Obama The Historic Presidency of Barack Obama Book Interview

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One of Tait’s favorite photographs: President Obama breaking bread with the then-congressional leaders House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader John Boehner, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Few presidents’ personalities have emanated through photographs quite like Barack Obama’s. Throughout his 2,920 days in office, President Obama projected the image of a president who was relatable and uniquely human. As the nation’s first black president, Obama represented the diversity of the American experience and decades of progress.

Obama was also a president of many other firsts: the Affordable Care Act was the first American effort to provide universal health care; he was also America’s first social media president. In a newly released book, Obama: The Historic Presidency of Barack Obama — 2,920 Days, the political trajectory of the one-time junior senator from Illinois is tracked through the eyes of peers, historians, and friends.

Written jointly by former Associated Press editor Mark Greenberg and travel columnist David Tait, Obama is composed of essays, speeches, and photos that are being published for the first time.

The anthology of Obama’s legacy paints a complete portrait of a president who laughed, cried, persevered, and compromised. As the Ken Burns-penned foreword describes, “He moved us forward — permanently — in so many ways, big and small.”

We spoke with Greenberg and Tait over the phone to discuss the project’s inspiration, remarkably quick assemblage, and how it shaped their understanding of Obama.

POPSUGAR: This is a fairly easy question, but what is your favorite photo in the collection and why?

David Tait: That’s a great question. It’s not an easy question, but it’s a great question. From my standpoint, the black and white shot right up front [of the book] of the young Obama campaigning in Chicago. I love that shot.

Mark Greenberg: I was looking for just the right photograph to set the tone for where Obama got his start, or as David writes, “The beginning, beginning, beginning.” I came across that in a Google search and, as it turns out, that picture has been quite often stolen by people in the media. I found the photographer, and he is essentially my age, and we both came up in the same way, in terms of our career arc. This guy was just lucky enough to be photographing Barack Obama. And I said, “I have to have that photo.” [The photographer] told me he’s done quite well in the last eight years, basically forcing people to pay for their unauthorized use of the image. So yeah. It’s one of my favorites.

DT: I quite like the picture of Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid facing off across the great divide. It’s a very strong image. It reflects, basically, the divide in this country. If you’ll recall, the rebuttal has continuously complained about not playing by the usual rules of being nice to the other side. So the spread is followed by the powers of the Congress and the Senate breaking bread with Obama. So it was kind of saying, “I don’t necessarily agree with what’s generally been put out by Republican spin machine.”

MG: The other one that is one of my favorites is is of a little boy in the Oval Office feeling the president’s hair. And he asked the question, “Just wanted to see if it feels the same as mine.” He just had a haircut at the time. Imagine if you could ever in a million years see somebody doing that to the incumbent’s hair in the Oval Office. I just love that shot. It shows the humanity of the guy.

In 2011, the president was golfing in San Diego, CA, just as a wedding ceremony was about to begin. Pete Souza captured this stunning moment when the president greeted the bride.

PS: Mark, what is your favorite memory of photographing the president?

MG: Most of my pictures were done at the inauguration. At that moment in time, I was five months out of my bone marrow transplant and at the time of my transplant, my doctors said, “You’re not going to work for two years. So prepare for that.” Well, in November, the day after Obama was elected, I saw that the front pages were going insane, and so I said to myself, “If I feel well enough at the time of the inauguration, I’m going to drive down to Washington.” It was probably the first time since my transplant that I’d driven any more than about five miles, and in this case, I had to drive about 200 miles. The picture that’s in the book, where he’s taking that long, deep breath, where you see it on the big screen, waiting to come out and be inaugurated as the first African-American president — I think there’s just so much said in that photo, not to mention that the elation that you can see going on before this guy even took the stage.

PS: David, I would love to know what inspired you to get involved in the book.

DT: Mark gave me a phone call and said, “Hey, I got a request to do a book on a ridiculously short deadline. I don’t know if we can do it.” And I said, “OK, we’ll do it.”

I was intrigued with the subject matter, obviously, and I thought it was something that should be done. And it was also that there are lots of political books being written about the Obama administration, about every administration, but this was the opportunity to do something that was a little bit different. I mean, there are very much more eloquent and accurate political scholars who have written the academic studies on this administration and will continue to do so. But as Mark pitched it, we wanted to do it with photographs and other things that would reflect on the humanity of the man and his family — just the whole way they conducted themselves for eight years.

I’ve always believed that having a bit levity with any subject makes it that much more relevant and readable. So when Mark said what he had in mind for this book, I thought, “Great. I want to be a part of this,” and jumped right in. And we did; we turned the whole thing around two months or less.

MG: David lives about 70 miles away from me in Connecticut. But for the most part, we were together about four days a week in one or the other’s home.

DT: Burned a lot of midnight oil, drank a lot of scotch.

PS: I’m sure you’re both looking at the recent pictures of Obama on vacation and seeing those as maybe possible runner-ups to be included in the book.

