Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
Michael Lewis and President Barack Obama in the Colonnade of the White House, heading toward the Oval Office.Even after his parachute opened, Tyler Stark sensed he was coming down too fast. The last thing he’d heard was the pilot saying, “Bailout! Bailout! Bail—” Before the third call was finished, there’d come the violent kick in the rear from the ejector seat, then a rush of cool air. They called it “opening shock” for a reason. He was disoriented. A minute earlier, when the plane had started to spin—it felt like a car hitting a patch of ice—his first thought had been that everything was going to be fine: My first mission, I had my first close call. He’d since changed his mind. He could see the red light of his jet’s rocket fading away and also, falling more slowly, the pilot’s parachute. He went immediately to his checklist: he untangled himself from his life raft, then checked the canopy of his chute and saw the gash. That’s why he was coming down too fast. How fast he couldn’t say, but he told himself he’d have to execute a perfect landing. It was the middle of the night. The sky was black. Below his feet he could see a few lights and houses, but mainly it was just desert.When he was two years old, Tyler Stark had told his parents he wanted to fly, like his grandfather who had been shot down by the Germans over Austria. His parents didn’t take him too seriously until he went to college, at Colorado State University, when on the first day of school he had enrolled in the air-force R.O.T.C. program. A misdiagnosis about his eyesight killed his dreams of being a pilot and forced him into the backseat, as a navigator. At first he was crushed by the news, but then he realized that, while an air-force pilot might be assigned to fly cargo planes or even drones, the only planes with navigators in them were fighter jets. So the mix-up about his eyesight had been a blessing in disguise. The first years of his air-force career he’d spent on bases in Florida and North Carolina. In 2009 they’d shipped him to England, and to a position where he might see action. And on the night of March 21, 2011, Captain Tyler Stark took off in an F-15 from a base in Italy, with a pilot he’d only just met, on his first combat mission. He now had reasons to think it might also be his last.
Even so, as he floated down, he felt almost calm. The night air was cool, and there was no sound, only awesome silence. He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it. He’d never met a Libyan. Drifting high over the desert he had no sense that he was at once an expression of an idea framed late one night in the White House by the president himself, writing with a No. 2 pencil, and also, suddenly, a threat to that idea. He didn’t sense these invisible threads in his existence, only the visible ones yoking him to his torn parachute. His thoughts were only of survival. He realized, If I can see my plane exploding, and my chute in the air, so can the enemy. He’d just turned 27—one of only three facts about himself, along with his name and rank, that he was now prepared to divulge if captured.
He scanned the earth beneath his dangling feet. He was going to hit hard, and there was nothing he could do about it.
At nine o’clock one Saturday morning I made my way to the Diplomatic Reception Room, on the ground floor of the White House. I’d asked to play in the president’s regular basketball game, in part because I wondered how and why a 50-year-old still played a game designed for a 25-year-old body, in part because a good way to get to know someone is to do something with him. I hadn’t the slightest idea what kind of a game it was. The first hint came when a valet passed through bearing, as if they were sacred objects, a pair of slick red-white-and-blue Under Armour high-tops with the president’s number (44) on the side. Then came the president, looking like a boxer before a fight, in sweats and slightly incongruous black rubber shower shoes. As he climbed into the back of a black S.U.V., a worried expression crossed his face. “I forgot my mouth guard,” he said. Your mouth guard? I think. Why would you need a mouth guard?
“Hey, Doc,” he shouted to the van holding the medical staff that travels with him wherever he goes. “You got my mouth guard?” The doc had his mouth guard. Obama relaxed back in his seat and said casually that he didn’t want to get his teeth knocked out this time, “since we’re only 100 days away.” From the election, he meant, then he smiled and showed me which teeth, in some previous basketball game, had been knocked out. “Exactly what kind of game is this?” I asked, and he laughed and told me not to worry. He doesn’t. “What happens is, as I get older, the chances I’m going to play well go down. When I was 30 there was, like, a one-in-two chance. By the time I was 40 it was more like one in three or one in four.” He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Basketball hadn’t appeared on the president’s official schedule, and so we traveled the streets of Washington unofficially, almost normally. A single police car rode in front of us, but there were no motorcycles or sirens or whirring lights: we even stopped at red lights. It still took only five minutes to get to the court inside the F.B.I. The president’s game rotates around several federal courts, but he prefers the F.B.I.’s because it is a bit smaller than a regulation court, which reduces also the advantages of youth. A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia.
Overhearing the conversation, another player tossed me a jersey and said, “That’s my dad on your shirt. He’s the head coach at Miami.” Having highly developed fight-or-flight instincts, I realized in only about 4 seconds that I was in an uncomfortable situation, and it took only another 10 to figure out just how deeply I did not belong. Oh well, I thought, at least I can guard the president. Obama played in high school, on a team that won the Hawaii state championship. But he hadn’t played in college, and even in high school he hadn’t started. Plus, he hadn’t played in several months, and he was days away from his 51st birthday: how good could he be?