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President Barack Obama making a call (in a car)How a presidential phone call gets made is a story of technological advances coupled with careful research, negotiating skill and a politician’s gift (or lack of it) for grasping human psychology. When the president of the United States reaches out to touch someone, very little is left to chance, not even small talk, according to current and former aides interviewed for this story. Each White House’s approach differs slightly, but the broad outlines remain the same.

Before Obama calls another world leader, an aide brings him a specially prepared National Security Council dossier. The package includes a closely held American intelligence portrait of the person he’s going to call — including highly personal information about their personality, their health and their loved ones. “Are they cool-headed? Or the opposite? Do they like to joke?” said one source familiar with the contents of the dossier.

“The world leader profiles include basic intel, idiosyncrasies, personal political pressures, whether any close relatives are seriously ill, girl- or boyfriend problems, personal health issues,” said another official.

On a Saturday afternoon at the start of March, President Barack Obama set a new record for his administration, holding what aides say was his single longest phone call with another world leader. Obama’s tension-filled 90-minute marathon with Vladimir Putin failed to reverse Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula and heightened fears of a new Cold War with Moscow.

  • President Woodrow Wilson - 28th US President (1913-1921) making a call
    President Woodrow Wilson - 28th US President (1913-1921)

It was one of four times in the past three weeks that the White House disclosed Obama had spoken with the Russian president and came amid a blizzard of telephone calls between the American president and world leaders as Obama sought to de-escalate the crisis.

Obama has been stateside since returning to Washington from a short trip to Mexico for a Latin American economic summit. But he might as well have been at the United Nations. Since Feb. 20, the White House has revealed, Obama’s held calls to discuss the Ukraine crisis with the leaders of Germany (four times), Britain (three times), France (twice), China, Canada, Estonia, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus, Poland and Spain. That’s in addition to the calls to Putin.

It’s easy to wonder why a president needs to “work the phones” in the era of email, texting, Skype and high-definition video chats. The president is famous for his iPad and his tweets; he even sat down for a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) as part of his outreach to the American people. But current and former aides to Obama and his two predecessors interviewed by Yahoo News were unanimous: When it comes to communicating with world leaders, it is a technology developed in the 19th century that still rules. The telephone remains a dominant tool of international diplomacy in a world where many nations lack America’s more recent technological advances. And the sound of the human voice — full of nuance and meaning, even without translation — communicates something essential to delicate negotiations, helping forge bonds across oceans and cultural chasms.

“It’s immediate. It’s relatively easy to connect and to secure, but [is] still very personal. And basically everyone has a phone,” said a former national security official.

The marathon Putin call went badly. The former KGB spy spent much of the hour and a half insisting, without evidence, that ethnic Russians were enduring horrible things at the hands of Ukraine’s new pro-Western government, according to senior U.S. officials. Obama spent much of the call insisting, without success, that the charges were groundless and offering what the Obama administration officials characterized as a “diplomatic offramp” from the accelerating crisis. The two sides released dueling accounts of the call — summaries known as “readouts” — that nevertheless generally back up the U.S. description.

Obama’s telephone tussle with Putin yielded no breakthrough on Ukraine. But it might one day warrant its own entry in the fraught, fascinating history of presidential phone calls.

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