Always More to the Story

May 2, 2011 5:11 a.m.

History is seldom truly settled. Never on the first draft and most often not for many drafts into the future. One reason is that new, unexpected facts radically change the meaning of those facts we already know. It’s certainly low on the list of consequential observations. But late last night, after the shock and amazement of the news began to sink in, I thought back to this moment at the President’s speech at the White House correspondents dinner Saturday night when he mocked Donald Trump for the gut-check decision to fire Gary Busey in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice

But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. (Laughter.) For example — no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice — (laughter) — at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team cooking did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf. (Laughter.) You fired Gary Busey. (Laughter.) And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night. (Laughter and applause.) Well handled, sir. (Laughter.) Well handled.

We know now that Obama had just signed off on the what would likely be the most consequential and high-stakes decision of his presidency and knew a commando team would be going into action in a matter of hours in the suburbs of Islamabad.

Obviously the audience didn’t know any of that at the time. And certainly the speechwriter/joke writer, whenever those lines were written, didn’t know anything about it either. Initial reports suggest that only 5 or 6 people in the White House complex, in addition to the President and Vice President, knew anything about it. (I’d speculate that they were high level members of the National Security Council and the White House Chief of Staff.)

Unlike much of history, where we can hope to at least assemble together a big enough body of facts that we start to get close to something like the truth of what happened, what remains permanently beyond our abilities is to really understand what one person’s subjective experience of a particular moment was. But I’d give a lot to know the swirl of thoughts that were in President Obama’s head when he ran through those lines.

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