Matthew Continetti tells us that Barack Obama began planning his post-Presidency as far back as February of 2012, right after his reelection, meeting and dining with billionaire hedge fund managers, technology executives, Toni Morrison, and Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg in order to have them assist in “develop[ing] a â€˜narrativeâ€™ for [the president] in the years after he leaves office.”
Continetti does not envy all the caviar and Haut Brion. In fact, he visualizes Obama’s billionaire-infested planning dinners as using the same caterer who provided the menu for Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962).
I tried to imagine the scene as President Obama sat back in his chair, sipped his first extra-dry Grey Goose martini of the night, and asked this hand-selected group of bold-faced names, seemingly plucked at random from Time magazineâ€™s â€œ100 Most Influentialâ€ issue, what he should do with his life. The pomposity, the self-importance, the snide remarks, the raised eyebrows, the sidelong glances, the oblique references to Taos and Nantucket and St. Tropez and Telluride, the mutual self-regard, the flattering small-talk, the knowing head-nods and chin-pulls, the pretentious lips-pursingâ€”all of this combustible vanity squeezed into the pressure-cooker of the residential dining room. Itâ€™s a wonder the house didnâ€™t explode.
Because itâ€™s a trick question: conversations about Obamaâ€™s future are really cues to celebrate his past. To cheer his accomplishments, list the ways he has changed this country, explain his historical and geopolitical importance, lament the obstacles heâ€™s encountered from recalcitrant conservatives, obstructionist Republicans, nativist, racist, sexist, backward elements of the population, recount how he overcame them, joke about how he deserves a vacation, mention the best courses he has yet to play, ponder the work of social justice and transformation that must still be done, affirm that history is, indeed, on the side of progress.
And this conversation goes onâ€”on and on and onâ€”with digressions into the latest fads in Silicon Valley and the nuttiest invention Khosla can come up with after two Manhattans, with genuflections at the altar of Elon Musk, explications of the markets from Doerr, Lasry, and Hoffman, mysterious oracular pronouncements from Toni Morrison, bird-like regurgitations of the latest Paul Krugman and Fareed Zakaria columns (how envious Fareed must be that he wasnâ€™t invited!), tedious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other lectures from the president on the lead story in the Times, the most recent editorials in the Washington Post, late night comedy he found unfair, clever â€œThis is Sportscenterâ€ commercials, episodes of Game of Thrones and Homeland, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Jordanâ€™s handicapâ€”and with caustic put-downs from Michele, partisan bromides from Longoria, witticisms spiced with anecdotes from academic studies no one besides Gladwell has read, and bottle after bottle of wine, course after course after course of chewy overcooked hard to swallow smugness.
And then, when youâ€™ve grown tired, when the Grenache is making you sleepy, when all you want to do is retire to the Oprah suite at the Ritz Carlton for a dirty movie and shuteye, the president forbids you to leave. You can be one of the most powerful people in the world, manage thousands of employees, but he wonâ€™t let you go. Youâ€™re stuck! Around midnight, we learn, Reed Hoffman said kindly to President Obama, â€œFeel free to kick us out.â€ And the president replied, snidely, â€œIâ€™ll kick you out when itâ€™s time.â€ And Hoffman sat down, like a disciplined child, because what could he doâ€”even the cofounder of LinkedIn canâ€™t walk out on the president of the United States. So the conversation went on, according to the Times, â€œwell past 2 a.m.â€
Trapped in a room with a collection of pompous and entitled people utterly convinced of their brilliance and moral purity, whose conversation ranges from whatâ€™s in this monthâ€™s Atlantic to whatâ€™s in this weekâ€™s Economist, who havenâ€™t been told No in yearsâ€”and then being informed that there is no escape? This, friends, is the vision of hell that greeted me in Mondayâ€™s paper: not of other people but of self-important ones, in a well-appointed house with no exit, eating an organic gluten-free farm-to-table meal and endlessly repeating the conventional wisdom as if they were coming to it for the first time. To look at the plans for Obamaâ€™s retirement is not just to see that big-dollar fundraising never stops. It is to peek inside the Bobo abyss, to visit the purgatory of the coastal eliteâ€”to enter, in horror, the balsamic inferno.