Demystifying Daddy: A conversation with Brian Abrams about his book, "Obama: An Oral History"
*The following is an edited transcript of a discussion between Seth Richardson of cleveland.com and journalist Brian Abrams, about Brian’s recent book, Obama: An Oral History. It took place at Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland at the beginning of September, 2018.*
Brian: So my name is Brian Abrams, and I wrote a book called Obama: An Oral History. My background, for whatever it’s worth, is oral histories. I’ve done three others, which were smaller digital e-books through Amazon Publishing. One was about David Letterman’s years at NBC in the 80s, one was on Gawker, the now defunct media gossip-celebrity website in Manhattan, and one on Die Hard, which is a weird Hollywood story. It’s not actually about the production. Rather, it’s about these kind of twists and turns in Hollywood and about how Bruce Willis came to stardom. We’re getting off topic from Obama, but it’s important to note that I come from this pop culture, oral history reporting background, versus being in the world of politics, which is relatively new for me.
And over here we have Seth Richardson who’s the lead politics reporter for cleveland.com. We met just a few weeks ago, and he was more than happy to come join me. He read my book, and has taken notes, and he wanted to talk with me about it.
Seth: I actually just put the flags in here to make it look like I read it.
Brian: If you faked it that’s fine (laughs). But please, take it away.
Seth: Thanks Brian, and before we get started I just wanted to say welcome to Cleveland, and also happy birthday. Thank you for spending your birthday with us.
Form, Genre, and Premise(s) of the Book
Seth: Anyways, I read the book, and you weren’t kidding, it moves fast, and it is an oral history so it’s set up a little differently than most narratives, biographies, where author’s really set the scene. You let the interview subjects tell the story here. So I’m curious, why did you decide to go this route with the narrative and storytelling?
Brian: First, I probably should explain what an oral history is. I don’t want this to feel like an infomercial, but an oral history is essentially a story told through quotes, as opposed to your typical book narrative in prose form, paragraph after paragraph.
Seth: You guys can see it here (opens book and shows a page) all the interviews are transcribed.
Brian: Yeah, this format presents a number of challenges. Number one, I went out and spoke to, I think, 113 people who either worked in the White House or in Congress, republican and democrat, or worked at federal agencies, and spent time with them and spoke with them about whatever projects they worked on or whatever moments they experienced. And then I transcribed all those interviews and basically treated all the transcriptions like it was a giant jigsaw puzzle and kind of pieced together this story that tells the last ten years.
It’s difficult in that, when you have a book coming out like say, Bob Woodward’s (Fear: Trump in the White House. Simon & Schuster, 2018) who’s spoken to a number of Trump administration officials on background, meaning, he sat down, interviewed someone from say, the Pentagon or the National Security Council. They give him information, he doesn’t attribute their name in the book, but we do hear that such and such happened at a meeting, and Trump was called an idiot again. There’s more detail but it’s anonymous. In my case, each participant is on the record, which is difficult to get people to agree to, whether they work in Hollywood or they worked in the White House and are especially protective of whatever administration they were in’s legacy. So, getting access to these people was very challenging. And I would say past that, the other challenge, was that once you get these people to agree to talk to you, how can you be sure that they’re not just giving you fluff? Not that they’re lying, but how can you actually get them to tell you their honest opinions and experiences without it turning into a warm and fuzzy softball.
Content, Interviewees, Process
Seth: Yeah, my favorite thing about the book is that you’re not talking to a lot of the politicians,. You’re talking to staff, a lot of campaign operatives who were really the ones doing the day-to-day work. And politicians aren’t always the most forthright. The staff, on the other hand, will usually a bit more frank with you. Did you make a concerted effort to interview staff rather than elected officials, or is that just sort of how it happened?
Brian: A little bit of both. I would say that I definitely wanted names, just because I think that it would be weird to have an oral history of a presidency, which is already crazy to do anyways, and not have the more “celebrified” names from the Obama years, whether it’s a David Axelrod or a Rahm Emanuel, names you see in newspapers all the time, or as you mentioned members of congress, getting Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, and Scott Brown who famously won Ted Kennedy’s seat in the senate in 2010, it was important to me that I get these popular names. But I think the thing I became most concerned with, and I figured it out quickly, was that I really tried to avoid people who were in the communications staff, or people involved with communications in any other agency, not that they’re bad people or mean to lie to you, but I wanted policy people who were there when meetings happened and decisions were made, whether it was the Iran Deal, or if it’s for renewable energies in the Recovery Act, as opposed to the people who are commissioned to tell the story and mold it in the sweetest way possible that’s best explained on CNN in two minutes.
