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Originally published July 14, 2014 at 6:22 PM | Page modified July 15, 2014 at 9:39 AM

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At dinner tables, restless Obama finds intellectual escape

Recent late-night dinners offer a glimpse of a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and the rarefied company Barack Obama may keep after he leaves the White House.


The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — President Obama had just disembarked from Air Force One and was still on the tarmac in Rome when he turned to his host, John R. Phillips, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, with an unexpected request: How about a dinner party tomorrow night?

Over the next 24 hours, the startled Phillips and his wife, the former Obama aide Linda Douglass, scrambled to gather some of Italy’s intellettuali.

The architect Renzo Piano flew in from Genoa. The particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti arrived from Geneva. John Elkann, the chairman of Fiat and the owner of the Italian soccer club Juventus, came too, as did his sister, Ginevra, a film director. Over a 2006 Brunello, grilled rib-eye and three pastas — cacio e pepe, all’arrabbiata and Bolognese — at Villa Taverna, the 15th-century manor that serves as the ambassador’s residence, the group talked until close to midnight about “the importance of understanding science, the future of the universe, how sports brings people together, and many other things,” Douglass said.

In a summer when the president is traveling across the country meeting with “ordinary Americans” under highly choreographed conditions, the Rome dinner shows another side of Obama. As one of an increasing number of late-night dinners in his second term, it offers a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Obama may keep after he leaves the White House.

Sometimes stretching into the small hours of the morning, the dinners reflect a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House and less concerned about the appearance of partying with the rich and celebrated. Freewheeling, with conversation touching on art, architecture and literature, the gatherings are a world away from the stilted meals Obama had last year with Senate Republican leaders at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.

For Obama, the late-night gatherings are a new development. Although dinner at 6:30 with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters has long been sacrosanct, the president recently said that as Malia, 16, and Sasha, 13, grow up and go out more with friends, he is freer to fill his own social calendar. He joked soon after his re-election that he was getting “lonely in this big house,” and that he might soon be calling around for company.

One Saturday night in May, Obama was up well past midnight at the White House for a dinner that included Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Julie; Anne Wojcicki, the chief executive and a co-founder of the personal genome testing company 23andMe, who brought her sister, Susan, the chief executive of YouTube; and Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and Democratic donor. Michelle Obama was also there, but was not on the trip to Rome. The dinner there was first reported by Politico.

Previous dinners at the White House have drawn varied celebrities, including Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Morgan Freeman and Bono. Many of the guests — including the Smiths and Freeman, as well as Anne Wojcicki — have been financial supporters of Obama’s campaigns.

In Rome in March, Piano said, the president seemed happy to talk about something other than politics and current events.

“I think he was refreshed to sit down in a beautiful place, with good food, and talking with serenity about important things,” Piano said.

The dinners often carry over into Obama’s day job — and his fundraising. At a White House meeting on working families last month, Obama included Wojcicki — who has two young children with her husband, the Google co-founder Sergey Brin, from whom she is separated — in a discussion of workplace policies with other chief executives. Less than two weeks before, Wojcicki hosted a technology forum and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee at her home in California, which was attended by Obama and 25 guests who paid $34,200 each.

In Paris last month, Obama went to another dinner, or rather a second dinner in one evening. After he dined officially with President François Hollande at Le Chiberta, a Michelin-starred restaurant off the Champs-Élysées, he joined friends at the nearby Restaurant Helen for more than two hours. The group included Laurent Delanney, a friend from Obama’s college days who is the European chief executive of the ATP World Tour, the professional tennis organization, as well as Jarrett and Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser. Michelle Obama was not on the Paris trip.

Guests at the dinners are typically supporters of the president and sympathetic to his political views, but not always. At the dinner in Rome, one guest was Italo Zanzi, the U.S.-born chief executive of A.S. Roma, another top Italian soccer team. Zanzi was a Republican candidate for Congress in his native New York in 2006, and in 2008 he contributed to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s Republican rival.

During his own campaign, Zanzi highlighted his opposition to legislation granting citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally, and he advocated random checks by the police to deport those without legal status.

If there was any tension at the dinner, it was not obvious. Douglass said that Obama laughed as Zanzi and Elkann, of the Juventus soccer club, ribbed each other about their sports rivalry.

“Clearly enough, he was happy to stay, and he spent a long time,” Piano said of the president. There was no talk of politics, he said, but Obama seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth. “He is a curious man, and even the president of America is sometimes struggling to explore, to understand, to search.”



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