Saturday, December 16, 2017
Books

Review: 'The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies' by Jonathan Alter

Can events that happened just last year be properly regarded as "history"? Ordinarily, I would answer that with an emphatic no. History requires perspective, and perspective requires time. There are no shortcuts.

But when it comes to the world of politics, the 24-hour news cycle spins so much faster than the cycles of history that it almost feels like a relief to start trying to gain perspective as soon as possible. Book-length examinations of relatively recent political events can be the resting point we need to make sense of current events.

That's where Jonathan Alter's new book on the 2012 campaign comes in. The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies begins in late 2010 with the rise of the tea party and the defeat of congressional Democrats around the country. It continues through President Barack Obama's re-election victory two years later.

Alter is a journalist with a historian's bent. He wrote about President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office in the 2006 book The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. A Chicago native, Alter met Barack Obama when the latter was a state senator in Illinois. Years later, Alter gained special access to the administration for a book on Obama's first year in office, The Promise.

Alter too is trying to gain perspective. Again and again, he compares today's political moments to moments in presidential history. When he writes about Obama's most extreme detractors — those who falsely said Obama was a radical Muslim born in Kenya — Alter reminds us that other presidents got much the same treatment. John Adams was called a "hideous hermaphroditical character," Abraham Lincoln was depicted as a hairy baboon, and Roosevelt was deemed a Jewish bloodsucker.

Alternatively, when critics say Obama should tap his inner LBJ and force Congress to do his will, Alter reminds us that President Lyndon B. Johnson had earmarks to dole out and a majority in the Senate that was usually filibuster-proof.

Alter opens his book with the premise that Obama's detractors actually ended up helping the president in the 2012 election, with their irrational conspiracy theories and over-the-top criticism driving a small number of moderate independents into the president's corner. But Alter also makes the case that Obama has several critical faults as a leader that have led to a string of tactical losses.

One chapter is devoted to Obama's missing "schmooze gene," an almost innate trait that most pols have to court opponents and soothe the egos of powerful supporters. Obama just isn't like that, Alter reports, and has a tendency to detach from the nuts and bolts of the legislative process. Obama also hates the political culture of sound bites and zingers, which led to his droning, listless performance in the first presidential debate. Overall, Alter is sympathetic to Obama's presidency, but he also provides strong doses of skepticism.

However, even with its moments of historical reflection, The Center Holds is primarily a work of political journalism. Alter, a regular guest on MSNBC, won access to the interior workings of Obama's re-election campaign, and he pulls back the curtain to reveal its sheer relentlessness.

To get a sense of exactly where the campaign stood at any given moment, the campaign's analytics team used nightly polling of thousands of voters — between 4,000 and 9,000 people, many more than found in routine public polling. To corral additional votes, the team used demographic information and public records to find people who were unlikely to vote, then arranged personal contacts from Obama's committed volunteers.

And the campaign pioneered new ways to stoke fundraising. For its cadre of regular small donors, it created a mobile app for one-click donations. "The mobile app led to what the campaign called 'drunk donating,' where Obama supporters agitated by polls showing Romney gains impulsively kicked in before they thought better of it," Alter writes.

In other chapters, Alter goes inside the Romney campaign to reveal its strategic missteps and how the Republican team thought they were winning well into election night. He looks at Obama's relationship with black political leaders, including a falling-out with university professor Cornel West.

In an extended section, Alter interviews the South Florida bartender who made the "47 percent" video and reveals his motivations for getting the video out: The bartender was infuriated with Romney's glowingly positive descriptions of working conditions in Chinese factories.

Alter's book is among the first of several to be published this year that are supposed to take us behind the scenes of the 2012 campaign. For people who followed the campaign closely and who love politics, these retellings are slightly addictive, a way to relive the high drama of a presidential campaign and start to suss out what we'll remember decades from now.

Still, we need more time to make sweeping judgments about the events of 2012 and what they mean for the future. Daily journalism, it's said, is the first draft of history. Let's consider book-length journalism of recent events a second draft that's still in the process of revision.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the deputy editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. She can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Adam Savage’s ‘Brain Candy Live!’ at the Straz Center: Canceled

Looks like the idea of Brain Candy Live! returning to Tampa Bay in 2018 turned out to be a myth.The interactive science spectacular, co-hosted by MythBusters' Adam Savage, has canceled its upcoming North American tour, including a May 5 event at the ...
Published: 12/15/17
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Salma HayekSalma Hayek has spoken out against Harvey Weinstein, calling the producer a "monster" who threatened her career and her life after she reportedly denied his sexual advances. Hayek said working with Weinstein on the film Frida was like "goi...
Published: 12/15/17
What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

What to watch this weekend: ‘A Christmas Story Live,’ Star Wars movie marathon, Hollywood Christmas Parade

OH, FUDGE! A CHRISTMAS STORY LIVE!The trend of live musicals broadcast on television isn't slowing down anytime soon, and A Christmas Story Live! — based on the classic holiday movie and Broadway musical — was ripe for the next taking. Fo...
Published: 12/15/17
Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

Harry Potter’s Nymphadora Tonks, Natalia Tena, joins A Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

The bubble gum pink-haired, shape-shifting witch Nymphadora Tonks from the last four Harry Potter films is headed to A Celebration of Harry Potter next month.Natalia Tena marks her first appearance at the annual wizarding world celebration Jan. 26-28...
Published: 12/14/17
Kids’ books a popular read at meteorologist Ginger Zee’s home

Kids’ books a popular read at meteorologist Ginger Zee’s home

NightstandGinger ZeeZee, 36, is the chief meteorologist at ABC News. In her newly released memoir, Natural Disaster: I Cover Them, I Am One, the Rockford, Mich., native details her multiyear struggle with depression and her life in the limelight. "It...
Published: 12/14/17
Notable: 50 years ago

Notable: 50 years ago

Notable50 years agoThese three books document some of the events of the cultural watershed that was 1967.Ali: A Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Jonathan Eig is the first complete biography of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, who in 1967 refused to be dr...
Published: 12/14/17
Review: Kevin Young gives readers the truth about ‘Bunk’

Review: Kevin Young gives readers the truth about ‘Bunk’

We live in the age of the hoax.Believe me.And if you don’t believe me, believe Kevin Young, author of the sometimes disturbing but always fascinating new book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.In it, Yo...
Published: 12/14/17
Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

Uber Eats is delivering 'free' chicken McNuggets across Tampa Bay

You'll still have to pay the delivery fee, but the 10-piece McNuggets are free.
Published: 12/13/17
What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

What to watch this week: New season of ‘The Librarians,’ Gwen Stefani’s Christmas special

MondaySEASON FINALE: The Gifted, 9 p.m., Fox: The team at Mutant HQ is divided on what to do next after Jace is forced to hand over something valuable to Dr. Campbell.Disney's Fairytale Weddings: Holiday Magic, 8 p.m., Freeform: A behind-the-scenes l...
Published: 12/11/17
This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

This week’s pop culture winners and losers: Tonya Harding edition

WINNERS: Tonya Harding The once disgraced Olympic figure skater is no longer on thin ice in the pop culture world. Harding joined Margot Robbie, who is playing her in the upcoming film I, Tonya, on the red carpet this week. While Harding pleaded g...
Published: 12/08/17