I began day one of the Obama presidency on my knees. It seemed only polite: a BBC producer and I had invited ourselves in to see the newly installed White House press people, and arrived in the West Wing to find a scene that would not have been out of place in, well, The West Wing.
It was chaos. Cheerful chaos to be sure, but still chaos. People say, “The White House has changed hands” as if the new president’s team just takes over the existing kit. They don’t. Everything is stripped out and everything brought in afresh. I remember in particular the marks on the wall on the corridor that leads from the press room to the Oval Office where the photos of President Bush had been. Why not put up Obama shots? Because the White House photographer has also gone with the change of ownership. A new one has to be vetted and given a camera. Until then: empty spaces.
And we were on our knees because the head of communications had no communications. She had a desk and a chair and a rather nice office but she couldn’t make the phone work and she was trying to plug in a fax machine.
Amid the chaos I brought my young daughter in, invited by a staffer almost giddy with the wonder of having this gift to give. Martha stood at the press room podium amid the pandemonium – nobody really noticed or cared.
The Obama administration began as all administrations begin: wide-eyed and cheerful, plugging in the kit, changing the wallpaper and the photographs and, like a dog that has caught up with the car it was chasing, thinking “Yikes, what now?”
A new four-part BBC series captures that moment, the actual meeting where the fresh-faced Obama team sit around a table and try to suppress giggles of excitement and nerves as they wonder what to try to do first.
Remember, this was a terrible moment to be taking over the White House. The financial crisis was in full swing and the whole edifice of global capitalism seemed about to collapse. As The Onion – the satirical website – put it in a mock headline after the election, “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job”.
So we see them grappling with it. Pretending, rather sweetly, to be air traffic controllers bringing the various measures they have planned down to the runway and into reality. Very soon the planes are crashing, the runway awash with debris and the air traffic controllers pulling their hair out – that too is just the way things work in Washington.
But what this series captures so wonderfully – with the crisply dressed, preternaturally cool President at its core – is the hope that things could be different this time. They really did think they had changed the rules.
I remember asking a senior figure in another West Wing office in those early days why they had decided – in effecting this huge changeover from Bush to Obama – to chuck out the bust of Winston Churchill that adorned Bush’s Oval Office and reminded him of the special relationship with dear old Blighty.
“Ah, you people are obsessed with this stuff,” was his reply. “We thought it was Eisenhower. One elderly white guy looks much like another to us!”
Happy days. But short-lived. And Inside Obama’s White House charts very swift disillusionment and very swift fallout. An entire episode is devoted to the passage of the Obama healthcare changes that are perhaps his greatest legacy – in theory at least, so-called Obamacare ensures all Americans have access to affordable health insurance – but also his greatest political liability, as he allowed the arguments against change to get the upper hand; many of his congressional supporters took the heat, and lost their seats as a result.
And on that subject and others the series allows us to take stock and wonder, with the folks who were there in the Oval Office for all or part of the eight-year journey, “Was it all worth it?” and “Should we have done it differently?”
If you are looking for a slant, a take, a treatment, forget it. The award-winning producers Norma Percy and Paul Mitchell have perfected, over decades of documentary-making, a simple and devastatingly effective way of working. No blowhard journalists. No minor functionaries. No hangers-on. Just the people who were there. The ones you recognise.
And then there’s Obama himself. The President submits to a wide-ranging interview – secured only last week – that covers all the big international legacy issues: the war in Syria, foreign policy in general and climate change. He’s challenged, too, on what for him are the very personal domestic matters of civil rights and race relations, and what he regards as the triumphs and failings of his presidency.
Percy and Mitchell’s style is what persuades the top people that it is worth taking part. Percy told me that the process of convincing the Obama team to allow this access was assisted by one simple human fact: “All politicians wonder about their place in history. These are, after all, the biggest moments in their lives.” The chance to tell the Percy/ Mitchell cameras what they really thought was too much to resist.
Still, she admits that this is not a project that fell into the laps of her team. It has taken a monumental multi-year effort to get this level of access and this level of participation. And what does Norma Percy think we learn at the end of it? “Just how hard it is to get anything done in American government.”
It’s tough at the top. Even when you are Barack Obama. I remember when I interviewed Obama in 2009 he refused to call President Mubarak of Egypt a dictator, because, he said, “I don’t believe in calling people names.” He seemed somehow above the fray, winning the Nobel Peace Prize without breaking a sweat. Working out a new way of doing things.
But as the great political philosopher Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This series shows the blows coming in, the ducking and weaving, the blood and tears: the making, in other words, of the Obama presidency. It’s gripping, sobering, and thought-provoking.
So well done, Messrs Percy and Mitchell. And keep up the good work. I, for one, am looking forward to 2024, and their assessment of President Donald Trump…