Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace. But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
It was a new feeling, to have so many people hate me. Worse was the realization that this was never going to be cleared up. At no point would some movie judge step forward to declare me innocent of the charges. I had strange thought patterns while lying awake at night or in breaks during the day. I wished, for instance, that I was being attacked over something I had actually done wrong. No matter how many investigations found no wrongdoing, there would be another one. No matter how clearly mainstream reporters saw it was a sham, they’d cover it anyway—it was a story, and I was one of the characters. I started to change—the kind of change that is imperceptible day to day but builds visibly over time. I withdrew into myself, growing distant from friends and colleagues. I couldn’t fall asleep unless I listened to an interview program, Fresh Air, which could distract my mind from worry. I was less joyful at working in the White House, more burdened by it. Without discussing it with others, I nursed a ball of anger deep within me that I kept pushed down—anger at Republicans, anger at the media, anger at the realization that I had no control over what people thought of me. I sensed that some of my colleagues held similar feelings. We worked in the most powerful building in the world yet felt powerless to change the environment around us.
The first of The Guys I called to tell about my promotion to the politics team, I’d known since we met on a frozen tarmac in Elkader, Iowa, in 2007. We’d bonded over a shared love of Jason Isbell and our self-proclaimed outsider status. Neither of us lived in Washington or had any desire to. Of all The Guys, Outsider Guy was the one who I thought transcended the source-reporter relationship, and over the next few years he would become the cruelest, the one whose name I most feared seeing in my inbox. I would eventually create a special dickhead file for his emails. I’m certain that I let him down, too, and that my emails likely wound up in a snaky bitch who pretended to be my friend file. “How cool is that? We’ll get to work together all the time,” I said. The line went silent. Outsider Guy’s demeanor was as icy as that tarmac had been, and in an instant I knew that we’d never go back to being friends. I thought I heard his pit bull mix growling in the background.
Racism was a constant presence and absence in the Obama White House. We didn’t talk about it much. We didn’t need to—it was always there, everywhere, like white noise. It was there when Obama said that it was stupid for a black professor to be arrested in his own home and got criticized for days while the white police officer was turned into a victim. It was there when a white Southern member of Congress yelled “You lie!” at Obama while he addressed a joint session of Congress. It was there when a New York reality show star built an entire political brand on the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, an idea that was covered as national news for months and is still believed by a majority of Republicans. It was there in the way Obama was talked about in the right-wing media, which spent eight years insisting that he hated America, disparaging his every move, inventing scandals where there were none, attacking him for any time that he took off from work. It was there in the social media messages I got that called him a Kenyan monkey, a boy, a Muslim. And it was there in the refusal of Republicans in Congress to work with him for eight full years, something that Obama was also blamed for no matter what he did. One time, Obama invited congressional Republicans to attend a screening of Lincoln in the White House movie theater—a Steven Spielberg film about how Abraham Lincoln worked with Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Not one of them came. Obama didn’t talk about it much. Every now and then, he’d show flashes of dark humor in practicing the answer he could give on a particular topic. What do you think it will take for these protests to stop? “Cops need to stop shooting unarmed black folks.” Why do you think you have failed to bring the country together? “Because my being president appears to have literally driven some white people insane.” Do you think some of the opposition you face is about race? “Yes! Of course! Next question.” But he was guarded in public. When he was asked if racism informed the strident opposition to his presidency, he’d carefully ascribe it to other factors. I came to realize that this was about more than not offering up what some of his opponents craved—the picture of the angry black man, or the lectures on race that fuel a sense of grievance among white voters. Obama also didn’t want to offer up gauzy words to make well-meaning white people feel better. The fact that he was a black president wasn’t going to bring life back to an unarmed black kid who was shot, or alter structural inequities in housing, education, and incarceration in our states and cities. It wasn’t going to change the investment of powerful interests in a system that sought to deny voting rights, or to cast people on food stamps working minimum wage jobs as “takers,” incapable of making it on their own. The last person who ever thought that Barack Obama’s election was going to bring racial reconciliation and some “end of race” in America was Barack Obama. That was a white person’s concept imposed upon his campaign. I know because I was once one of them, taking delight in writing words about American progress, concluding in the applause line “And that is why I can stand before you as president of the United States.” But he couldn’t offer up absolution for America’s racial sins, or transform American society in four or eight years.
None of that mattered to us. The office was filled with young people who spent all day staring at their laptops, communicating by Instant Messenger even when we were sitting next to each other. We spent our days acting as though we were in on a secret that nobody else knew—we were going to win the election, and the more people said we wouldn’t, the more certain we were that we would. The campaign leadership sat in glass offices with open doors. The leader among equals was unmistakably David Plouffe, a short, intense forty-year-old man who spoke in staccato phrases and never showed any nerves. While the rest of us were looking at polls, he’d call all-staff meetings, with all the state offices dialing in by phone, and rattle off the number of caucusgoers that the campaign had reached in Iowa: the phone calls made, the number of doors knocked. In Iowa, he said, “we’re going to drive a stake through the heart of the Clinton campaign.” Every few weekends, we were required to drive to Iowa and knock on doors. Most nights we’d go out to bars where no one knew who we were and no one but us talked about politics. We had all made this bet to work for the underdog campaign, so there was something essential that we shared, the belief that we were doing something both historic and right. It was unspoken that if you ever needed anything—a place for a visiting friend to stay, help with what you were working on, a person to talk to about something bothering you—someone would be there for you. We were down by 20 points in national polls. It was the happiest time of my professional life.
Get a load of this. Eugene Debs, who died back in 1926, when I was not yet four, ran five times as the Socialist Party candidate for president, winning 900,000 votes, almost 6 percent of the popular vote, in 1912, if you can imagine such a ballot. He had this to say while campaigning: “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Doesn’t anything socialistic make you want to throw up? Like great public schools, or health insurance for all? When you get out of bed each morning, with the roosters crowing, wouldn’t you like to say. “As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes? Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” And so on. Not exactly planks in a Republican platform. Not exactly George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld stuff. For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
There is always something sad about the last night of these trips. They consume you for weeks, they move you around—without sleep—for days. You stay in beautiful places, see strange things, meet famous people, and develop an intense camaraderie with the people you are with. But I felt like it was impossible to explain these things to people back home—my wife, my parents, my old friends. It was like you inhabited two parallel lives—one that made you who you were, and the other that was consuming that person, and transforming you into someone else.
This primal instinct to tell a Good Story, the story that people read and share and talk about breathlessly on cable TV, goes back to the dawn of man and always requires tension. The charcoal scrawls of the Stone Age rarely portrayed human-interest stories. The ancient Greeks didn’t do puff pieces. Tension means the subjects of the Good Story (in my case the Clintons) often don’t think it’s good. They think it’s a heaping pile of bias ordered up by compromised, click-obsessed editors and written by unscrupulous reporters with below-average IQs. They think it’s Fake News from the Failing New York Times.