Motives, Events Covered, and the Impetuses for Writing the Book
Seth: And you really do go into basically everything. There’s so much about the 8 years of Obama; you think you remember everything that happened, but I’d completely forgotten about the Harvard Professor, Skip Gates, who was locked out of his house , and there were a lot of other things in there. Are there any events that didn’t make it into this book that you wished you could’ve gotten in there?
Brian: Oh sure, tons. I’m glad that you picked up on all of that. So when people say to me, “oh, I forgot about XYZ moment” to me during the year 2011, and I’m 40 years old now, I’m well into the years I should’ve been paying attention to the news and politics, but I didn’t, so to me a lot of these things are new, which I should perhaps be embarrassed to admit. But in the space we’re in today, in this crisis we are experiencing in Washington today, a lot of us are consumed by the political spaces that we weren’t consumed by before. John Mulaney put it well in his Netflix special a few months ago, when he said he didn’t really pay attention to politics before, because we had a smart capable guy in the white house so he didn’t have to bother, and we could just waste our time on stupid stuff. And now we’re like ok wait, what the hell is happening now [Trump]? And to me, I guess this book helped me look back, understand just what the hell the Obama White House was and wasn’t, and what brought us to this point, how much of this is on him and isn’t, and cutting through the Aaron Sorkin-y West Wing pixie dust, if that makes sense. I’m not a fan of The West Wing, it’s a little too sweet for me, and so I wanted [to cut through] of warm fuzzy imagery, self-congratulatory imagery that the White House Communications staff would want us to believe about that White House. I voted for him twice, I supported him, but I wanted to know what it was, without the Disney-fied special effects. Sorry, what was the question again? (laughs)
Seth: Are there any events from the Obama presidency that didn’t make it in here that you wish you’d gotten to talk about?
Brian: Oh my god, how much time do you guys have? The book’s about 500 pages… but it does go by fast. I think the nature of reading quote after quote and the way it’s built, you will feel like, oh I burned through 100 pages and didn’t realize, whereas it’s real easy to fall asleep when reading typical prose form. So I was deliberate: I wanted it to be around 500 pages, yet if I included everything worth discussing it would’ve been this 1100 page reference book that nobody wants.
There is a story on the economics team, for those of you that are interested. There are a couple characters in the Obama story that I really wish would’ve agreed to speak with me. There was a specific story line I really wanted to drive at, but I couldn’t get it. Anyways, there were three people, none of whom would talk to me. One is Larry Summers, who ran the National Economic Council in the White House. He was kind of the top economic advisor. There’s Tim Geithner, the first treasury secretary. And there was Peter Orszag, who was the White House budget director. All three of them, and Rahm Emanuel, but especially Larry on the left, embody this story of after Obama’s election during this time of economic crisis, the ushering in of this sort of Bill Clinton style team, and there was a feeling among progressives that appointing them was a betrayal of sorts, bringing in these more centrist or center-left type figures to run a more conservative playbook than I think voters thought would happen. So, on the one you have that, and you have Larry and his boys club mastering the idea of insuring that the banks were taken care of before the borrowers, the hypothesis being that if big banks are taken care of, then things are gonna be ok, while a lot of people were really hurting.
Another character who I couldn’t get to talk with me, on the other side of this spectrum, is Christina Romer. So she ran the Council of Economic Advisors. It’s this “think tank” in the White House for the president, a bunch of economists reporting on nerdy stuff. You can YouTube Christina and she has a lot of wonderful lectures on the great depression which she’s studied her entire life. And she approaches economics from a very progressive, FDR sort of pro-labor, pro-borrower way, and she had a lot of ideas that were on the opposite of the liberal spectrum, compared to Summers, that would involve things such as, instead of shoring up money for toxic assets at a bank, letting the bank fall and taking the money to create something like a public works institution where the money is lent directly to the people hurting. And the economy will be stable because people will have money to spend. But at the meetings, her ideas would never get past Larry. Anyways, I wanted to get that story really badly, but I couldn’t get them to talk to me.
Seth: So how did you get the stories that you did get? Was it just a matter of cold calling Obama officials? And how did you build a rapport with them in order to get the content you did?
