What It's Like to Be Filmmaker to the President

In his new book, former Obama staffer Arun Chaudhary dishes about his experiences as the first official White House videographer.

With good reason, 2008 came to be known as the YouTube election. But it was a video that ran while we were all waiting to see if the world's most famous first-term senator would make a go at the White House that was the most consequential, according to Arun Chaudhary's new book, First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time.

This was in December of 2006. The Bears were playing the Rams on Monday Night Football. Before programming, Obama broke in, sitting in front of a desk, formal-like, in front of a flag and family pictures. "Good Evening," he began, "I'm Senator Barack Obama. I'm here tonight to answer some questions about a very important contest that's been weighing on the minds of the American people." Does the new guy coming out of Chicago have the right experience? Is his record all that formidable, wonder the folks on the other side? "Let me tell you, I'm all too familiar with these questions. So tonight, I'd like to put all the doubts to rest. I'd like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America that I am ready ... for the Bears to go all the way, baby." Big grin.

"Try as I might," writes Chaudhary, "I simply cannot imagine this year's batch of Republican candidates -- to say nothing of perennial non-runners like Sarah Palin -- pulling off a fun spot like this; they simply don't have the foundation." The NFL spot made the young filmmaker eager to back a guy willing to make a video like that. His hunch paid off. "It's his naturalness, his comfort in his own skin," Chaudhary writes of Obama, "that made a filmed presidency possible."

Chaudhary traveled with Obama and made videos. His body of work ran the gamut. A "trailer" for an early campaign rally in New York's Washington Square Park cast Obama in the role of superhero. One old-timey comic spot called Iowa Democrats to the Jefferson Jackson Dinner. Chaudhary and the rest of the campaign's video staff experimented with all sorts of things. They posted video of Obama dropping into Chicago HQ to chat with staffers, livestreamed his big speech in Berlin, tracked down and filmed the now-grownup girl from Hillary Clinton's famous "3 a.m." ad. They pioneered a surprisingly powerful new form they called "walkouts" that tracked Obama out to meet an adoring crowd. In the wake of the Reverend Wright mess, a video of making a speech on race in Philadelphia nearly instantly reset the contest.

YouTube helped solidify the idea that Obama was playing a different game. On YouTube, Obama was a considered visionary, a movement leader, the hope of a new generation, a skilled practitioner of the political arts, the master of the long-form answer, and kind of a cool guy.

At some point, Chaudhary writes, he came around to the wisdom of Kate Albright-Hanna, the former CNN producer who led the video team at Obama headquarters. Drop the film-school acrobatics; let the documentary footage speak for itself. "Nothing," he writes, "could be as effective as watching the man doing his thing." The goal wasn't to score a big hit. It was to accumulate lots of singles. Over the course of the campaign, they pulled in some 120 million YouTube views.

Chaudhary writes with the looseness of someone whose political experience consists of being told to tell stories, which means there's plenty of gossipy bits for campaign enthusiasts. Chaudhary was often in the room telling Obama and Joe Biden to turn to the camera just a little bit while sharing an election night hug. There are fun dispatches from the "deeply bizarro" world of political campaigning. It's fun to hear about Usher chiding Leonard DiCaprio for yelling out "Barack, buddy!" on a handshaking line. ("It's 'senator.'") We're told of footage that never made it online, like Obama talking to a robotics worker while doing the robot dance and saying in a robotic voice, "There are no red states, there are no blue states." Please, your country begs you to someday let us see that one.

But mostly, it's a first-hand account of what it means to run for president in the era of abundant video. There's a ready audience hungry for content, the tools are cheap, and web technologies make it easy. To Chaudhary, it's a terrific time. "If there's one thing I learned over those years," he writes, "it's that videos don't lie -- on the contrary, they are the most reliable gauge of truth we have." Obama had it, that leading man thing, and the campaign set out to use it.

The central role that Chaudhary, a film guy and political newbie, played for the campaign might have seemed improbable, but it was part of a strategy. In an effort to play the game at a higher level, digital director Joe Rospars believed, you bring in the people who are the best at what they do. "You can learn the politics," Chaudhary has said. "You can learn how to navigate these worlds. But you can't really learn the trades very quickly." Programmers, graphic designers, animators, and social-network creators (hello, Chris Hughes) were hired from outside the political world.

"Video," Chaudhary quotes senior Obama strategist David Axelrod saying, "could be the life of the campaign online, an authentic mirror of the campaign." There would have to be a lot of it. The campaign brought on two expert post-production people before hiring Chaudhary to shoot. That's how powerful the belief was that the man was meeting the medium was meeting the moment.

Still, there was a lot of making it up as they went along. That livestreaming of Obama's Berlin speech, for example, involved a lot of restarting the old Dell laptop they were using to serve the video out to the world. Obama's Grant Park acceptance speech was uploaded to YouTube from the bathroom floor of Chaudhary houseguest-packed Chicago apartment. Axelrod, writes Chaudhary, thought their first attempt at a weekly address video made the president-elect look like the star of his very own hostage tape.

Indeed, because the documenting of Obama was so cheap, easy, and unobtrusive, it could continue on at the margins. After some back and forth of where Chaudhary would fit into official White House operations, the floppy-haired guy in suits and New Balances became a West Wing fixture as the official White House videographer. He worked on perfecting those weekly addresses, filmed video messages to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year holiday of Nowruz, and invented West Wing Week, a recap reel. His fellow staffers came to crave the validation of being included in the weekly film. He would get in-house emails consisting of sad-faced emoticons when something didn't make it into that week's production.

