* * *
(This interview was conducted some 15 years before former President Obama's recent death. At the time of the interview he had rarely been seen or heard in public for nearly ten years. After the interview I decided to withhold publication during the President's lifetime. I hope the reason will be clear.)
It was late on a summer evening when my wife came to me and said there was a man who claimed to be from the Secret Service at our door, wishing to speak to me. We invited him inside once we decided he was who he said he was, and served coffee to him while he told us what he wanted from me. The conversation was short. Former President Obama was nearly finished writing a book about his political career, and had decided he would like to do a short interview with me, to be released shortly before the book would be published. He was familiar with my work and admired my interviewing style, which he described as “uninstrusive and to the point.”
We agreed on a date a week forward. I was told I could take notes and bring a recorder, though no video would be allowed. Anything else I needed would be supplied to me. I would, of course, be searched before meeting the President.
About six o'clock p.m. on the scheduled day a dark, official looking car pulled into my driveway. Two agents sat in front, with me alone in the back. “We'll be going to the airport first, then flying to where the President is staying,” said the apparent agent-in-charge. “We expect you won't mention in your article exactly where you met the President.” I nodded and tried to relax as much as the circumstances allowed.
After about an hour of flying in a small jet we touched down at an air field on the outskirts of a small city. We drove off in another dark official car along country roads until we came to the grounds of an estate, at the center of which was a large colonial building made of brick, covered in faded white paint. On entering the building one of the agents waved a detection wand over me while another patted me down physically, and then the agent in charge said to me, “Come this way. The President is ready to meet you.”
Down a hall and through a large oak door I went, and there stood the President before his desk, hand outstretched.
“I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Jackson. It's good of you to come here tonight.” I shook his hand and expressed my gratitude that he had selected me to be his interviewer, and then I sat down in a chair by the desk as he indicated. The agent-in-charge set a tray with coffee, cream and sugar on a side table next to me.
I hadn't seen a photo of the President since he had essentially disappeared from public view years earlier. He looked well and fit for a man of his age, especially a man who had taken on the difficult job of being president. His hair hadn't gone completely white but it wouldn't be long before it did. His eyes and face were clear, but I thought he had the face of a man who'd experienced more sadness than he might have expected.
The President sat down behind his desk and asked me a few questions about my career, my family, and whatever it was I was working on at that point, while I set up my recorder and made a few notes. Once I was comfortable and ready, he put his hands behind his head and leaned back.
“Okay, let's do it.”
What follows is everything he said to me that night.
JACKSON: Mr. President, thank you very much for giving this interview, your first interview after many years, our readers will recall. It's a great honor for me.
PRESIDENT: You're welcome. I've thought long and hard about how to do this. I've admired your work for a long time. I think we'll do fine here.
JACKSON: Mr. President, could we start by finding out why it is you've decided this is the moment to return to the public conversation?
PRESIDENT: Certainly. I've had a long time to think about my career and my life. I have much in common with a good many politicians in that there is a consensus of opinion about my accomplishments, my failures, and the impact I've had. Over time there comes to be a general agreement about what was good about a politician and what was bad. There are always disagreements about some issues, but mainly it's either thumbs up or thumbs down as far as history is concerned. And I think that the judgement of history is usually sound over time, and that people do come to understand the careers of politicians clearly.
So there is a general agreement about what my Presidency has meant. The difference between myself and most other politicians, however, is that the general agreement is wrong.
JACKSON: That's not exactly what I was expecting to hear.
PRESIDENT: No, I know it's not. And that's why I have you here. The book I'm writing is going to stir things up in unexpected ways, and I think this interview will help prepare folks for that.
PRESIDENT: Yes, and I'll tell you why. I'm viewed as having had certain goals that drove me to into politics, to eventually run for President, and then pursue the policies my administration adopted. Everything about my education and career points to that conclusion. What will be shocking to people is that in all that time I never revealed to anyone but Michelle what my true intentions were from the beginning.
JACKSON: Your true intentions?
Let me ask you, how would you characterize my political leanings, or better, how would most people describe my politics?
JACKSON: Well, they would say you were a strong liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. That is how I would describe you, certainly.
PRESIDENT: Of course, and based on what people know about me, you would be correct. But the truth is that is not how I view myself, quite the reverse.