Brian: I mean, with all these oral histories, I start out with zero sources cultivated. So I wasn’t gonna knock on Rahm Emanuel’s door or call David Axelrod right at the outset, because they’d be like, “I don’t know who you are” or “I’m busy”. So I had to build this critical mass up first in order to gain credibility. I got commissioned to do this book in April of 2016, and finished in the fall of 2017. So I initially thought about what my entry way would be, and who would be the easiest person to access first, and there was this story in the New York Times Magazine in 2010 called “All the Obama 20-Somethings” and it profiled the kids in the White House. There were maybe 6 or 7 nice Jewish boys, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, on the Obama campaign trail and they went to work at the White House. They’re all very nice kids, I’m sure they all wear khakis with the lanyards around their neck and everything, and you just immediately could tell that they were very approachable so I began with them. And then on the way, maybe you figure out that there’s a retired congressman and he’ll talk to anybody, and then you stumble upon a couple of nerdy people and you start to understand their work more and they’re willing to talk to you about health care policy, and so on and so forth, to the point where months pass and you do get the guts to call up the Chicago mayor’s off and say, “Hey I’m Brian Abrams, you don’t know me but I’m working on this book, I’ve spoken to 65 people so far, Rahm’s name has been mentioned 29 times. Does he have 10 minutes?”, and you try to make that 10 minutes turn into 20 and get what you can out of him. And it wasn’t just sort of willy-nilly, except at the beginning with the junior aides, I did have an idea of what I felt, or the stories that I should prioritize. I knew that the recession was big, immigration was big, and that healthcare was big, and I had a timeline built at the beginning. And as you go you start to learn that some stories are bigger than others, and you actually un-turn a rock and find a story that really isn’t out there, so you decide to go down that route.
Seth: Yeah, and on a slightly different note, I’m actually from Illinois, so I observed Obama’s rise to the Senate to the presidency, so a lot of these characters are familiar to me. The one story line I enjoyed the most in here was that of Luis Gutierrez, the congressman from Chicago, who really wanted to get immigration done but it just didn’t happen. The issue kept going by the wayside. And you could tell from his quotes just how frustrated he was by what was going on, because first the economic crisis happened, and then healthcare, and it’s interesting because he’s very much a Democrat, and there’s this sort of deifying of Obama now especially, but he seemed raw from the whole thing.
Seth: So after all that what is your take on Obama ‘s presidency
Brian: Now I could have a nervous breakdown right now trying to explain that to you, and I’m gonna give you an incomplete answer but hopefully it’s satisfying.
Look, Barack Obama was the most influential political figure that I’ve experienced in my generation, and there are people in generations before me that have similar figures. But to give him an A-Plus would be weird. We’re not supposed to do that with public servants anyways; you’re supposed to hold them accountable no matter how much you look up to them, and honestly my goal here wasn’t to decide whether or not he was a success or a failure.
I think two things happened. The more time you spend reading up on politics, you discover the things that frustrate you, and yet there’s also another part where you begin to have an appreciation of what it’s like to be a human being in that world every day, trying to move the needle where you can. Now that’s a very cliché answer but it’s true. A friend said something similar, and he’s further left than I am. He said that he’d put Barack Obama in the top 5 or top 10 presidents of all time with the understanding that every president has been bad.
Audience: So what led you to Obama in the first place?
Brian: So, my book editor, who worked with me on the three e-books I wrote, ended up doing hardbacks too. He enjoyed my work so he was gonna keep me working on oral histories as long as I was there, and it was Spring 2016 and we knew Hillary was gonna be president. And he’s very conscious, as he should be as an editor, of the market and knew that a book about Obama would make a ton of sense, he’s a beloved figure, so I think his mind, he was thinking in a celebrity minded way, this would be a high five to Obama and we could move on, but nobody expected the Hamburglar to get elected president, and it did change the meaning of the book in a lot of ways, so the intent changed along the way. So to be honest with you, it was a gig, it was an opportunity given to me that I was happy to wrap my arms around, but it turned into something a lot more down the line.
Audience: I wondered if you interviewed Obama, or if you have an understanding of his reaction to the book, and if you’ve over course of the last ten bookstore gatherings, has anyone come that’s a real Obama hater, I mean we’ve experienced being in a group, it surprises me how intense emotions people still have toward him.
Brian: Yes, to answer your first question, his post presidency emailed me and wanted copies when the book came out, and I was happy to give them, haven’t heard from them since. And I was in touch with their office during the last few months of putting the book together, and one of the guys there was very helpful in giving me information, giving me people’s emails I couldn’t find, or if maybe there was a particular storyline I mentioned, they’d recommend people for me to talk to, so they were helpful once he was out of office.
