Veteran political writer Jonathan Alter set himself quite a challenge when he decided to write The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. His publisher wanted the book published now, which meant the reporting had to be done mostly before the 2012 presidential campaign ended. In addition to not knowing whether President Obama or Mitt Romney would win, Alter was told that the Obama campaign decided not to make its staff available for interviews during the campaign to book writers. (“I had to get people who were disobeying the rules to cooperate with me,” Alter told me.) Fortunately for him, he has known the Obama campaign’s David Axelrod for 30 years and Stuart Stevens, who headed up the Romney campaign, for 20 and they both answered his questions.
There’s a feeling in America that people are fed up with politics–with politics, but also with the silly posturing and back-and-forth played out in the media. Alter goes much deeper than daily headlines in The Center Holds, revealing how the quirks of personality in The Cave (the nerve center of the Obama campaign’s formidable digital technology operation) influenced the outcome of the election, what Paul Ryan’s obsession with Ayn Rand did to the Romney campaign and how anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist borrowed here and there from Marxist-Leninist techniques to grow his power. Despite the fact that the 2012 campaign and politics at large still wear Americans out, Alter’s book imbues them with rich context. There’s a verve and energy to Alter’s writing and acumen that is impressive. As he reveals below, he’s a writer who’s most excited by telling stories no one knew before (even though everyone thinks they know the story already). He is also a relentlessly economical writer. “The origins of the president’s political problems lay in his failure to show voters that he was relentlessly focused on the same things they were,” he asserts early in the book. Reading The Center Holds is like getting reacquainted with something we all lived with and couldn’t escape–the 2012 campaign–but actually enjoying it this time around. Alter recently answered my questions about how he wrote the book.
How would this book be different if Romney had won?
Instead of explaining how the geeks in The Cave would have engineered Obama’s campaign–the first digital one of the 21st century–I would have asked myself, ‘Does it really matter what these analytics revealed? Did it overwhelm people’s desire to get Obama out of office?’
There’s this great role reversal at the heart of the 2012 campaign: Mitt Romney was a self-described numbers guy who came out of Bain Capital, which helped originate analytics and the application of data science to business, and yet he ran a vague campaign based on a big hope for change. ‘We hope the American people are ready for a change to Republican rule.’ Obama had no experience in business, he’s been a community organizer and not any kind of a numbers guy, and he ran a state-of-the-art Bain campaign with digital technology and analytics and it made a huge difference.
You write that the president doesn’t have the schmooze gene – do you think he’s learning from his past inability to rally Republicans to his side or is he still incapable of that basic political skill?
He’s trying to learn how to schmooze more. In the first term, he would take off with staff and his close personal friends and now he’s starting to play golf with Republicans and have them over for dinner; I think he’s realizing that he has a tool in the tool box. Did it have major consequences? Would he have gotten more accomplished? I don’t know. He might have ended up with more from Congress if he had used those tools, so I fault him a little bit for not engaging more, for being too detached from the process, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to be LBJ. Johnson also had a filibuster-proof Democratic majority. ‘Why can’t Obama be more like LBJ?’ is kind of ahistorical. And he can’t be Bill Clinton (and it’s important to remember that Clinton got impeached). One of the things I try to explore is, what was it about Obama’s temperament that works or doesn’t work so well in the presidency? The same thing that is appealing to a lot of voters–he doesn’t have that back-slapping quality–also makes it harder for him to deal with other politicians in Washington. Something that’s an advantage with voters is a disadvantage in the Beltway.
How do you think the administration will react to the book?
If the last book is any indication, they generally don’t react. There will be parts of the book that they don’t like but I think most of the people who worked on that campaign will be glad that somebody put their story out there for the first time in a complete way. I think the president felt this campaign was a more important election than 2008 and I ended up agreeing with that. The historical stakes were such that this was a pivotal election and Obama felt that way and since that’s one of the premises of the book, my guess is that they’ll agree with that. And Obama strongly believes he’s a centrist. At the White House Christmas party [in 2012] for the press, I was moving towards the end of writing the book and he was very intrigued by the title for the book and agreed with it. Later, when he gave his inaugural address, I was struck by the fact that the press reported it as a liberal speech but what he was doing was defending things that had been the bipartisan achievements of the 20th century. Whatever happens now, he can prevent the Republicans from moving sharply right.
What are you proudest about having uncovered?
When I can find fresh stories about much-covered events like the killing of Osama bin Laden or what Obama said to Valerie Jarrett a second after NBC reported he had been re-elected–when I can get those kinds of stories I’m glad, because I think readers love them. But in terms of what is closest to my own heart, it’s when I can put fresh stories in a richer context. My favorite chapter is “Makers versus Takers,” which is mostly about the bartender in Fla. who videotaped the 47% comment Romney made. I spent a lot of time with him and I learned a lot about his life and his motivation, which is quite different than I think people realize.
Your portrait of Grover Norquist is pretty fascinating–were you able to get a detailed look at him because you’ve known him since college?
I have a certain respect for his ability to come to Washington and basically amass so much power for himself without holding public office. It’s a measure of what’s possible with enough brains and political skills in a democracy, even though he was doing so on a narrow, anti-tax agenda that I also thought was contrary to the traditions of the Republican party. I thought it was important to tell the story because people will read about someone like Norquist in the papers but no one tells them how that happened, so I think people are longing for context about the last several years. That’s what I set out to do. I’ll leave it up to readers to determine whether I succeeded or not. None of these things happen in isolation and there are creative, inspiring individuals on both sides who changed the course of politics. The way those individuals shape our world is the story I was trying to tell but I wanted to do it with a lot of the fun and revealing personal glimpses that help bring a story alive.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.