But things got hugely more complicated when he went on the government payroll. He was, Chaudhary writes, a documentarian peering out from within a very small bubble. There are questions now about whether projects like West Wing Week are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, especially given their small audience; to pick a random example, the episode from a year ago this time has just 19,000 views. The cost, Chaudhary contended in a recent phone interview, was minimal -- nothing more, really, than his time. That said, he did fly the world over, making it to Sudan, the Gulf Coast, Haiti, to capture the critical moments of the Obama presidency. In one head-whipping scene, he writes of the strangeness of having a flight to Iraq chartered just for him so that he could capture the last moments of U.S. combat missions there. ("'Oh, great, when are we leaving?' I asked, setting my camera for very low-light situations we'd encounter between Kuwait City and Iraq. 'Whenever you want, sir. This is your flight.'")

With access everywhere but the Situation Room, he says, he created a historic record of those behind-the-scenes moments missed by the press corps and military documentarians retained by the White House. "I've sometimes thought of myself as the guy responsible for getting all the cutaways and transition shots for some future thousand-hour documentary on the Obama presidency."

The cost, Chaudhary contended in a recent phone interview, was minimal -- nothing more, really, than his time. But in one head-whipping scene, he writes of having a flight to Iraq chartered just for him so that he could capture the last moments of U.S. combat missions there.

He's more sensitive to criticism that his work as a documentarian on the White House staff was, by definition, manipulative. In a defense unlikely to convince many doubters, he insists, "West Wing Week isn't propaganda if for no other reason than because I made it, and I didn't intend it to be." But he's clearly wounded when his friends in the press corps ice him out of an elevator when covering an event at the United Nations. The best revenge, perhaps? When he left his self-created post as first-ever White House videographer last August, the White House decided to hire a successor to fill his job. Having someone with their videocamera constantly focused on the president is the new normal, the American presidency in the age of video abundance.

Maybe video doesn't lie, exactly. But it seems reasonable to wonder how often it leaves us believing the wrong things. Does he really think good on camera, I ask Chaudhary when we talk, means good in the White House? "I don't think authenticity on camera equals that you're going to be the best or most effective politician," he responds. "It's just another fact for the American people to know about you."

The record seems mixed. YouTube Obama was a conciliator of the first order, but that hasn't really panned out. And, sure, Sarah Palin was pretty much done for after her Katie Couric interviews aired. But what about John Edwards? If you never saw him obsess over his hair in that "I Feel Pretty" video, would it have been so difficult to believe that he was the earnest leader of his call-to-action videos from New Orleans? In old video footage, George H.W. Bush has all the charisma of a crashtest dummy, but he's generally considered to have been a fine executor of the responsibilities of the presidency; his son was masterful on top of that World Trade Center heap after 9/11, but things went downhill from there. John Kerry, it's hard to believe now, became famous because of how good he was on camera back in 1971. As a star of the Senate's Vietnam hearings, the man was compelling.

The answer, says Chaudhary, is that whoever you are, that's who you are. "It speaks to the hard truth that if the actor doesn't get the joke, it will never be funny," he says on our call. That's why it was painful to watch John McCain mutter out "complete the danged fence" in an 2010 video. His heart's not in it. In the book, Chaudhary points to Newt Gingrich. Chaudhary can't help himself, he writes. There's something about Gingrich he likes. But his early 2012 campaign videos were terrible. People like Gingrich because he's a bit of a snide jerk, but in his announcement video he tried to come across as defanged and earnest, his head filling up the frame against "what looks like a Sears Portrait Studio backdrop." It's no surprise, according to Chaudhary, that Gingrich won South Carolina after ads ran that showed his meaner side.

All of which raises the possibility that what we're after isn't just stage presence. It's self-awareness. The takeaway from the "Great Debate" of 1960 wasn't just that Nixon looked pallid. It was that he was so insecure that he couldn't bear to accept the studio's makeup help after Kennedy turned it down. In that action we see a lot of what brought down the Nixon presidency. (Kennedy, the sneak, just had his own people do it.) Chaudhary writes that he suspected that Kerry was doomed in 2004 when his balloons failed to fall at the Democratic convention, an excruciating moment for anyone whose appreciation for production values isn't completely swamped by partisanship. According to the book, while practicing for his big Jefferson Jackson Dinner speech in a Chicago conference room, Obama clapped and laughed where the audience would, so as to get the timing right. It's an easy moment to mock. But it suggests a man who knows what he's doing.

I ask Chaudhary for his take on another film star: Rep. Paul Ryan.

Sure, he hasn't yet reached Obama levels of YouTube fame, but his videos as chairman of the House Budget Committee are, as congressional videos go, a revelation. The infographics! They float! Once directed to the Ryan oeuvre, Chaudhary points out one video in particular, a trailer for a series of videos on the budget, that features Ryan "hustling down the corridors of Congress" and speaking, seemingly without notes, for a full minute on the particulars of the budget debate. It is, he concedes, impressive stuff.

But he sees signs of trouble. Ryan's a wonk, a Hill guy through and through. But vice-presidential nominee Ryan is now being asked to play against type. Just after the announcement, Ryan got the C-SPAN close-up treatment as he visited the Iowa State Fair. Ryan discussed visiting the iconic butter cow -- his first -- and gave unsolicited advice to a parent on the merits of attaching something to a baby's pacifier so that it doesn't fall onto the ground. As if Paul Ryan, now running to be vice president of the United States, had no greater concern in the world than sculptures made of food or whether some random Iowa baby's num-num gets sullied. Ryan shut down reporters who pestered him with actual policy questions, saying "We'll play Stump the Running Mate later." As if playing Stump the Running Mate weren't the very thing that Paul Ryan would love most in the world to do.

"I don't think it's a problem to like working in Washington," says Chaudhary of Ryan. "The problem is that he's being asked to be inauthentic." To boil it down, be who you are on camera. If you're no good at it and still want to run for high office, Chaudhary has some advice: There are always still pictures.