll vacate it for Donald Trump, America’s imperfections personified.

  The motorcade keeps skidding and sliding. For twenty miles we veer left and right, one close call after another, until we finally reach the South Lawn. Here, too, I have a routine: get out of the van, walk through the West Wing, head to my office across the street. It’s a trip I’ve made countless times before. It’s also one I will never make again. And as I walk past the Rose Garden, the flagstones of the colonnade pressing against the soles of my leather shoes, Sarah Palin’s question lingers in the January air.

  How has it all worked out?





  On January 3, 2008, I pledged my heart and soul to Barack Obama. There was no formal, lovesick declaration. No one tattooed a Hope poster across my chest. Still, my transformation was immediate and all-consuming. One moment I was a typical college senior, barely interested in politics. The next moment I would have done anything, literally anything, for a freshman senator from Illinois.

  I was not a likely candidate for conversion. The summer before I began working for Obama I interned at the comedy newspaper The Onion, where my boss wore roller-skate sneakers and sold feminine hygiene products from a kiosk at his desk. It was a dream job. I fetched coffee and did busy work. In exchange, I got to sit in on a writers’ meeting and watch a senior editor come dangerously close to a psychotic break. “We’re a comedy paper, not a stupid paper!” he shouted, before storming out of the room. I had never been part of anything so meaningful.

  There was just one problem: I didn’t fit in. As an intern, my biggest responsibilities were proofreading articles and writing jokes about the weather, but the second task kept getting in the way of the first. Each morning, I’d arrive at work and think, Cloudy with a chance of meatballs! I knew it wasn’t funny, but the phrase lodged itself in my head like a mantra, or a tumor. Typos went uncorrected. Run-on sentences ran on.

  Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

  This wasn’t just another job. I worshipped The Onion. I grew up in Manhattan, and I’ll never forget the headlines from the issue released a few weeks after 9/11, when I still thought al Qaeda would kill me before I finished tenth grade.


  * * *


  In that awful moment, a small, satirical newspaper was everything I loved about my country. Defiant. Proud. Optimistic in spite of everything. The Onion gave me hope I might not die a virgin. What could be more uplifting than that?

  But if satire represented the best of America, politics was the worst. My family is a classic American-dream story. My great-grandparents fled Russia to avoid being murdered for their religion. Just two generations later, my parents fled New York City weekends for their country house. I never felt guilty about this. I was raised to believe America rewards hard work. But I was also raised to understand that luck plays a role in even the bootstrappiest success story. The cost of living the dream, I was taught, is the responsibility to expand it for others. It’s a more than fair price.

  Yet the people running the country didn’t see it that way. With George W. Bush in the White House, millionaires and billionaires were showered with tax cuts. Meanwhile, schools went underfunded. Roads and bridges deteriorated. Household incomes languished. Deficits ballooned.

  And America went to war. President Bush invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction, a campaign which hit a snag when it turned out those weapons didn’t exist. But by then it was too late. We had broken a country and owned the resulting mess. Colin Powell called this “the Pottery Barn rule,” which, admittedly, was cute. Still, it’s hard to imagine a visit to Pottery Barn that costs trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives.

  Our leaders, in other words, had made bad choices. They would therefore be replaced with better ones. That’s how AP Government told me the system worked. In the real world, however, the invasion of Iraq became an excuse for a dark and antidemocratic turn. Those who questioned the war, the torture of prisoners—or even just the tax cuts—found themselves accused of something barely short of treason. No longer was a distinction made between supporting the president’s policies and America’s
troops. As an electoral strategy, this was dangerous and cynical. Also, it worked.

  So no, I didn’t grow up with a high opinion of politicians. But I did grow up in the kind of environment where people constantly told me I could change the world. In 2004, eager to prove them right, I volunteered for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

  In theory, we stood on the right side of history. For equality! For opportunity! For the little guy! In practice, however, being branded un-American left Democrats meek and skittish, like the Munchkins before Dorothy arrives. I had no doubt Kerry would make a better president than Bush, yet he never seemed confident when stating his case. It was as though he spent an entire campaign arguing that the most talented Beatle was Ringo. When he lost, I was devastated. More than that, however, I was embarrassed. I had allowed myself to believe my meager actions could alter a country’s course. How foolish that seemed now. How naive.

  I was done with politics. And I was through believing in clichés. “Changing the world” was for hypocrites, the kind of people who were outraged by a nonorganic tomato but never asked questions about their weed. “Taking our country back” was for budding white-collar criminals who wore suits and ties to class.

  And me? Once I realized I couldn’t change the world, I doubled down on making fun of it. My greatest passion in college was my improv comedy group. My second-greatest passion was a humor magazine. When I arrived at The Onion and discovered that my happiest coworkers were goofy, awkward nihilists, I wasn’t disenchanted. I was thrilled. I longed to be charmingly bitter. I dreamed of one day melting down in meetings before storming out of rooms. I was determined to write the best gosh-darned jokes about the weather the paper had ever seen!

  Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs.

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