Journalist and best-selling author Jonathan Alter is adding TV political satire to a portfolio that until now has been heavily weighted toward real politics.
Alter is executive producer of "Alpha House," an online television series that will run on Amazon, written by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. It's a definite — and welcome — change of pace for Alter, who grew up around Chicago-style politics. (His mother, Joanne Alter, was a groundbreaking Cook County politician.)
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He also is touring the country promoting his latest book, "The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies," a New York Times best-seller about the 2012 presidential election published only seven months after the final votes were cast. It's a feat that had him writing 400 pages in a mere six months.
Alter was with Newsweek for almost three decades and remains an analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. He insists that his hobnobbing with the stars (John Goodman plays one of the four Republican senators living together in a Capitol Hill townhouse; Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert had cameos in the pilot) is only temporary. He'll be back at real politics soon.
Printers Row Journal talked with Alter about his new book and genuine politics — not the TV kind. Here's an edited version of the conversation.
Q: You write that the 2012 election was "a hinge of history." What do you mean by that?
A: This election was pivotal, the most consequential election of my lifetime, which (President Barack) Obama also believes. He believes that this one put it all on the line.
Q: What exactly was on the line?
A: All the achievements of 20th century progressivism that became part of the centrist American tradition. From Social Security to Medicare to aid to education to college loans. The whole notion of compassionate government was on the line. Not just Obama's programs but his predecessors' would have been reversed. (Mitt) Romney (as president) wouldn't have gotten everything he wanted, but he would have gotten a lot of it. We dodged a bullet.
Q: Tell me more.
A: This election had a huge potential to move the country to the right, and now it's all fantasy. So, we would be living in a different kind of country.
Q: With all the controversies erupting now — the NSA intelligence leaks, AP phone records seizure and the IRS targeting conservative groups — it's lucky for Obama that the election isn't being held tomorrow.
A: We don't live in a parliamentary system, which is a good thing for President Obama.
Q: Do you think all these problems enveloping the administration are just a blip?
A: My book explains how he overcame obstacles in the past. Remember, a year before the election, Nate Silver did a cover story in the New York Times Magazine and the cover line was, "So, Is Obama Toast?" So anybody who wants to know whether Obama can bounce back should read my book about how he did bounce back — already. And pretty fast. So, these things go up and down. We know he believes in persistence and taking the long view, so we know that he's not getting too worked up about all these stories right now because he doesn't get worked up about much of anything.
Q: He sure didn't seem to get worked up at the first debate with Romney.
A: I devote a whole chapter to that debate.
Q: In there you write about Obama's "complacent cockiness." What was that all about?
A: The audience got this palpable sense that he (Obama) didn't want to be there, and he's not a good enough actor to hide the fact that he has disdain for debates and doesn't think they have really anything to do with being a good president. The ability to give a snappy rejoinder to an opponent doesn't have anything to do with navigating the economy of the country through a stormy time. That's what he thinks.
Q: Well, he's right, isn't he?
A: I think he's right about that, but it gets back to "this is how it is done," and he needed to make more concessions (to that) — and then he did. In the second and third debates he came out swinging. He told his team, "Look I'm not that good at debates. I blew the first debate. I will win the second and third debates and I will be re-elected." His confidence kicked in. He did what he so often does: He hit a three-point jump shot at the buzzer.
Q: That Samuel Jackson story in the book …
A: There was this viral video of Samuel L. Jackson going into a complacent family's house that hadn't been voting for Obama's re-election and Jackson tells them, "Wake the f--- up." And so the president said to Patrick Gaspard, one of his longtime associates, "I didn't realize he was talking to me!"
Q: Bill Clinton, a pretty savvy vote counter, wasn't so sure Obama would prevail in 2012.
A: After the election, Bill Clinton told Mitt Romney that before Hurricane Sandy, just days before the election, he thought Romney was going to win.
Q: Tell me about Obama's missing "schmooze gene," as you call it.
A: The need to schmooze is an abstraction for him. Because he himself is not needy, he's not trying to fill a hole in his soul like a lot of politicians who are glad-handers. He doesn't need those fake friends (such as members of Congress), so it's harder for him to understand why they need his attention.
Q: You go into minute detail about Obama's "Big Data" and the re-election team's tech, digital and analytics squad housed in the secret annex "cave" in the Prudential building. They just walloped the Republicans by micro targeting potential supporters, then using troops on the ground to get out the vote.
A: I call it the geek gap. The Republicans are trying very hard to close it.
Q: You write about "the new Chicago Machine." How does it differ from the old Chicago Machine?
A: This just utterly fascinated me because I grew up in Chicago and my late mother was a politician both with and without Machine support. The old Machine was very much about personal relationships. I can remember our precinct captain. I remember his name. And he would come over and say, "How are you doing" and did we need any help. That part of the Machine is gone — the one that had a direct connection to city jobs and to constituent favors. That part of the Machine that got out the vote and that used face-to-face and friend-to-friend contacts has been reassembled by Obama after a long absence. The connection between technology and shoe leather.
Q: The weekend before the election, you say, there were 700,000 Obama volunteers in battleground states knocking on more than 5 million doors.
A: Less than 24 hours before the voting, the Obama pollster Joel Benenson was confident that they'd win. Mayor Rahm Emanuel told him, "You better f------ be right," only half joking. "See these guys?" he said, pointing to his security detail. "If you're not f------ right they will hunt you down and bring you back to me and I'll f------ take care of you myself."
Q: Oh, that doesn't sound like Rahm at all, does it?
Ellen Warren, a Chicago Tribune columnist and senior correspondent, is a member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. She has covered politics in Chicago, Washington, D.C., across the country and around the world. She has written about elections at every level from county assessor to the president of the United States.
"The Center Holds"
By Jonathan Alter, Simon & Schuster, 428 pages, $30Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun