'Vanity Fair' Editor Gushes to NBC's Lauer About Obama's 'Revealing' Basketball Game

Promoting his fawning profile of President Obama for the October issue of Vanity Fair on Tuesday's NBC Today, contributing editor Michael Lewis described a game of basketball he played with the commander in chief: "...it was actually very revealing...he doesn't let anybody treat him like the president. If you're watching the game, you'd have no idea who – which one is the president...he likes a really challenging environment...it's a relationship among equals." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

The gushing from Lewis was prompted by co-host Matt Lauer wondering: "What did you see about the way he [Obama] handles himself on the court that sheds some light on his personality and how he might handle himself in the job?" Lewis observed: "...he's effective on the court, he's a good basketball player – but he plays a game that seems very risk averse....But then all of a sudden, when there's a risk to take, it's boom. He's got the personality of a sniper."

Prior to the basketball conversation, Lewis touted Obama's decision-making process: "...he got rid of all of his suits except for blue and gray suits. He doesn't think about what he eats, someone just gives him what he eats, and he does this very intentionally....he sort of created this environment in which he's got maximum energy to make the difficult decisions."

After previewing the upcoming puff piece, Lauer raised the possibility of Lewis being soft on Obama: "Access is a great thing, but is too much access something that impacts the final product? In other words, do you ever feel the need to repay a guy who's been generous with his time by taking some of the rough edges out of a piece?"

Lewsis denied any such bias: "He gave me a great privilege. He let me get to know him, over a long period of time he really let me get to know him....I forget whatever obligation I have to anybody but kind of my vision of what I saw. So I didn't feel any obligation to him. Once it's done, you kind of wonder what he thinks about it."

Lewis has made his liberal leanings clear in the past. Appearing on NBC's Rock Center in 2011, he urged viewers to "get out into the streets with the Occupy Wall Street movement and protest."


Here is a full transcript of the September 11 interview:

7:13AM ET

MATT LAUER: The presidential election now just eight weeks away and the upcoming October issue of Vanity Fair takes a closer look at job of commander in chief. Contributing Editor Michael Lewis was granted exclusive access to President Obama to get a sense of the man, the office, and life inside the White House. Michael's also the author of Boomerang, a look at the global financial crisis that's now out in paperback. Michael, good morning. Good to see you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Good to see you.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: "Obama's World"; Inside Look at the President]

LAUER: Talk about another one of your book's, in Moneyball you talk about the fact that Major League Baseball and its officials take a closer look and a different look at the value of players and what they're worth and how to judge them. We're about to judge the worth and value of a man, the President of the United States, in this election. Do we use the right criteria?

LEWIS: No. You know, I think one of the reasons I got interested in doing this piece, of kind of walking into Obama's life, was it struck me, I mean, just looking at it from afar, that some of the problems that used to infect the evaluation of pro athletes, that pro sports has gotten over, is sort of like how to separate out luck from skill and how not to blame, you know, assigning credit and blame where credit and blame is due on a baseball field, but we don't really do in political life, and especially with the president. He's forever credited and blamed for things that he actually has often very little control over.

LAUER: You played a kind of game with the President where you said to him, 'Mr. President, let's assume that you're no longer president and I'm president,' meaning you.

LEWIS: Yeah.

LAUER: 'What are the things I need to know about this job?' And you took a few passes at this.

LEWIS: You know, I had to do it a few times. Because he – it took him a little while to get used to the idea that I was president.

LAUER: And that he wasn't.

LEWIS: That he wasn't. He didn't like that. He-

LAUER: But what did he say was important for you to know?

LEWIS: Well, the first thing out of his mouth was essentially it's a decision-making job. I mean, there are other aspects to the job, but in the modern world, the range of decisions that a president is presented with in realtime is extraordinary, and the kind of decisions that get to him are always hard decisions, so there's never-

LAUER: No one else has been able to solve them. That's why they end up on the desk?

LEWIS: That's right. If it's an easy decision, he doesn't see it. So everything he sees is like 51/49. And the question is, how do you sort of structure your environment so that you maximize the likelihood that you're going to make good decisions?

LAUER: And one of the things he says is take as many big decisions, or even trivial decisions, out of your personal life so that you can concentrate on the decisions in your professional life.

LEWIS: So for example, he got rid of all of his suits except for blue and gray suits. He doesn't think about what he eats, someone just gives him what he eats, and he does this very intentionally. He says that, and this is very true, if you go shopping in Costco, you notice, that if you have to make lots of little decisions, first, it's exhausting, and it degrades your ability to make the big decisions. So he tries to, he sort of created this environment in which he's got maximum energy to make the difficult decisions.

LAUER: I mentioned the game you played with him. Another game you played with him was basketball. You actually took part in his regular game of basketball, which is a fairly intense game the way you describe it. What did you see about the way he handles himself on the court that sheds some light on his personality and how he might handle himself in the job?

LEWIS: You know, it was actually very revealing, because I had no idea what kind of game this was. And it was a game of – it was essentially a pretty good college basketball game that he joins when he has time to do it, and he is not a pretty good college basketball player. He's – at the age of 50, he's a marginal player in that game, and nobody – he doesn't let anybody treat him like the president. If you're watching the game, you'd have no idea who – which one is the president, so he likes – first, that he likes a really challenging environment. And second, that he likes relationships with people that are – it's a relationship among equals. He loves the fact that people are backing him down and knocking him in the mouth and so on and so forth, but he's – he plays a game – he's effective on the court, he's a good basketball player – but he plays a game that seems very risk averse.

LAUER: Right.

LEWIS: But then all of a sudden, when there's a risk to take...

LAUER: When the right moment occurs.

LEWIS: ...it's boom. He's got the personality of a sniper.

LAUER: Real quickly, access is a great thing, but is too much access something that impacts the final product? In other words, do you ever feel the need to repay a guy who's been generous with his time by taking some of the rough edges out of a piece?

LEWIS: So look, he gave me a great privilege. He let me get to know him, over a long period of time he really let me get to know him. And that made my job very easy. But this is – I think this is true of a lot of writers. Something comes over me when I see a blank sheet of paper and I forget whatever obligation I have to anybody but kind of my vision of what I saw. So I didn't feel any obligation to him. Once it's done, you kind of wonder what he thinks about it.

LAUER: Michael Lewis, and the piece is in the October issue of Vanity Fair. Michael, thanks. Good to see you.

LEWIS: Thank you, Matt.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC