In late November 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, President Obama was in Peru for the APEC Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Riding in the back of the US presidential limousine with a few of his closest aides, he turned to his longtime advisor, Ben Rhodes, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”
This struck me as an odd thing for the president to say.
Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not.
It is from Rhodes’ new book, The World as It Is, which I have not yet read. I found it in Peter Baker’s review of the book in The New York Times.
In the following, I will explain why I thought it odd and then mull over why he said it. The purpose of the exercise is to amuse.
* * *
At first glance, Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not. More to the point, the life experiences of Corleone seem to bear little resemblance to those of Obama.
Michael Corleone, as every film buff knows, was not keen to join the Mafia. In his mid-20s, however, he murdered both the drug kingpin and the NYPD captain who had tried to kill his father, Don Vito Corleone, and, badabing, he was in.
Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked.
A few years later, when he became the head of the Corleone crime family, he orchestrated the murders of all his family’s rivals in New York City. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful baptism montage in The Godfather tells the tale. Then, for decades, Michael Corleone controlled the bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder that are the Mafia’s bread and butter. He was cold, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. He even had his brother Fredo murdered.
The scene Obama referenced in his comment to Rhodes is in the final film of the series, The Godfather, Part III. In it, Michael, who had been trying to extricate himself and his immediate family from the world of organized crime by transferring his ill-gotten gains from the rackets to legitimate businesses, has just survived a machine-gun attack from a helicopter arranged by Joey Zaza, who he had personally chosen to take over the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael, now about 60 years old and in ill health, stands in his kitchen and wails, “Every time I try to get out . . .they pull me back in.”
The rest of the movie is a series of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and murders. Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked. The trail of corpses only ends when, much later, Michael, broken, forgotten, and alone, falls off his chair, dead.
Obama has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head.
Now, it is pretty clear what Michael Corleone meant by his comment. He was trying to morph from a shady mafioso into a legitimate businessman, but his criminal past had created underworld entanglements so deeply rooted, so strong, that try as he might, he was never able to break free.
But what did President Obama mean? In what sense did he identify with this tragic figure, Michael Corleone?
President Obama is fit, rich, and relatively young, with a loving wife and family. He can choose from among the endless opportunities available to former presidents, or choose to do nothing at all. He can stay out of the political arena and Washington forever, if he wants to. Hollywood would welcome him. In fact, it already has.
He stepped down from the presidency with his head high, unbowed by scandal. He has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head. There is no Watergate, no Teheran Hostages, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky, no missing WMDs, no Special Counsel to dog his footsteps for the rest of his days. There is no helicopter circling. In fact, some argue that his was an untainted, if not exemplary, presidency. Some even say that his has been a charmed life.
The remark seems odder because there was a more apt comparison much closer at hand.
In the runup to the election in November of 2000, Bill Clinton’s hand-picked successor, Al Gore, was thought by many to be the favorite. But while Gore won the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College, some say because of an unfair assist by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bill Clinton had to give the keys to the White House not to his chosen successor but to George W. Bush, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, gay rights, energy, abortion, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.
Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding.
Before the 2016 election, Barack Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was the clear favorite. But while Clinton won the popular vote, she lost in the Electoral College, some say because of Russian help. As a result, Barack Obama had to give the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, immigrant rights, energy, women’s health, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.
Now, had President Obama said to Rhodes, “I feel like Bill Clinton must have felt when Bush beat Gore,” it would have made perfect sense. True, the bit about “almost getting out” doesn’t quite fit here, in that Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding. Still, the circumstances are remarkably similar.
But when Obama sought to explain himself to Rhodes, what popped into his mind was not the face of the charming former president whose liberal, if triangulated, legacy had suddenly been put in jeopardy by a more conservative successor. No. When he gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.
* * *
While the above should help clarify why I found the president’s comment odd, it does not explain why he made it. Three possible explanations follow.
Peter Baker suggested the first possibility in the NYT review of Rhodes’ book. Here’s the complete line that includes the comment: “In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to The Godfather mafia movie, ‘I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.’”
When Obama gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.
But in The Godfather, Michael was handing over power to Joey Zaza, his chosen successor. Joey wasn’t trying to tear down anything the Corleone family had built; he just wanted it all for himself, and Michael dead. That’s why Michael couldn’t get out. Am I missing something here? Hillary Clinton was Obama’s hand-picked successor. Is she supposed to be out to get him? Is Donald Trump or some other rival that I’m unaware of trying to keep President Obama from “getting out” of politics? Is there some opponent who’s trying either to assassinate him or to “pull him back” into the political arena? No. This explanation of Obama’s comment just isn’t working.
More importantly, is Baker suggesting that President Obama was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder? That doesn’t sound like the kind of analogy that President Obama would encourage, not if he’s proud of his accomplishments. It certainly wouldn’t do much to burnish his legacy. No, Baker’s explanation just doesn’t fit. It lacks verisimilitude.
The second possibility is hypothetical. Given that bending the arc of the moral universe can be very hard work, let’s say that President Obama sometimes resorted to means that ever so slightly trimmed ethical or legal corners in order to achieve the precise curvature that the moral universe seemed to call for at the moment. By employing this hypothetical, we may be able to find a context in which the words that the president uttered in the back of “the Beast” that day in Lima make sense.
Is Baker suggesting that the president was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder?
Let’s say that President Obama quietly approved the fix of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified documents, and her hamhanded attempt to cover it up in order to keep her candidacy alive. Let’s say that he put the desired end, a Democratic successor, on one side of the scale and the means proposed to achieve that end, a political decision not to indict, on the other side, and decided that the greater good would be served by putting the fix in, cut corners and all. When, in spite of the fix, the public’s confidence in Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness plummeted, let’s say that President Obama became more eager than ever that his successor be a fellow Democrat. Let’s say that he approved of an effort to discredit Donald Trump by, among other means, using the fishy DNC-funded Steele dossier to manipulate a judge into allowing surveillance of the Trump campaign. Let’s say that when Donald Trump won the election despite this effort to derail his candidacy the president was concerned.
Let us now imagine how President Obama’s comment might sound in this hypothetical scenario.
A few weeks after the election, President Obama, wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, was riding in the back of his armored black Cadillac Escalade with a few of his closest aides. He was looking through the five-inch thick bulletproof window. He knew that in order to get Hillary Clinton off the hook and to put Donald Trump on it he had done things worse than the Watergate break in. He also knew that, at that very moment, the effort to conceal those deeds was growing a web of semi-transparent lies that was threatening to ensnare him.
If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach. He could have stepped off the board directly onto the sand, a free man. The new president would have had his back and her administration would have been composed of the very people who had helped him to put her in office. He would have been out, scot-free.
He closed his eyes and pressed his right temple to the glass. He realized that he was in a war. He would have to fight or he would end up like Nixon, disgraced. Sitting next to him was his long-time advisor, Ben Rhodes. The president turned to him, sighed, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”
If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach.
The third possibility is not as illogical as the first or as far-fetched as the second. It is this: the president was joking.
Frankly, this is my favorite explanation, in part because it is the least disheartening. No one wants to think ill of the president, do they? And all of that abusing of presidential power for personal gain and self-preservation in the second explanation would make the president seem so grubby, so small. No one wants to believe that possible. People want to think the best of the president, not the worst. Right? I mean, only Vladimir Putin would want the American people to think of their president as a Mafia don.
OK, then. So no one laughed. Maybe Ben Rhodes didn’t get the joke. That’s OK. Apparently, Peter Baker didn’t get it either. But I suspect that if President Obama were asked about it, and he was being perfectly honest, he would admit that he had just been trying to be funny.
Let’s just say.
“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” — Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, July 17, 2018