MG: We essentially had delivered the book by Jan. 21 because we needed just the date after the inauguration to include Obama waving goodbye, which is one of the last photos of the book. Then we see in our news feeds that the Obamas were going to Necker. David and I have been to Necker. I’ve worked with Richard [Branson] for 29 years. David’s worked with Richard for about 35 years.

I knew if I could get down there that we’d have time to get it in the book because we were still waiting for Ken Burns’s foreword. So I immediately sent off an email to Richard saying I had a particular need to get down to Necker and he wrote back about an hour later saying, “Sorry, I promised them privacy.” And wouldn’t you know that less than a week later, pictures appear on the internet.

An August 2012 photo of President Obama dining with a family in Columbus, OH, and discussing the economic crisis.

PS: Speaking of Ken Burns, you mentioned that you were waiting for his foreword. What did it mean to have him write the foreword for the book?

DT: Oh, it’s huge. Absolutely huge. I mean, we had access to Ken through a very good mutual friend of ours who works with him on a regular basis. We had our friend say, “Here’s what we’re doing. Would you consider contributing?” And he immediately was all over it.

I thought we were going to have him as one of the voices, originally. Then when we saw what he had written. It was just so beautiful and so eloquently written that we went back and said, “Would you mind if we used this as a foreword?” He said he’d be delighted for us to do that. So it was just terrific.

MG: I’ll tell you what. When he delivered that it was Jan. 26. We were reading this foreword and I just started crying. I think no more than a half an hour later after sending it to my editor, she called and said the entire office is in tears. It was huge to get Ken because he is one of America’s most beloved storytellers.

PS: It’s definitely monumental. I think the foreword captures Obama’s differing public and personal personas. We got to see a little bit of his private persona toward the end of his presidency. How was that represented in the book?

MG: When you look at the timeline of many of the photographs, some of the more lovely and fun, those are in pretty much the later years of his presidency. He definitely kicked back and started being more who he is when the weight of the presidency was something that was kind of in the rearview mirror. There’s a reason that Jerry Seinfeld put him on Comedians in Cars, as we wrote in the Knock Knock piece, was because he genuinely qualified as a great comedian. We know from the White House Correspondents’ dinners, he has incredible timing. So this just comes so natural to him. And it’s just evident in the photos.

I just read somewhere yesterday, somebody speculating that the inspiration for [Donald] Trump to run for president came when Obama took him apart at the 2011 Correspondents’ dinner. So I guess it just goes to show that Obama’s comedy speeches had the ability to be kingmakers, right?

PS: Shifting to Michelle, a lot of women, especially ones on the conservative side, weren’t as disparaging toward her as they were to Obama. In fact, toward the end of his administration, people really saw her as this motherly figure. Could you speak on that?

MG: Here’s a woman who was a Princeton grad, Harvard Law School graduate, and yet nobody seemed to play up the fact that this isn’t just the president’s wife. This is someone who is someone to be reckoned with in her own right. She was probably one of the most learned people in that role in a very long time. I think all the pushback on her husband just meant that people never really looked at her through the right lens. They got to do that later in the presidency.

DT: We were very careful in choosing photos of Michelle, both for a section that is clearly about Michelle and any other pictures where she really showed herself to be as her own person, not somebody who was two steps behind. It was very intentional. Furthermore, many of the pictures were shot that way because that’s the way she conducted herself. She’s clearly a very strong person and you can see the president always treated her in that manner.

During the last months of his presidency, Obama joined Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to honor the fallen soldiers at Pearl Harbor, HI.

PS: What do you think that people will remember most from his presidency? I know that’s a loaded question.

DT: I think the way he will be remembered is being sort of adjusted on a daily basis. Suddenly he’s being seen as the good old days by a lot of people who would never have thought that would be the case 70 days ago. So I think it’s an ever-improving legacy. What intrigues me with it is that for all of the fanfare about the first African-American president, I don’t think he’s going to be remembered as much for that. I mean, yes, that’s a fact. But that’s not what people are going to remember him for. I think they’re going to remember him for — I keep using the word humanity. Humanity, intelligence, calm, common sense. I’m a great believer in common sense as being an endangered species and he displayed lots of it. It’s a very underrated commodity. Mark, do you agree?

MG: I do. I think another word that will come to the fore will be decency. I think perhaps on a more mechanical level, if that’s right word, the Affordable Care Act is going to be something that will last. It’s going to be a thorn in the side for people to figure out a way to make it better. And that’s a good thing too, because here’s something a hundred and some years later that finally happened for most Americans.

PS: Obama has been criticized recently for not coming out and taking a stand against Trump’s policies. What’s your opinion on that debate?

DT: I’m waiting with great interest to see when he’s had a break and when he gives Trump the 100 days or whatever to have his honeymoon. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this man politically; it’s just how he does it remains to be seen. But I think he’s passionate enough about his legacy and things like the environment that are just being swept under the rug. I don’t think he’s just going to retire into the sunset and have nothing to say about that.

Image Source: Pete Souza / Sterling Publishing