But I never asked to speak with Barack Obama. With the oral histories I’ve done, in the Die Hard book there’s not Bruce Willis, and with Letterman there was no Letterman, I kind of like not having the central figure in it. There’s this journalist Gay Talese, who wrote a piece in Esquire in the 50’s called “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. It’s amazing. Talese goes out to LA to profile Sinatra. Sinatra’s got a cold, he’s in his hotel room and can’t be bothered. So, the reporter spends his time around the hotel talking to the shoeshine guy, and then he talks to the people in the band and the manger and a lawyer and so forth, and he builds this story without the guy being in the story, and I always find that fascinating, and it made Frank bigger than he was in a way. I also think that it would be so weird if you found yourself in my book, immersed in the immigration story, and you read Luis Gutierrez, who’s this famous immigration policy reformer, and some policy people, and then have president show up, and like a cannon ball in the deep end of the pool, it’s hard to get back on track. Even if he said something average and stupid.
Seth: What has the reaction to the book been, especially with the current political situation? You know, when the president left office he had about 60% approval or something like that, and there hasn’t been a whole lot there measuring that since then, but I would venture a guess that since then as this administration has shrunken in popularity, that the past administration has probably grown some.
Brian: I don’t know. It’s been an interesting experience going around bookstore to bookstore with it, and you do meet people. When you sit down with the average person, I think that they do have a positive feeling about the previous administration. But because the Trump news consumes us all whether we like it or not, it’s hard to get a read of what people do or don’t think of the book. And you know, I actually would’ve liked to see what the reaction to this book would’ve been if it had come out 3 or 4 months ago as opposed to now, because with Trump, if you remember, 6 months, 9 months ago, the New York Times was writing stories about him in his bathrobe, and there was this feeling that there was this bumbling rookie in the White House who didn’t know what he was doing. And I’m not saying he learned, he’s still the same guy, but the media story changed around May. I felt like, things changed. He got rid of a lot of people in his way, Tillerson, McMaster, you know he’s bringing in the guy with the mustache from Fox News, he ripped up the Iran Deal, he really got these people who were acting as obstacles out of way and he got to embrace his authoritarian instincts more and it’s almost as if when you read news stories about him now that it’s just more accepted. He’s the president, and it’s scarier, and it’s harder to want to take a second to look back given where we’re at now. So I’m curious how this book would’ve been taken in the bathrobe days.
Seth: What do you think the Obama detractor can learn from this book? It’s not necessarily a pro-Obama book by any means.
Brian: The Obama detractor I thought of when putting this book together, and the one I was concerned for, wasn’t the one who thinks he’s born in Kenya and is a secret gay Muslim who kills people… well he did kill people… but I thought of people on the left. I thought of their critiques that feel way more based in reality. Not necessarily a Jill Stein weirdo, but people that were concerned about the drone program, and people concerned that the Treasury Department presumably helped people with their foreclosures but didn’t.
In the book you’ll see two things at once. For instance there’s an episode in the second term where you’re seeing a group of outreach people trying to deal with the fact that the healthcare website crashed, and this is after 2 year of building this policy and trying to get people signed up, and the damn thing won’t work, and they try to figure out how to get traffic back and hatch this plan to get Zach Galifianakis to do this thing on “Funny or Die”, and to them it’s a success story. And yes, the website did end up working. But you step back and you’re hearing these people use this lifeless kind of corporate managerial speak, and the big goal is to use an internet TV show to get everybody to go to a website, and you go, “well this is not FDR at all! This is not what I think of when I think pro-worker democrat.” And there’s a lot of that, David Ploffe just reminds you of that dead soul, lifeless DC kind of mentality that feels detached. And I’m hoping that comes through in the book.
Seth: Do you think you got more from these people because Obama was no longer in the White House?
Brian: No. I wasn’t out to get Obama, I just wanted to be authentic, and it turned out that some people’s corporate speak is just how they are now. To get people to open up had nothing to do with whether Obama was in office or wasn’t in office. I figured out that focusing on policy and actual work is the thing that made them comfortable. If you ask for gossip-y details about political relationships, to take you through a day in the life of the White House, people will clam up. And so if I just asked about the policy, if I get someone to talk about, say, climate change, and we talk about what they did in piecing together the Paris Accord, they nerd out about it, because that’s what they’ve devoted their life to. It’s just like any one of us. They just naturally let other things slip because they are on a roll.
Brian Abrams is the author of three bestselling Kindle Singles oral histories: And NOW…An Oral History of Late Night with David Letterman, 1982–1993; Gawker: An Oral History; and Die Hard: An Oral History. He has written for the Washington Post Magazine, Time, and The Lowbrow Reader. He lives in New York City. You can visit www.brianlabrams.com for more information and follow the author on Twitter @BrianAbrams.
Buy the book here or at Loganberry Books.