Jonathan Alter, a longtime and respected columnist for once-important media outlet Newsweek, credits his daughter for the title of his latest book. That’s a nice accolade, but she might better have offered: “My Dad Defends the Obama Administration.”
Because that’s what Alter does in “Center,” basically assailing Obama’s enemies and justifying the administration’s strategies as it negotiated the president’s first term and the 2012 re-election campaign. Along the way, Alter does point out some Obama missteps, but even for those he provides reasons.
Take, for instance, the first debate between Mitt Romney and the president, a debate in which Obama was woeful.
“His disdain for the requirements of politics, his ill-disguised contempt for Romney, and his complacent cockiness caught up to him in a listless and bewildering debate performance in front of 67 million people,” writes Alter.
Why? Alter points to the president’s significant lead in the polls prior to the debate (cockiness) and his aversion to debates (disdain,) which, according to Alter, he felt were a “circus sideshow.”
But it is to Obama’s enemies, mostly those on the far right of the political spectrum, that Alter devotes the bulk of “Center.” In a chapter focusing on the Fox cable network, Alter skewers Roger Ailes, the boss of Fox News. He labels Ailes a “merciless bully” so paranoid “he had a television monitor on his desk that showed video of an empty hall outside his office so that he would have warning if terrorists were coming to kill him.”
Ailes, Alter reports, knew that Obama-bashing translated into ratings euphoria and profits for his corporation, so he urged underlings to “popularize the idea that he (Obama) was a threat to the republic.” Thus, “for the next three years Fox News pummeled the president relentlessly, trying to turn every flap into a major scandal.”
Alter, long a Washington insider, spent two years writing and researching “Center.” He interviewed more than 200 people, and, in true insider fashion, claims some of the interviews were “deep background” and necessitated no attribution. So, he warns:
“… while some readers might be tempted to play a guessing game on who told me what, it would be a mistake to assume any sourcing based on those who are identified or quoted in the book or named” in his acknowledgements.
But the insider role does provide interesting insider tidbits. Obama, Alter reports, entered the third year of his presidency disenchanted with the office and with a family “that had lost its appetite for living in the White House.” The author quotes Obama as saying, “only half joking,” that “Michelle would be happy if I quit, but I can’t turn this over to Palin.”
Alter goes to great lengths to support his premises with history, noting traits of other presidencies all the way back to Numero Uno. He especially contrasts Obama with his Democratic predecessor and husband of the woman he fought for their party’s nomination. Bill Clinton, Alter writes, reveled in the trappings of the political life, the glad-handing, baby-kissing, and fundraising so aligned with running for office.
Obama was different, “Center” notes in a chapter entitled “Missing the Schmooze Gene.” While campaigning, Obama complained about the political necessity of working rope lines, the hand-shaking and backslapping that was “energizing” to Clinton. And in another insider tidbit, Alter writes that when Clinton played golf, he often took a mulligan after a poor shot. Obama, on the other hand, played strictly by the rules and “got annoyed if he thought someone was missing shots to keep the president from losing.”
Much of “Center” revolves around the 2012 presidential campaign, and once again Alter’s inside information polishes his work. He explains the nuances of the Obama and Romney campaigns and provides a detailed explanation of how and why the famous 47 percent video that dogged the contender entered the picture. And he criticizes the Romney camp for not doing due diligence before Clint Eastwood took the Republican Convention stage with an empty chair.
“Conventions, unlike interviews, debates, and candidate town halls, are entirely controllable events, which made this a major unforced error,” Alter writes.
“ Center” will please Obama supporters and irritate those who dislike and oppose him. But the insight it provides into the political process and the men and women behind it makes Alter’s work an enlightening read for both.
Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former Dean of Journalism at St. Bonaventure University.
The Center Holds:
Obama and His Enemies
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster
391 pages, $30