JACKSON: I don't quite know how to react to that.
PRESIDENT: I know. From what you know now, it doesn't make much sense. So let me start from the beginning.
Anyone who is familiar with my life story will tell you that I was raised in an environment that was very liberal politically. Actually, I was raised by socialists and Marxists. During my career anyone describing me as a socialist found himself attacked by people on my side of the aisle, but it is simply a fact. My father was a Marxist, my mother was a radical in the SDS vein, and most of the adults and teachers around me at least had strong leftist sympathies.
This was the '60s and '70s, after all, when that stuff was fairly common, like it was back in the Depression in the '30s. Everything for these folks was class struggle, capitalist conspiracies, racism, exploitation, the military-industrial complex, international warfare, and so forth. I learned it backwards and forwards, the polemics and dialectic, until it was in my bones. Over time people in that circle started looking on me like basketball folks look on a kid who can run rings around everybody else on the court. I was somebody to watch. I was going places where they couldn't ever go, because they would never be as agile socially and rhetorically as I was. I suppose I was kind of a punk as far as that went, but I knew how to tone it down. Those people were looking for big things from me.
JACKSON: Yes, I think so.
PRESIDENT: Okay, good.
So while I was sopping up everything they had to teach me, there were some things that started to bug me. Somewhere along the way I started to notice that a lot of these leftist folks who were teaching me really weren't all that nice as people. I mean, I'd visit friends of mine at home, for dinner or the weekend, whatever, and some of my friends came from seriously religious families, or maybe they were just what you'd call hard-working types, families where people spent their time making a living, raising their kids and having a bit of fun on the side. They didn't worry much about politics. If they did mention it they would say “those politicians are all the same, they're all crooks,” that kind of thing. It wasn't part of their world, really. But a lot of times my friend's mother could cook up a storm and if you were in trouble they'd help you any way they could. I started noticing that a lot of the leftist folks I was around weren't that way. Most of them couldn't cook to save their lives, and they didn't have the kind of easy generosity I'd see in some of those families I would visit.
It's hard to say all of what was going on in my mind. I mean, my old man left me and my mom. That's not exactly unusual, but when you're a kid you think, what the hell is that? What kind of a guy does that to his kid? So I had those kind of feelings gnawing at me too, along with what I was starting to see in the people around me.
So I started looking at the things they were teaching me in a different light. But I didn't let any of those people know what was going on. I knew they wouldn't approve, of course, and I didn't know exactly what it was I was looking for myself.
Now the first place where I split with them was on the Soviet Union. Here you had a country that was the driving force of socialism in the modern world. Its revolution had inspired so many in Europe and America to become socialists or communists, but it just wasn't a very good place if you looked at it clearly. Nobody was free. You couldn't say what you thought, couldn't live where you wanted, couldn't leave the country if you wanted, all the kind of stuff people here took for granted. Most of the left had denounced Stalin after the revelations about him, but they still looked on the Soviet Union as a work in progress, a good idea that had been hijacked by the wrong people. Or they thought America and the western democracies were as bad in what they did.
To me that just didn't make sense. If the only places that have taken up the political system you advocate have turned into tyrannical hellholes, why would you think your political system still makes sense? I finally couldn't swallow it anymore. Still, I didn't say anything. These weren't people who were going to take kindly to finding out their star pupil was turning into a Republican. I really wasn't prepared at the time to take the kind of grief they would have dished out.
JACKSON: How did that make you feel?
PRESIDENT: Not good. Very isolated. That was my late teens, that's a tough time for just about everyone, especially when you have confusion about your place in the world. That's when I started taking drugs. Thankfully that never got to be a big problem for me. Some of my friends weren't so lucky.
But once I got back into studying again, I took a good look at what was going on in the country. This was in the early part of the Reagan presidency. I'd pretty much sailed through late '70s and Carter doing my own things, I didn't pay much attention to the national scene. Suddenly we had the most conservative president since the 1920s winning the election by a landslide. He was despised bitterly by the left, but he was popular with a lot of other folks, and he never did lose their support. I think the anger against him went beyond politics, though. He was like a throwback to the days of black and white movies, when guys worked their whole lives at jobs they hated and you got called a whiner if you complained about it very much. He had suits like something Dagwood Bumstead would wear, and he had a way of making points with a twinkle in his eye that just drove the left absolutely nuts. I didn't know what to make of him at first.
Now there were contraditions in Reagan's record and people are going to be arguing about him for a long time, but what changed me was I came to appreciate the conservative notion that the government is best that governs least. We hadn't heard much of that idea since Calvin Coolidge, and to a lot of people the concept was insane, it was heresy. I spent about six months then learning about conservative ideas, the free market and some of the libertarian guys, though that stuff was harder to find out about back then. And almost impossible to talk about to people. They just didn't get the idea that you can mean well and still screw everything up totally, the whole unintended consequences thing, you know.
JACKSON: This was happening when you were an undergraduate?
PRESIDENT: Yeah. I was still partying a lot but I made sure to leave time for looking into all this stuff that was puzzling me.
After that I started wondering what the hell I was going to do about it. As far as anyone else knew, I was a budding superstar of socialism. I was a black kid who could talk rings around some of the smartest prep school white kids, a black kid who didn't come off as angry or threatening. Not to make too much of it, but like I told Harry Reid, I had a gift. People liked me, they trusted me, and they'd listen to me. I could convince some people to believe things that they would reject from someone less convincing that I was. That's how I saw myself then, anyway.
At that point I came to a crossroads. What was I going to do? On the one hand, I could become a liberal Democrat politician and see where that took me, all the while believing none of it. Or I could change my stripes and become a conservative, a black conservative at that. Doesn't sound like a problem now so much but back then that was like showing up at a drug party in a cop uniform. I'd be guaranteeing myself a lifetime of rejection and abuse from my own people and lots of liberals, too. Or I could bury my political inclinations and follow a career that might make me rich, and maybe a little happy, too. None of those options were very appealing to me. I had a problem and I didn't know what to do or who to ask about it, so I just clammed up on it and let it ride for a while.
JACKSON: That must have been a very difficult time. I don't know if I can imagine how you must have felt.
PRESIDENT: Yeah, well it was hard but it certainly wasn't the worst time in my life. Like I said, I just let it ride, but in a couple of months I started to get a picture of what it was I wanted to do. And it shocked me once I realized what that was. I woke up in sweats a couple of nights dreaming about it.
What I decided to do was spend my career pretending to believe what I no longer thought was true. I would do it with such determination and skill that my leftist credentials would never be questioned. I would be an absolute hero to the socialist set. That might sound insane, but I decided I had a good reason to do that.
I'd observed that the government in the United States had in the 20th century been getting larger and larger, nipping at the edges of everyone's rights in a thousand different ways and endlessly devouring resources. It made people feel helpless. How do you stop a monster like the federal government? How do you get people to realize what a threat it is to them?
Becoming a conservative and arguing for it one forum at a time looked to me to be a lost cause. I knew it would be an honorable way to spend my life, but I doubted it would have much effect on things in the end. Back then you had the example of Barry Goldwater, one of the first modern conservatives, who was honored in his own circles but considered to be a bit of a nut by many others. Reagan was well liked and he was doing good, helping to bring back a strong economy and fighting the Soviet Union, but I didn't see how he or his followers were going to prevail in the long run. I thought the Republicans would come to be distracted by the perks that they'd get with big government and forget about Reagan. Unfortunately, I think I was mostly right about that.
In the end I decided to become what I'd call a nihilist for liberty. My purpose from that point on was to work to make the government so big and intrusive that the people would finally have to rise up and kill it if they ever wanted to be free again.
JACKSON: I – that has to be the most incredible thing I've heard in my life. And you never told this to anyone?
PRESIDENT: No, I told it to Michelle, remember? We were pretty far into our relationship when I sprung it on her. First she got mad at me, and she wouldn't talk to me for a few days. I didn't push it after that. Sometimes I'd say something dismissive about one of our lefty friends or about something somebody was up to, and she'd look at me at little funny. I suppose she was wondering if that crazy notion was still in my head. But I loved her, you know, really loved her. I figured I could give her a good life even with all that going on in my head. And to tell the truth, it wasn't really all that hard to live that way. It wasn't like being in a commie cell in the old days, where they had to always watch out for spies and traitors. The people in our circle didn't hide what they believed. If you walked like a duck and talked like a duck, they weren't going to question you much if they heard some off notes from you. They really weren't all that bright, frankly.
