Jonathan AlterJonathan Alter grew up in Lincoln Park before heading east for school and then to New York to write for Newsweek. Currently the national affairs columnist for the beleaguered magazine—its owner, the Washington Post Company, is trying to sell it—he’s also a regular on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann. And most recently, he’s the author of The Promise, a fast-paced analysis of President Obama’s first year.
There are few journalists who are more plugged in than Alter; he had access not only to Obama but also to the key people around him—including Chicagoans Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and Desiree Rogers. Alter has been compared by one reviewer to the legendary Teddy White, who wrote the Making of the President books. “It’s a little bit like a kid dreams of growing up to be Walter Payton and gets to the NFL and somebody says he’s the next Walter Payton,” Alter said. “I know I’m not the new Teddy White. Still, that was kind of the sweetest thing that happened to me in this whole process.”
He says he’s sticking with Newsweek—even though a couple of his more prominent colleagues have jumped ship—and tells me, “Somebody’s going to buy it. I know stuff that I’m not going to talk about, but I think it’s going to have a happy ending.”
In Chicago to promote his book, Alter stopped by my house last week to talk. Here, an edited transcript of my interview:
CF: Was Rahm Emanuel advancing his own interests when he tried to persuade Blago to put Valerie Jarrett into Obama’s Senate seat? Did Rahm want her out of the White House?
JA: Yeah, sure. I think that [Rahm and Valerie] have a perfectly decent relationship now, but early on, they had some tension during the transition. Both … know that the President very much wants them to get along, and so they do. [Promoting Jarrett] happened to suit Rahm’s purposes because he wasn’t sure that he wanted a competing power base that was closer to the President and First Lady than he was. Obama and Michelle decided that they wanted her in the White House; Michelle felt—and feels—strongly about it.
CF: It’s good for Obama that he wasn’t involved.
JA: The two quotes from Rahm are, Blago says, “What do I get from this?” and Rahm says, “Our appreciation.” I don’t see what’s corrupt about that.
CF: It seems that Rahm was strongly implying that he was making this call to [Blago’s chief of staff] John Harris as an emissary for Obama.
JA: Nothing wrong with it; that’s politics. There’s a point at which it doesn’t make any sense to make politics look sleazy just because it has crazy people like Blago associated with it.
CF: What does Valerie Jarrett do in the White House?
JA: She runs the Office of Public Engagement, which has a lot of projects. The first one they did was run the White House health-care conference that kind of kicked off the efforts on health care reform. She also has this other role in which she opens him up to business people. She’s been less successful at that, and there’s a common complaint that he’s not surrounded by enough business people. She seems to be the only one around the president on a regular basis who has any business experience.
CF: What really happened to [former social secretary] Desiree Rogers?
JA: Desiree was chagrined that she didn’t get more backing from Valerie and the rest of the White House. I felt the whole Salahi thing [Tareq and Michaele Salahi’s security breach at a White House state dinner last November] was kind of silly. The President was never in any jeopardy.
CF: Were the guns out for Desiree because of her posing for Vogue?
JA: They were; the long knives. Yeah, and she didn’t treat her staff well. Michelle was really a stickler for this. On one of the very first days he was in office, Michelle had her staff and the household staff form concentric circles. She said to her staff, “Your job is to learn their names, it’s not their job to learn your names.” Now [Desiree] wasn’t fired, but when she was on the griddle, they made no public statements backing her. Desiree got kicked when she was down, and I think that she did a lot of innovative things in that job, and she was important in making [the White House] the people’s house—which is what Michelle wanted. They had disadvantaged children from Washington there all the time. For all the talk about [Desiree’s] glamour-puss quality, she took [her job] out of being a society page thing to society in the larger sense.
CF: I wrote about Michelle during the campaign and just after the election, and I thought, for all her insisting that she was going to focus on raising her daughters, that she’d be more visible. Does it surprise you that she is not more of an activist First Lady?
JA: It’s not as if childhood obesity—“Oh, that’s a nice First Lady issue.” It has a major impact on health care. She’s more powerful than she seems. Axelrod jokes that she’s the Supreme Leader. She does have more influence on her husband than people realize.
Alter ended the interview by telling me about taking his son, Tommy, then 13, to Washington in 2004 so he could watch his father interview Obama, who had just been elected to the Senate. Alter recalls: “When we left the interview, my son said, ‘Dad, he’s going to be president in ’08,’ and in a patronizing way I said to my son, `No, Tommy, when you cover politics as long as I have you’ll know that he’s not going to be President in ’08, probably not in 2016 either.’” Five years later, as Alter and Obama chatted in the Oval Office before an interview for The Promise, Alter recounted the father-son exchange to the President. Obama said, “You tell Tommy… he should have talked me out of it,” adding, “That’s a joke.”
“He knew he was talking to a reporter,” Alter said.
Photograph: Damien Donck