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Jonathan Alter’s insider take on Obama’s glorious first year.
The Promise: President Obama, Year One
By Jonathan Alter
(Simon & Schuster, 458 pages, $28)
“A mile above sea level,” reads the first awful sentence by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in his prologue to this book, “the thin Denver air refreshed the throngs as they waited in the summer darkness for their man to ascend. It was an electric evening for a nation yearning to believe in something or someone again. Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination for president on August 28, 2008, the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial.”
As far as we know, no loaves and fishes to feed the hungry multitudes, no water changed to wine. But otherwise, the symbols are all there — the adoring throngs, the mountaintop, the ascension — and the tone is set. And there’s much more. Several months later, Election Day, “A new generation of elites felt no embarrassment over displays of love for their country. In Harvard Square, students stopped traffic and sang ‘God Bless America’ and ‘America the Beautiful.’”
Wow! Harvard Square! Elites! The first time! We’ll take his word for it, just as we’ll take his word that on LaSalle Street in Chicago, an unnamed “working-class African American” stopped an unnamed “white reporter” to offer congratulations. “Congratulations to you,” the reporter responded. “‘No, it’s you folks, the Caucasians, who did this, who should get the credit. We knew we’d vote for Barack today, but we just weren’t sure y’all would.’”
That “y’all” lends an air of authenticity, doesn’t it? And lucky he picked the right Caucasian to stop. But with such a precise and harmless quote, why are “the white reporter” and “the working-class African American” unnamed, just as so many of the 200 people the author says he interviewed are unnamed? In some cases, of course, it’s a matter of job security or fear of retaliation. In others, there’s no point at all. Poetic license? But no matter. Alter is a good reporter and writer, and his book picks up once he comes down from the mountain and off the street and settles into the White House, where he enjoys unusual access and is among friends — perhaps, at times, in-appropriately so.
A significant amount of space is given to Rahm Emanuel, former Illinois congressman, erstwhile booster of Rod Blagojevich, and Obama’s chief of staff; and David Axelrod, longtime consultant who has worked for nearly every Chicago Democratic politico and now serves as Obama’s political adviser. In a somewhat off-putting way, Alter always refers to Axelrod as “Ax” and Emanuel as “Rahm” or even “Rahmbo,” as one chapter is titled. (Wonder if they call him “Alt”?)
“I’m going to kill that f***ing dog,” Alter has Emanuel saying of the White House pet. “I told the president, ‘You can have your Portuguese water dog, but you’ve also got a pit bull and his name is Rahm.’ ” In his office, writes Alter, Emanuel keeps a name plate reading “Undersecretary for Go F**** Yourself.” A real Chicago tough guy, a hard man. “When an aide came to his office and stammered nervously on a difficult topic, Rahm barked at him, ‘Take your f***ing tampon out and tell me what you have to say.’ ”
Some say you can tell a great deal about the character of an executive by the way he treats his staff. But no matter. He’s a tough guy, and proud of it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have allowed his friend Alter to use the direct quotes. But you can’t help but wonder. Elsewhere, Alter tells us that Emanuel is “only five-foot-eight and 150 pounds,” who, “as a young man was such a good ballet dancer that he was invited to join the Joffrey Ballet,” and attended Sarah Lawrence, where, back in the day, only smart girls used to go.
As a top adviser, Alter tells us, Emanuel was also expected to send a tough-guy foreign policy message to Israel: “The message was unmistakable: President Barack Hussein had a chief of staff named Rahm Israel Emanuel and he would use his knowledge and credibility for a new level of candor in U.S.-Israel relations no matter how much the Israeli press screamed about it or Netanyahu himself called Rahm and Ax ‘self-hating Jews.’ ”
Has the message been effective? Writes Alter: “The two fundamental foreign policy issues of Year One were restraining nukes — the most immediate threat to everyone’s security — and improving relations with the Muslim world.” On restraining nukes, aside from the one Soviet-era-style signing ceremony between the U.S. and Russia that accomplished nothing, there’s little to point to. In fact, at the same time we’ve lost respect in the Arab world, we’re perceived as having turned our back on Israel, whose security is immediately threatened by Iranian nuclear development. As a result, the Israelis, increasingly isolated, may feel they’re being forced to take matters into their own hands.
In the other important areas of concern — Pakistan and Afghanistan — “Chaosistan” is the chapter heading — Alter attempts to make sense of the administration’s efforts to fashion a coherent policy. Thus far, Obama has taken two shots at articulating it — one in a speech at West Point, the other in his Nobel acceptance speech. Although George Bush’s successful surge was ultimately responsible for stabilizing Iraq, neither the name “Bush” nor the word “surge” was mentioned in either speech or in any White House or Pentagon pronouncements.
But in the end, after great procrastination (what Dick Cheney called “waffling”), Obama proposed a surge — a limited, modified surge, to be sure, and not called that — but a surge, nevertheless, and a surge with the odd codicil that while we surged we’d be getting ready to leave. Alter quotes David Gergen: “The cavalry is coming — but not for long.”
Incidentally, although Alter skirts the point, the president’s Nobel speech, initially celebrated in the major media as a brilliant statement of a new “Obama Doctrine,” with its emphasis on national strength and just wars, and minus the obligatory Niebuhrian felicities, could just as well have been read by George W. Bush.
And finally, before leaving “Chaos-istan,” it would be well to take note of the germ of an idea planted with Alter by his White House friends, involving General David Petraeus. The president, worried about Pentagon and military buy-in to his confused — and confusing — surge, suspected that Robert Gates, Admiral Mullen, and Petraeus had been conspiring to torpedo his plan, using General McChrystal as their front man. The upshot was “a cold and bracing meeting” at which Obama (some might say Queeg-like) accused his defense chairman and military leaders of plotting against him, and demanded they swear their fealty. They did, of course, and Alter reports that Admiral Mullen was “chagrined,” denying that anyone had ever tried to limit the president’s policy choices.
As Alter puts it, apparently swallowing the White House spin whole, “The commander-in-chief…undertook the most direct assertion of presidential authority over the U.S. military since President Truman fired General MacArthur in 1951.” And although Alter doesn’t mention it, by so doing, he also set the military up to take the fall, should his confusing and contradictory policy in Afghanistan fail, as seems likely. And then there’s this: “Some aides worried…that Petraeus was politically ambitious and was making an implied threat: Decide Afghanistan my way or I just might resign my command and run for president in 2012.” And so, in approved Chicago fashion, you hit your perceived opponent first, in this case sending a message through a sympathetic journalist.
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