JACKSON: I hope you won't take offense to this, but I have this nagging feeling you're playing a joke on me, Mr. President. Is all of what you've said here true?
PRESIDENT: Oh yeah, true as could be. No offense taken. I suppose if someone told me a story like this, I'd have trouble believing it too.
So that's what I did my whole career. My silver tongue took me all the way to the presidency, and from there I set in motion an expansion of government like nobody has seen in the United States before or since. I took a bad economic situation and I made it as bad as I could, any way I could think of. I tried to make people feel small and threatened by the federal government, and if anyone objected, I did my best to make them look like fools or nuts. And through it all I heard hardly a peep against it from my own party—when they thought they were winning, they were like pigs in slop. And there were folks on the other side who didn't really mind what I was doing that much, either. A lot of them.
Yeah, what I did when I was President seems crazy, but I had to do it. And I did it mainly for the kids. We had generations of Americans who'd become accustomed to Uncle Sugar taking things over, killing their initiative, their spirit, their resolve. I had to make things so bad that even the kids would catch on to what happened when the country went down the socialist, big government path. And it caused a lot of pain for lots of folks. But I knew that five or ten years of kids coming out of college unable to find decent jobs, kids living at home until they were getting on 30, having no money, not being able to marry and start families--that was something that would teach them how bad it was to let the government get out of hand.
And for now, you and I are the only ones who know it, but guess what? I succeeded. The vast majority of the country thinks I was the worst President who ever sat in the Oval Office. I killed the national economy. State governments collapsed everywhere when they couldn't get any more money from the federal government. Crime went up because there was no money for more prisons or more cops. I went a long way towards destroying the healthcare system, and who knows how many people suffered because of that. Our military forces had to work on a shoestring, and because of that our foreign policy suffered also, making some parts of the world even more dangerous than they were before I was President. Our public schools, our roads, our transit systems, our internal waterways—so many things we had been able to take care of before I was President got worse because of the policies I put in place. But the worst thing that happened to the country because of what I did as President was what it did to people's spirit. I must have caused more depression and hopelessness than a six month winter, and it was probably worse than that, because no one knew when the winter I'd caused was going to end.
But even after all that, people didn't give in. The rise of the Grizzly Alliance and all that's happened in the last 20 years is proof of that. All those Tea Party people who were so reviled started fighting back, and even when they didn't win they kept fighting, and they set an example. It took years but people went back to reading the Constitution and the history of the country, and tried to figure out what it all meant. And they started to learn how to get back their freedom and prosperity. When so many of the Republican politicians refused to join in the fight against what I was doing, things finally came to a head. Sarah Palin put together her Grizzly Alliance out of Tea Party people and lots of other folks who'd finally had enough of what I'd done. They went back and took over the states and struck back against Washington one blow at a time. The folks back in the states finally realized that Washington didn't have any money left, and when you don't have any money, it's awful tough to push anyone around.
So I pushed them into it, and the people finally fought back against me, and things have been getting better ever since. Sometimes it makes me cry thinking about how long it took, and how hard it was to get it all done, with no one knowing what I was up to. And the truth is for me, now, I'm tired of keeping the secret. I've been holding it in since I was in my twenties, and I just can't hold it in anymore.
JACKSON: What does Michelle think about making these revelations public?
PRESIDENT: Michelle...let's just say I lost Michelle a long time ago. Before I became President she was more directed, but all that glamour and shiny stuff—it got her. Got the girls, too, in their own way. I love them all but we don't see each other much, I'm sad to say.
Mr. Jackson, I appreciate you coming here to talk to me. This has been very good for me, very good.
(At that, we stood and shook hands, and I left the building slowly in the company of the agent-in-charge. It was a very dark, still night, and I could see hundreds of fireflies over the meadows surrounding the estate. As we drove away I lit a cigarette and turned to the agent-in-charge.
“He's not well, is he?” I said.
The agent looked at me for a moment, then turned away. I thought I saw him nod his head slightly, but I can't say for sure.
As of this date, the book President Obama said he was writing hasn't been published, and so far as I'm aware, there is no proof anywhere that such a book even exists.)