Books We Like: ‘The Promise’ by Jonathan Alter

Having grown up six blocks from Wrigley Field, Jonathan Alter, a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek in New York, still considers himself a Chicagoan. “So when a Chicagoan was elected president, I felt the same surge of local pride as somebody who lives there permanently,” Alter told Chicago in a recent phone interview. His new book, The Promise: President Obama, Year One (Simon & Schuster; $18), is out today…

 

The Newsweek political columnist says he’s still a Chicagoan at heart.

POLITICS Having grown up six blocks from Wrigley Field, Jonathan Alter, a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek magazine in New York, still considers himself a Chicagoan. “So when a Chicagoan was elected president, I felt the same surge of local pride as somebody who lives there permanently,” Alter told Chicago in a recent phone interview. His new book is out today. The Promise: President Obama, Year One (Simon & Schuster; $18) offers an inside look at the president’s first year in office and is just as much a profile of Obama’s behind-the-curtain personality as it is a recap of his triumphs, failures, and other pivotal moments thus far. (You can read an excerpt at newsweek.com.)

Alter interviewed more than 200 sources inside and outside government, including Vice President Joe Biden, the White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and the rest of the president’s top aides; plus Marty Nesbitt (often described as Obama’s best friend), Eric Whitaker, and many others.

Alter also had his share of access to the president. “There’s no reporter who’s ever been allowed to hang out with him all the time, but I think I got further than most,” Alter says. “This is the first book about this administration to just get a feel of what he’s like, and what it’s like in the room.”


Alter

Probably because of Alter’s background, The Promise contains a handful of Chicago-related anecdotes. For example, Alter wanted to know if Obama regretted making the trip to Copenhagen for the 2016 Olympics announcement, so he asked around for the president’s first words upon his return. “So he gets back, and Chicago’s finished third, and he says to his aides, ‘Look, Michelle would have killed me if I hadn’t gone.’ He had to go,” Alter says. “I wanted to provide fresh, new information that would let people make their own judgments,” he adds. “People lead busy lives, so even attentive Chicagoans . . . could only absorb a fraction of what happened in 2009. So I wanted to tell them, ‘Hey, while you were busy, this is what happened.’”

Alter’s book comes less than two months after the release of The Bridge, a biography of Obama before his presidency by David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. “In some ways, [a biography] would have been the more natural book for me to do,” Alter says. “But I thought it would be more challenging and more interesting for me to cover the history that was yet to be made. So it was kind of like jumping off a high cliff, not really knowing what was below.”
 

GO: Alter comes to Chicago next month as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Jun 24, 7 p.m. Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster. chicagohumanities.org

WHAT CRITICS THOUGHT OF THE PROMISE BY JONATHAN ALTER
  • The Chicago Sun-Times review by Zay N. Smith, 5/16/2010:
    “The book offers a cascade of detail to please any follower of politics as a spectator sport. Do you wonder where Obama sneaks his smokes? In a grove by the White House tennis court. Or what nickname he gave to Chief Economic Adviser Larry Summers? Dr. Kevorkian.”
  • The San Francisco Chronicle review by Martin F. Nolan, 5/16/2010:
    “The path is often delicate between demonizing and over-praise. Alter’s most distressing excursion into hagiography comes from a Cabinet secretary who says Obama and another Chicago icon, Michael Jordan, share ‘the same mental toughness and desire to win. . . . At the end of the game, Barack always wants the ball,’ says the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who majored in sociology at Harvard and sycophancy as well.”
  • The Boston Globe review by Carlo Wolff, 5/18/2010:
    “Although he couldn’t include Obama’s handling of the BP oil spill, Alter is resolutely current: He updated The Promise at the last minute to incorporate passage of health care reform legislation in March. Manna for political junkies, Alter’s insider book is a largely admiring chronicle of a disciplined politician whose 2008 presidential drive set a standard for Internet-based, grass-roots organizing.”
  • The New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani, 5/12/2010:
    “As for Mr. Obama’s cabinet members, Mr. Alter contends that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was initially ‘too deferential to the president in meetings, just shy of obsequious’; that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, called ‘Yoda’ by some White House staffers, was ‘almost certainly the most influential member of the cabinet’; and that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner bonded with the president because ‘they had the same “no drama” style.’”
  • The Washington Post review by Matthew Dallek, 5/16/2010:
    “Obama’s perception of the tension between the news media and the White House is particularly revealing. Although Saturday Night Live satirized a star-struck press, the president and his aides have often scorned the 24-7 cable news culture as a noxious circus that corrodes civility and stifles civic-minded debates about policy. While Obama vowed to bring change to Washington, his administration’s anti-media bent is more in keeping with the Clinton and Bush White Houses than a sharp break.”

 

Photograph: (Alter) Damien Donck

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