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Michael Lewis, Granted Unprecedented Access To Obama, Agrees To Quote Approval

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NEW YORK -- On Tuesday morning, author Michael Lewis described his extensive access to President Barack Obama for a much-anticipated Vanity Fair profile as a "great privilege," in which the commander-in-chief "let me get to know him."

And yet Lewis told "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer that his access over the past eight months -- which is unprecedented during Obama's tenure, and ranged from Air Force One to the presidential limo to the basketball court -- didn't lead to him pulling any punches. "I didn't feel any obligation to him," Lewis said.

But Lewis, author of several books, including "Moneyball," "The Blind Side," and "The Big Short," did feel some obligation to the White House. He agreed to let it sign off on quotes before they could appear in print.

Lewis revealed those reporting ground rules during a Monday night discussion at Lincoln Center, according to The New York Times. Quote approval has been a hot topic in newsrooms during the summer of 2012, following a Times story detailing how widespread the practice had becoming in dealings with the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Institutionally, the White House, regardless of the occupant, tries to exert as much control over coverage as possible. And surely, concerns about how the president is depicted and quoted only rise during the final months of an election year. (So far, Obama has been cautious in doing national media interviews.) So it's not surprising the White House would push for such an agreement, which Lewis apparently didn't see as a hindrance to his reporting.

On Monday night, Lewis said the White House disallowed only a few things over those eight months reporting. While presumably off the record, Lewis still broadly discussed a couple examples.

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 one evening after a particularly trying day, he sat down to watch a movie and surprised himself by suddenly tearing up.

Lewis said on CNBC Tuesday that he got access to Obama after first emailing White House press secretary Jay Carney, telling him that someone should write an "old school journalist style" profile of Obama. Carney called back, by his account, to say that Obama "wants to make it happen."

Lewis said that some White House staffers didn't see the upside of his tailing the president, but accepted that Obama "wants it, so there you go." Obama's staff, he said "pretty much treated me as someone tolerated, but I really think Obama himself was kind of amused to have me around to talk to when he had a free moment."

When reached Tuesday, Carney declined to comment specifically on Lewis' statements on ground rules, simply telling The Huffington Post that "we negotiate access with reporters all the time."

A spokesperson at Lewis' publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, did not immediately respond to an interview request.

In the lengthy Vanity Fair piece, Lewis delves into Obama's decision-making process over what to do in Libya, juxtaposed with the story of Tyler Stark, a U.S. airman downed over the North African country in March 2011. Lewis spoke to Obama about numerous other issues, including his 2009 Nobel Prize speech, life in the White House and views on the media.

Obama, he wrote, "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 about him.

On one occasion, Lewis -- eyeing the five newspapers laid out on the sofa for Obama each day -- mentions that every issue has someone "saying something nasty about you," not to mention "even nastier" comments on television. Obama, according to Lewis, simply shook his head. Lewis also wrote that the president finds cable news to be "toxic" and relayed one anecdote about when ESPN was changed on Air Force One to a cable news show.

"The president walked into the room and watched a talking head explaining knowingly to his audience why he, Obama, had taken some action. 'Oh, so that's why I did it,' Obama said, and walked out. Now he said, 'One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is this character people call 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 filter it so much you live in fantasyland.'"

Lewis' proximity to the Obama is on display throughout the piece, which includes photographs of the two men walking to the Oval Office, on the basketball court in the FBI gym and chatting aboard Air Force One.

During one moment in the White House, Lewis writes that he felt he was taking too much of the president's precious time, "like grabbing water to brush one's teeth from a man dying of thirst." While Lewis suggests getting out the president's hair, Obama brushes off his concerns and instead takes the writer to the Lincoln Bedroom to show him a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address.

Updated with link to Lewis story after Vanity Fair posted full version online. The article was first available in full only in print.

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