‘The Center Holds’ presents anecdotes as supporting evidence

Posted Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies by Jonathan Alter Simon & Schuster, $30

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If political reporter Jonathan Alter’s latest literary endeavor is intended to be an objective account of the presidential race between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the attempt is, in the spirit of the season, a big swing and a miss.

The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies lacks empirical data to prove the author’s hypothesis: that the forces of the extreme right — most notably those in the Tea Party movement — drove the challenger into positions that lured (scared?) independents despondent over a still-lagging economy and a lack of a jobs agenda back to center, ground that Alter argues was held firm by the president.

Furthermore, a reliance on anecdotal evidence will leave readers seeking knowledge as the author traverses the pathway to a perceived subjective, and at times biased, account of the 2012 election.

Most regrettably, The Center Holds is a missed opportunity to give historians of the future a scholarly perspective on the events and demographic changes that decided the re-election of the 44th president.

One need not read far to realize that Alter holds Obama’s opposition — his “enemies” — in contempt.

Consider:

• He casts aside Tea Party folks as “crazies,” and “birthers” as pitching a “stupid story,” when all that is needed is to tell the reader why. A poll indicating voters’ thoughts on the matter would have been helpful.

• He disparages Donald Trump as a “clown act,” when good reporting would have allowed the reader to make that judgment.

• Time and again, Alter cites race as the true motivation of Obama’s critics before and since his first election, while never offering the scantest evidence that the assertion is true, other than an assumption based on the nation’s sorry past. Though he mentions it in passing, the author never explores the potential harm done to race relations by inflammatory remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the president’s onetime pastor and spiritual adviser.

• More than once, Alter affirms Obama administration officials’ impression that House Speaker John Boehner is a hard-drinking, weak-kneed leader, who, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was bent on not negotiating in good faith with the president as a strategy of obstruction and as a means to seeing Obama lose in 2012. Yet, nowhere in the book is the “other side” examined.

The charge ultimately loses credibility when the book later says the president had never attempted to find even a friendly common ground with the two. (They had never been invited to the White House for a personal one-on-one.) And, in fact, the president, the author writes, didn’t enjoy warm relations with anyone in Congress, even members of his own party.

In the same light, Alter poses as psychoanalyst, making the bold declaration that Obama’s 2008 election had “terrified” whites when “hordes of dark-skinned people would make whites a minority in the United States within 30 years.”

“This fear of losing control was matched by at least some measure of guilt,” he writes.

A check of the notes (inadequate for a book of this nature) in search of a reference to a social scientist’s study of such a thing was fruitless.

To the critic’s eye, this is yet another interjection of the author’s opinion or the favored blessing of knowing all, perhaps.

Alter doesn’t exclude the president from criticism, though too often the president’s alleged transgressions are portrayed as virtuous and apologetic. For example, the president’s aloofness and poor bridge-building skills not only hurt his relationships with the other party but also allies in his own party, Alter says, particularly big allies, such as former President Bill Clinton. This, Alter argues, is likely partly explained by Obama’s upbringing and his lack of the “schmooze gene.”

What Alter does have going for him is a career as a longtime journalist, a career that includes 28 years as an editor and columnist for Newsweek and nine presidential elections on his reporting résumé — experience that no doubt affords him access to those in the know.

Ultimately, he relies too much on this reputation, though he does give adequate representation to demographic changes and challenges to the GOP, and the Osama bin Laden killing. Also, insight into the president’s relationships within his administration are useful.

In the end, the right wing of the Republican Party might well have driven voters to President Obama, but wait for a better argument than “because Jonathan Alter says so.”

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