Acclaimed author and journalist Michael Lewis spoke at the college on Oct. 15 in Johnson Chapel. The talk, which was moderated by former chair of the Board of Trustees Cullen Murphy ’74, centered on Lewis’ most recent book about government departments within the Trump administration, titled “The Fifth Risk.”
Lewis is the author of over a dozen award-winning books, including “The Big Short,” “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” and has been featured in various publications including Bloomberg and Vanity Fair.
Dean of Faculty Catherine Epstein introduced Lewis, praising him for his “knack for insight, wit and unexpected angles” and his ability for “crafting compelling narratives out of unlikely topics.”
Lewis began the conversation by sharing that he had visited Amherst only once before, when he was applying to the college as a senior in high school. He later found out he was rejected rejected.
“I feel like I’m in — they finally let me in,” Lewis joked.
Murphy then asked Lewis to explain the title’s meaning. Lewis responded by describing the transition period between the Obama and Trump presidencies, during which Obama officials prepared extensive briefings for the next administrative, only to have them ignored. In his book, Lewis examined those briefings and interviewed several government workers, including chief risk officers within certain departments. When interviewing a chief risk officer in the Department of Agriculture, Lewis asked what the five national risks of most concern were. The officer listed four, then said that no one had thought of a fifth risk yet.
“I thought of the fifth risk as all of those risks that we fail to imagine, and because we fail to imagine them we do not attend to them properly, and because we fail to attend to them properly they are the ones we have to worry about,” Lewis said. Lewis’ examination of these briefings and the risks associated made him “feel like I needed a civics lesson … to know what these enterprises did.”
The book focuses on three departments in the federal government: the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy. Lewis said that through his reporting he realized the importance of having bright and dedicated minds leading these departments, which he characterized as the invisible backbone of U.S. society. In the case of the Trump administration, Lewis noted that Trump sought to fill those positions with the people who supported him unconditionally, rather than those with expertise.
“I talked to Steve Bannon and I asked how he could approach the government so irresponsibly, and he said, ‘We didn’t have anybody. Anyone who knew anything wasn’t for us,’” Lewis said. He added that unlike past administrations, Trump has refused to hire anyone who disagrees with him.
Murphy also asked about a character in Lewis’ book that exemplified what a public servant should look like and what the government does. While Lewis expected to meet people demoralized by government work, he said he realized that most people he encountered were passionate about their jobs and entered the field for specific reasons.
“I met people who had deep reasons for being there,” he said. “You ask someone at Goldman Sachs why they’re there, and you know what the reason is. But if you ask someone why they work with nuclear weapons, or why they work at the National Weather Service, you get really interesting answers about how they wanted to do this for a long time.”
Lewis demonstrated his hope in these public servants by sharing a story about a character who worked at the Office of Management and Budget and was able to see how money was funneled into the schools the public servant attended and the healthcare he had received as a child.
Through such an experience, Lewis said, those skeptical of bureaucracy realize that “not only should it exist, but the smartest people should be there.”
Murphy concluded the conversation on a lighthearted note by asking Lewis about his interactions with President Barack Obama. Lewis said he was “perplexed by how the world interpreted [Obama],” and consequently asked to write a profile on his daily life for Vanity Fair. In that profile, Lewis explored everything from Obama’s decision to wear the same suit every day to his competitiveness in basketball.
The conversation was followed by a Q&A session, during which Lewis answered questions on the nation’s biggest risks, his interest in sports and his thoughts on Amherst’s prestige.
Alex Chaffers ’19, who attended the event, enjoyed the event but hoped to hear more about Lewis as a person.
“I thought the talk was good, and he’s obviously a very smart person,” Chaffers said. “But I was surprised by how much of a Q&A it was. I wanted to hear more about his career.”