Was President Obama watching TV right after the Benghazi attacks?

Tevi Troy Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
Font Size:

One year ago four Americans were murdered at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Despite the passage of 365 days, a number of serious questions remain about what happened that day. One of the biggest mysteries should have been one of the simplest to solve: What was President Obama doing that evening, especially in the hours after the facts of a terrorist attack became more clear?

Obama first learned of the attack at approximately 5 pm EST. In the 17 hours that followed from then to his official statement the next morning at 10:35 am EST, we still do not know much about his whereabouts, especially during the crucial six-and-a-half hours from 5 pm until 11:30 pm, when the attack was taking place.

One theory of what Obama was doing, put forward by the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway, was that Obama spent at least a significant chunk of that time watching TV. This is not at all an implausible theory. Obama frequently spends his evening hours watching television, first with his family, and then by himself, in the hours of 10 pm to 1 am, after Michelle goes to bed. As Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis has reported, “From the time his wife goes to bed, around 10 at night, until he finally retires, at 1, Barack Obama enjoys the closest thing he experiences to privacy: no one but him really knows exactly where he is or what he’s up to. He can’t leave his house, of course, but he can watch ESPN, surf his iPad, read books, dial up foreign leaders in different time zones, and any number of other activities that feel almost normal.”

Obama’s love of TV is in keeping with childhood. By his own admission, Obama watched an enormous amount of television while growing up with his TV-loving grandfather in Hawaii. According to Obama’s memoir, he watched TV – cartoons, reruns, then sitcoms – pretty much from the moment he came home until the moment he went to bed at night. His grandfather was a big fan of Johnny Carson, and even after Obama went off to Occidental College, he continued in his grandfather’s footsteps. He would often get together with friends to watch Johnny Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show.

His TV watching habits continued into adulthood. At different times, he has indicated that he is a fan of Boardwalk Empire, Entourage, Downtown Abbey, Homeland, Mad Men, and The Wire, among others. His TV love even intrudes on his work time. In Jonathan Alter’s largely glowing portrait of Obama, The Center Holds, Alter reports that during one White House discussion on the possibility of a sleeper terrorist, Obama’s reaction was, “Sounds like Homeland.” Alter also notes that Obama would occasionally close his door and pretend that he was toiling away, but instead he was watching Homeland reruns. Similarly, when White House aides grumbled that Valerie Jarrett was using her closeness to the president to get her way in internal staff disputes, Jarrett replied that she and Obama didn’t talk about work so much as about “what happened on Downtown Abbey.”

Obama’s TV watching habits even shocked the comedian Stephen Colbert. During the 2012 campaign season, Colbert offered Donald Trump $1 million to let him put a part of his anatomy in Trump’s mouth so that he would “have something going into [his] mouth instead of coming out of it.” The offer was so vulgar, Alter notes, that it “was causing some embarrassment in Colbert’s own family.” After his re-election, Obama saw Colbert and alluded to the offer. Colbert was amazed the president was aware of it. Undaunted by Colbert’s discomfort, Michelle Obama volunteered that she and the president watched that particular clip “over and over.”

Another indicator of Obama’s love for TV is the frequency with which he goes on TV talk shows. He recently went on Jay Leno for the sixth time, and he is the first president to go on a late night show as president. He showed how comfortable he was on one of these late night shows by “slow-jamming” the news with Jimmy Fallon. Afterwards, Amir Thompson, a.k.a. ?uestlove, told NPR’s Terry Gross that Obama “was probably the coolest of all of us.” Thompson added that Obama didn’t need to prepare much, since “He knew that the red markers on the cue cards were his lines, and yeah, he was a pro.”

But there were no cue cards for Benghazi. And it took 17 hours to get the statement ready for the teleprompter. The challenge with a president so tied to television is that like any heavy television viewer, the unfolding of history is never as interesting as what is scripted and produced carefully. Obama’s investments in TV helped make him famous, helped get him elected, and helped secure his reelection. But one year later, it is the story of Benghazi and the whereabouts of America’s chief political protagonist that remain unresolved – and for the victims’ families the unhappiest of endings.

Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a former White House aide. His latest book is What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.