Jonathan Alter’s ‘instant history’ tour rolls on

The Promise: Present Obama, Year One ()
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While living in Chicago in the 90’s, Jonathan Alter said, “I had this cousin Bob who kept telling me about this friend of his, Barack Obama, in the Illinois State Senate who is really smart, and that I should write a column about him in Newsweek.” Alter, sporting the same blue tie and blazer he wore a week ago on "The Colbert Report," peered through weary eyes at the full-capacity crowd gathered in the rain venue of the Bryant Park Reading Room. “Bob, you know, Newsweek circulates in Oregon and Minnesota and Timbuktu; they don’t really give a rat’s patootie about some state senator in Illinois,” Alter said.

We know how that turned out.

Now Alter has a book out, The Promise: President Obama, Year One. “I wanted to give people instant history,” he said. “We are cursed with living in an extremely historical moment in time.” On writing about such a moment just as it was happening, he said, “I wanted to tell the back story, the behind-the-scenes story, of these monumental events that affect all of our lives.”

The last couple of weeks had been hectic for Alter. Just a week ago, he appeared on the “Colbert Report” to promote the book—at the time it was number seven of The New York Times Best-Seller list (it’s now number 19). On Tuesday, he made an appearance on "Letterman." And then there was this appearance, where he spoke in front of 200 seated and another 40 standing audience members. (Looked like the average age was about 65).

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With a presidency overshadowed by immense expectation, Alter said it’s no wonder that Obama’s approval ratings have dropped, but the author insisted that Obama has kept his promises remarkably well considering what he had to deal with coming into office.

“The economy was losing 740,000 jobs a month in January, 2009, when Obama took office,” Alter said. “If we stayed on the pace we were on, we would have had—without exaggeration—another Great Depression, with 20 percent unemployment by the end of 2009.”

It’s like the shovel brigade, he said, referring to the people who, “you know, clean up after a line of elephants when they plow by and leave all their crap.” He believes that the Obama administration was, from the beginning, neck deep in Bush’s..

Which is, Alter believes, one of the reasons why Obama championed health care reform: “Whether it was the banks, the oil companies, Afghanistan, which turned out to be a much bigger mess than anticipated, the BP oil spill which can be directly attributed to the deregulation of the Bush years. He was constantly cleaning up the things that George had tried to do. Health care was something that he wanted to do.”

Alter engaged the audience by offering what he knew from the tremendous amount of access Alter had into of Obama’s cabinet. He knew the details of Joe Biden’s admittance into Obama’s trusted inner circle, a position he was initially denied despite being the vice president. The most influential cabinet member, according to Alter, is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates because, simply, “he gets things done.”

And then there are less-than-political details: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the only one who can get away with scrolling on his Blackberry while the president is speaking. Obama often jogs around the West Wing, throwing a football around. Biden and Hillary Clinton often have breakfast together to avoid “the collision course they were on over Afghanistan.”

Asked what he hopes the reader takes away from The Promise, Alter replied, “I hope they take away this deeper understanding of what happened, what Barack Obama is really like when the cameras are off.”

And what is he really like?

"Barack Obama is surprisingly normal, wry, cool in all senses of the word, intellectual, and a family man."