The “White House book” is an odd, if familiar, genre. Presidential administrations try to tell their stories through volumes like Bob Woodward’s Bush at War and The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House. These books could not be written without access to top officials. But the relationships between the close advisers of a president who is still in power and the journalists who wish to write about him are extremely unbalanced. The president’s most trusted and loyal attendants are naturally loath to say anything that might paint the administration in a bad light. They are unlikely to speak to any journalist they do not trust. And the journalists who write White House books can’t afford to lose the access on which their work depends.
All that is just another way of saying that the “White House book” shows the president the way he and his staff want him to be seen. George W. Bush is the “decider,” making tough calls for the good of the country. Bill Clinton is funny and smart and can relate to “ordinary Americans.” Public events (the war in Iraq) or staff slip-ups (George Stephanopoulos’s big mouth) can change those narratives. Bush turns out to be a warmonger, Clinton disorganized and indecisive. But the stories that White House denizens tell the press about their boss are generally positive.
In this, Barack Obama’s administration does not differ significantly from its predecessors. For now, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter is the anointed chronicler—or perhaps hagiographer—of the Obama White House. The Promise, Alter’s account of Obama’s first year, is a deeply sourced, wide-ranging narrative history cum personal portrait. It’s also the quintessential access-dependent White House book—but more on that later.
The reporting in The Promise is top-notch. The book is full of new tidbits about Obama’s life and his administration’s first year in office. Many of these stories are so juicy that the D.C. press re-reported them as independent stories as reporters worked their way through advance copies of the book. Readers find out that Michelle Obama pushed hard for Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination. We learn that Obama’s top advisers didn’t want to do health-care-reform in the first year. We even discover that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel got Bruce Springsteen to play “Hava Nagila” at the Verizon Center.
Not all of these stories make Obama look good, or even have much to do with him. The political press was especially keen to re-report an anecdote in the book about the sex life of the president of France and his wife, ex-model Carla Bruni. But both of the two key revelations in Alter’s narrative—a previously unreported showdown with the military brass over Afghanistan and the inside details of the meetings that Obama and John McCain had with the Bush administration at the height of the financial crisis—paint the president in a very flattering light.
In the first week of October 2009, Alter reveals, Obama summoned Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to the Oval Office. The president told them he was “exceedingly unhappy” with leaks from the Pentagon that were undermining the decision-making process on a potential Afghanistan troop “surge.” Alter paints it as “the most direct assertion of presidential authority over the U.S. military since President Truman fired General Mac-Arthur in 1951.” (Perhaps he should have said since JFK refused the military’s request to intervene during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.) In late November, according to Alter, Obama forced Gates and General David Petraeus to promise to support his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in summer 2011. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in eighteen months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?” Obama asked. Petraeus and Gates said yes. Obama comes out looking tough, decisive, and in control.
The other big revelation in The Promise leaves the reader with the same impression. Alter’s recounting of the hairy final days of the election campaign, with the financial crisis in full swing, is truly terrifying. In Alter’s version of the key bipartisan crisis meeting at the White House on September 25, John McCain seems old and ill-informed, Bush has checked out, and Obama is basically running the country before he’s won the election. “Maybe I shouldn’t be president,” Obama told aides after that encounter with McCain, “but he definitely shouldn’t be.”
Whatever your reaction to these two key moments and the book’s other, smaller revelations, it’s clear that getting them required broad access to the Obama administration’s key players. In researching The Promise, Alter interviewed more than two hundred people “inside and outside the government,” including the sorts of people that journalists don’t often get to interview. Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, and Pete Rouse, Obama’s top four aides, all cooperated. Alter also spoke to Vice President Joe Biden and members of the cabinet. He even interviewed normally tight-lipped Obama friends Marty Nesbitt, Penny Pritzker, and Eric Whitaker.
To get that kind of access, Alter agreed to work under severe restrictions. Most of his interviews were conducted “on background,” which means he “could use what they said but not attribute it to them.” He agreed to “check back” with sources before using any direct quotations. Alter calls these arrangements “regrettable,” but argues that “nowadays they’re often the only way that people in Washington will utter an interesting word.”
Alter’s dependence on his sources doesn’t mean his account of Obama’s first year is entirely positive. But most of his criticisms focus on politics, not policy. One such charge—that “in the second half of the year Obama lost much of his connection to the American people,” especially independents—doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The truth is that Obama is still a fairly popular president, and his much-discussed “inability to connect to independents,” which Alter mentions in the book’s first twenty pages, is a bogus charge. Research has found that the vast majority of self-described independents vote either Democrat or Republican almost all the time. Obama’s decline among self-identified independents has been largely, and unsurprisingly, among those who lean right.
Like the “can’t connect to independents” canard, most of Alter’s other criticisms of Obama are fairly standard political fare. Obama catches flak for listening to too few people. He didn’t see everything coming (such as the election of Scott Brown). He’s too gung-ho about stopping leaks to the press. Alter notes that Obama’s “desire for lively debate” sometimes runs up against “his lack of tolerance for factionalism.” It’s hard to have debate without factions, however, as the remarks of General Stanley McChrystal and his staff about Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry in the now notorious Rolling Stone article so vividly demonstrated.
Alter is at his best when discussing the White House’s failure to go harder after banks and bankers. He argues that Obama should have explained early on why he wanted to “restructure” banks—not just because it would be good politics but also because it could have “limited the dangers posed by financial institutions that were too big to fail.” The implication is clear: Obama could have, and should have, used the leverage bailout money gave him to extract deeper concessions from the banks, before their armies of lobbyists neutered Wall Street reform. This is one of the few places where The Promise offers a powerful criticism of Obama. It is also, not coincidentally, one of the few points in the book where Alter focuses on what Obama should have done rather than on what would have been politically smart for the president to do. Yet policy is where Obama—indeed, any president—is most vulnerable to criticism, and it’s a shame that Alter seems so caught up in criticizing the administration’s political strategy instead.
Can reporters who depend on White House access be truly objective about the administrations they cover? Perhaps not. But not every reporter in America is planning to write a White House book. There are folks out there doing other kinds of reporting—talking to the disgruntled employees and half-crazed whistleblowers of the world, telling stories about people far from the levers of power. The world needs both kinds of journalists, and sometimes they’re even the same people. In any case, “It is a fallacy to believe that an administration’s secrets are the ‘real’ story and that everything else is irrelevant,” Jonathan Bernstein, a political science professor and blogger, has written. “More often, it’s the ‘everything else’ that’s the real story.”
Readers who can get past the limitations of the “access journalism” genre will find The Promise rewarding. Alter’s writing is sharp. His tone is breezy and engaging but appropriate to the subject matter. No deep, dark secrets are revealed, but readers will come away from this book with a good idea of how the Obama administration understands itself.
Related: John T. McGreevy reviews David Remnick's The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama