WASHINGTON – The White House has practically been overrun by journalists pumping top officials for behind-the-scenes details for behind-the-scenes books.
The blitz has created complications for presidential aides, who have a country to run, and frustrations for the authors, who are clamoring for face time with their sources. One White House official calls the mounting demands a pain in the posterior, saying: We try to engage when we can. No one is getting as much time as they want.
With the publishing world loving all things Obama, those working on such books include Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, NBC’s Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and David Maraniss, the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and two New Yorker writers – editor David Remnick and Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza. Time’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann, whose campaign chronicle Game Change became a huge best-seller, have signed a deal with Penguin Press to chronicle the 2012 contest – for an advance reported to be about $5 million.
Such contracts have caused high-level grumbling about reporters cashing in on their connections. But that hasn’t stemmed West Wing cooperation.
Everyone thinks the doors are flung open for the book authors, and you just take it all down in your notebook, says Wolffe, who published a favorable account of Obama’s 2008 campaign. None of that’s true.
Administration officials have been very good to me – I’m not complaining about it, Wolffe says. But everyone has to work it.
Alter, whose book The Promise is due out in May, says that he faced a lot of cancellations from overscheduled senior officials and that it was a matter of circling back, trying again.
He began taking them off campus.
When other White House aides would see me talking to senior people in the coffee shops, they thought, If so-and-so is talking to Alter, I might as well talk to him, too,’ he says.
Lizza agrees that when you’re working on a long-term project, it can really be hard to get time with people who have no time.
So why is the White House cooperating?
The goal is to make sure that people have accurate information, presidential spokesman Bill Burton says. The books are going to be written anyway.
The East Wing is also coping with a potential literary invasion. The first lady’s office has received two dozen book proposals involving Michelle Obama and her vegetable garden, and several more related to her fitness routine. But all prospective authors have received the same answer.
We are not cooperating with any books on the East Wing side, says Camille Johnston, the first lady’s communications director.
That stance could pose an obstacle for Kantor, who has a deal with Little, Brown said to be worth seven figures, to write about the personal side of the first couple.
A White House official said Michelle Obama is granting no book interviews because it is difficult to choose among authors who are seeking similar material. Left unspoken is that the first lady undoubtedly wants to write her own book when she leaves the White House.
When it comes to pursuing sources, the authors who work for major news organizations have a key advantage. They are in regular touch with Obama aides for their day jobs and can obtain tidbits by agreeing to embargo them until their books come out. But they also face a delicate balancing act, since tough stories might alienate potential sources and flattering ones might loosen tongues.
Fewer big-name authors tackled the subject of George W. Bush, although there was a spate of terror-related volumes after Sept. 11, and later, several books by disgruntled former insiders. An avalanche of Bill Clinton books – for and against him – began during his impeachment. The first black president, by contrast, has been treated as big box office and has drawn strikingly sympathetic media treatment.
For the most part, the works in progress aren’t dispassionate policy analyses. What makes political books sell – the backstage struggles, fiery memos, angry retorts – can be gleaned only from the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and, perhaps, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Some books differ in emphasis. Todd, who is assessing the partnership between two one-time rivals, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, says he has made progress in fits and starts. I’ve been able to get three or four people to fill in gaps in certain story lines, and then it takes me two months to get anybody else.
Remnick’s biography, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, reached stores today and includes interviews with the president. A Los Angeles Times review by historian Douglas Brinkley called the book brilliantly constructed, flawlessly written, saying it tells the astounding story of Obama’s rise to greatness through the prism of the civil rights movement.
Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is at least a year from finishing his family history of Obama for Simon & Schuster. As with his biography of Bill Clinton, it will end before the inauguration.
Anything new to say?
Access is, of course, crucial. When Woodward obtained interviews with Bush for three of his four books on the 43rd president and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was considered a coup because Bush rarely provided such cooperation. Obama, by contrast, has given a seemingly endless stream of television, newspaper and magazine interviews, and spoke with the authors of some books about the 2008 campaign. That raises an obvious question: Is it possible for authors to unearth fresh material about such an intensively covered administration?
Obama, whatever his political fortunes at the moment, commands a level of curiosity, says Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs Books. His story is one of unusual depth.