One of the most powerful things about the episode of Parts Unknown featuring Barack Obama is that Anthony Bourdain treats him like any other guest. Obama doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the program after Bourdain has dined with several ordinary Vietnamese people. Even though they talked together for nearly an hour, only about 10 minutes of conversation make it into the show. The message, to me, was clear: Everyone’s story is of equal value.
It took me about a year to set up that interview. The process included several exchanges over many months with Bourdain’s kind and thoughtful producer Sandy Zweig about unannounced upcoming presidential travel. But as the calendar turned into 2016, an obvious choice emerged: our May trip to Vietnam. For me, no region captured the ethos of Bourdain’s various travel shows like Southeast Asia, whose culture, history, and politics are as textured, complex, and enriching as its food. Within that tapestry, Vietnam was always a source of fascination for Bourdain, as it seemed to confirm a belief that human beings could overcome a tragic past and still carry with them the elements of their heritage that give life more expression and meaning.
Once the location was set, a polite but firm dynamic emerged: Bourdain and his team would pick the venues; the dozens of staffers and Secret Service personnel dedicated to any presidential event would figure out how to make them work. Exceptions were made to allow Obama to go to a small noodle shop where the other diners hadn’t gone through security screening. As someone who traveled inside the presidential bubble, I could only guess at how challenging this had been as we rode in a smaller-than-usual unmarked motorcade to meet Bourdain on a simple side street in Hanoi. To prepare Obama, I’d given him a short briefing. “His philosophy isn’t that different from yours,” I explained; Obama knew Tony Bourdain from books but not television. “If people would just sit down and eat together and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.”
I listened through headphones as the two of them talked about Indonesian street food, US politics, the history of the Vietnam War, and the future awaiting their daughters. As a staffer, I was attuned to the only potential news in the interview, a casual reference by Obama to the fact that the CIA had played a role in the 1965 coup that overthrew the Indonesian government, leading to widespread violence. That historical fact was common knowledge, but no US president had ever spoken of it, and my team made a note to prepare the US Embassy in Indonesia for the eventual broadcast of the episode.
The next day the plan was for Obama and Bourdain to walk through a typical Hanoi market. As we rode to meet Bourdain, rain was coming down in one of those random hot bursts that regularly soak Southeast Asia. As the drops hit the top of the car, Obama told me that he’d enjoyed talking to Bourdain about the food in Jakarta, where Obama lived as a boy. “You could tell that he’s a really—” Obama paused, looking out the window at the huge crowds, searching for the right word. “He’s a really curious guy. I mean, he seemed genuinely interested,” Obama said, chuckling as if that was an extraordinary thing in the context of US media in 2016. He looked at the mass of smiling and waving Vietnamese lining the streets as Bourdain waited to greet him in the rain. “We should do more stuff like this.”
Four months passed before the episode ran. We had no indication of how Bourdain was going to use the footage. So when it aired on September 25, 2016, I watched like everyone else, at home on my couch. There was the normal voice-over of alluring footage, then a montage of scurrying motorbike traffic, the camera slowing on individual faces. Bourdain’s first guest was a woman who had worked with US veterans who were returning to the country filled with people they once tried to kill and who sought to kill them. Speaking of John McCain, she said, “It took several trips to Vietnam to see Vietnam in a different light. It’s no longer a war; it’s a country of people.” Speaking as if she were one of the American veterans whom she’d met in Vietnam, she said, “Today when I see you not as an enemy but as a person, everything just disappears.”
After multiple commercial breaks, I began to wonder if the Obama interview was going to appear at all. And then, in fidelity to effective storytelling, Bourdain and his team pulled a neat trick: They flipped the order of the two Obama encounters in time, beginning with the rain-soaked market. No viewer, after all, would know that the bun cha dinner had come first. There was a smiling Obama, standing under an umbrella, surveying the scene in front of him. “Markets like these,” he told Bourdain, “I’d grown up with as a kid in Jakarta.”
The dinner conversation came next and was properly contextualized as Bourdain asked Obama about the “sentimentality” he felt toward Southeast Asia. The offhand comment about the Indonesian coup never made an appearance, probably to the relief of our embassy in Jakarta [editor’s note: the US government later went on to de-classify documents in 2017 showing US involvement in the coup]. The edited conversation moved on to the weightier topics of the Vietnam War and the current state of US politics and the world. It culminated with Bourdain asking, in the obvious context of Trump’s campaign and in words that are haunting given Bourdain’s tragic end, “As the father of a young girl, is it all going to be OK?” Obama replied cautiously, in words that echo a message he would deliver time and again after the election, “Progress is not a straight line. There are going to be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But, having said all that, I think things are going to work out.”
Shortly before that episode aired, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States hosted a dinner for me and a few US officials at his residence in Washington. We’d spent hours carefully planning Obama’s trip, dealing with the intricacies of the schedule, weighty matters like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, human rights, and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But at this dinner what he was most excited about was not the policy breakthroughs made during the trip, it was the Bourdain episode, which was already a sensation even though it hadn’t run. He showed me pictures on his phone of the noodle shop. His wife prepared the same meal that Bourdain and Obama had eaten: bun cha and spring rolls.
The ambassador had a habit of descending into laughter when something funny was said, leaning over and clinking glasses with me over and over again. We spent hours lingering over multiple courses and servings of wine. The conversation veered back and forth from current events to history to culture. Underpinning all of it was the growing feeling of friendship, the ability to see the world from inside another person’s experience. I felt like I was living an episode that had been produced by Anthony Bourdain.
To use Obama’s answer to that final question, it does feel in our current moment like “things are terrible.” So much in our country and our world seems unmoored. Anthony Bourdain is no longer with us. But the timeless experiences that he spotlighted—the connections forged between individual human beings—still take place in simple scenes of friendship and discovery around the globe. There’s still a country, like Vietnam, where centuries of war have been replaced by peace. There are still children buying snacks at a street market in Jakarta, where a young Barack Obama could never have imagined that he’d grow up to be president. Progress doesn’t move in a straight line, but things can still turn out OK if we somehow learn to walk around in each other’s shoes.
That night, leaving the Vietnamese ambassador’s house, I walked the darkened Washington streets and thought about Obama getting back into the presidential limousine from the rain after taping his last segment of Parts Unknown. “I like Bourdain,” Obama said with a smile. “Seemed like a good guy.”