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Jonathan Alter's 'The Promise: President Obama, Year One'

The Promise
President Obama, Year One
Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, $28, 480 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Nick Baumann is the news editor for Mother Jones.