Burying the Lede About Buried White House Underground Lair in Vanity Fair Obama Profile


You are hearing a lot about Michael Lewis–usually a genuinely good reporter and explainer and writer–and his "unprecedented deep access" loving encomium to President Barack Obama, decisionmaker-in-chief, in Vanity Fair

You learn, in a piece framed as being about the seriousness of Obama's Libyan intervention, far more about his basketball playing style than his foreign policy. (Don't go too easy on the Prez, or you are out! Alternately, don't hit him in the face; you are out for that too.)

Andrew Ferguson in a funny Weekly Standard evisceration/deep reading of the Lewis profile says of the Lewis piece the exact same thing I said about a past Joe Biden profile in Esquire–that it tells you about the politician in question exactly what that politician wants you to think. What I said about the Biden piece:

It is all so completely inside Biden's own head, so obviously exactly the way he wants to think about and present himself, including the way it deals with his defeats and foibles, that one has to respect the writer's skill as psycho-biographer. But ultimately, this article is a skilled and devoted act of a courtier, not a journalist, and the last sort of thing Americans need from their writers on politics.

This is a common thread, and its actually pretty bi-partisan (McCain got the same loving treatment, mostly), in America's quasi-serious magazines such as Vanity Fair or the various men's magazines when writing about politicians. It's like they are required to take them seriously in exactly the same way they take themselves seriously. It's sad.

Sadder though is how few are focusing on the coolest and weirdest detail buried in the middle of the article, one that should limn in a bigger way than even the rest of this story how, when it comes to government, too often we only know exactly what they want us to know:

Crossing the White House lawn on the way out that morning I passed a giant crater, surrounded by heavy machinery. For the better part of a year hordes of workmen have been digging and building something deep below the White House—though what it is no one who knows will really say. "Infrastructure" is the answer you get when you ask. But no one really does ask, much less insist on the public's right to know. The president of the United States can't move a bust in the Oval Office without facing a firestorm of disapproval. But he can dig a hole deep in his front yard and build an underground labyrinth and no one even asks what he's up to.

The Associated Press wrote about the project, now finished, earlier this month:

The General Services Administration, which oversaw the work, said it was to replace aging water and steam lines, sewers, storm sewers and electrical wiring conduits. Heating, air conditioning and fire control equipment also are being updated, officials said.

However, what reporters and photographers saw during the construction appeared to go well beyond that: a sprawling, multistory structure whose underground assembly required truckload after truckload of heavy-duty concrete and steel beams.

The GSA maintains this structure is merely "facilitating" the utility work. But neither the agency nor the administration will elaborate on its function. Last year, when the project began, GSA officials denied the construction was for additional office space or another bomb shelter. The existing White House bunker, known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, is under the East Wing and dates to the Roosevelt administration.

The GSA went to great lengths to keep the work secret, not only putting up the fence around the excavation site but ordering subcontractors not to talk to anyone and to tape over company info on trucks pulling into the White House gates.

Bonus Tom Waits: "What's he building in there?"