Newsweek Columnist Alter’s White House Book Details Obama on ‘Teabaggers,’ Rahm’s Rage, Summers’s Nickname

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Jonathan Alter. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

As Democrats prepare to vote on the historic health-care legislation this weekend, a new look inside the White House is emerging from an upcoming book by Newsweek national-affairs columnist Jonathan Alter that's already being buzzed about in Washington political circles. The Promise, due out from Simon and Schuster in May, chronicles in a blow-by-blow narrative Obama's first turbulent year in office. According to an advance copy obtained by New York, Alter makes the case that early stumbles in vetting appointees and the polarized politics over the stimulus set a course for the rest of the year. While the book doesn’t upend the existing narratives about any of the administration’s major characters, it adds intimate, at times comic detail about many of them, starting with POTUS. In an interview with Alter on November 30, Obama offered that Republican opposition to the stimulus "helped create the tea-baggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans."

Other vividly drawn characters include Chief Economic Adviser Larry Summers, to whom Alter writes Obama gave the nickname "Dr. Kevorkian." Alter writes that Obama "privately supported Harvard’s decision to fire Summers in 2005 … because Summers clearly lacked the 'diplomatic skill set’ for the Harvard presidency.'" In the White House, Summers angled for the biggest portfolio he could get, but failed to get oversight on health care and energy. One of his chief antagonists was the powerful budget director Peter Orszag. Alter writes that a tennis partner of Summers’s warned him of Orszag: "Watch out for the guy with the cowboy boots and the bad toupee." One of the more amusing fights inside the White House, according to Alter, was over Obama’s coveted BlackBerry e-mail address, which was given to only 30 or so White House aides and Obama friends. "Summers was annoyed at not being included and complained to Rahm, who put him on the list," writers Alter.

Emanuel’s continual F-bombing is also well documented, if not exactly surprising. During the campaign, according to the book, Rahm told Bill Clinton to "stop acting like the fucking hack-in-chief." Even Bo, the Obamas’ dog, was a recipient of Rahm’s rage. "A few weeks after the first family got a dog, Rahm Emanuel ripped into Bo, whose household accidents were consuming valuable presidential time in cleanups." Alter reports Rahm saying, "I’m going to kill that fucking dog." In one meeting with a junior male staffer, Rahm apparently yelled: "Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say."

In an interview, Alter told me he hopes the book gives readers a deeper, more personal sense of the characters operating inside the White House. "I hope the book corrects some misconceptions and leads people to a more subtle understanding of who he is, where he has fulfilled his promise and where he’s fallen short so far," he told me.

One argument Alter makes is that Obama came late to health care — as a Senator in 2006 he didn’t even include it in a memo listing his policy priorities — but once in the Oval Office, he became a stubborn behind the scenes champion of getting it through Congress, even as many of his advisers warned it was the wrong course. Alter shows that Obama realized quickly that the reality of the White House is different in significant ways from the dream of it. During the campaign, according to Alter, Obama told David Axelrod that he thought being president would be an easier adjustment than being a candidate. He might be rethinking that analysis.