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White House swamped with authors looking for the inside story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; C01

The White House has practically been overrun by journalists pumping top officials for behind-the-scenes details for a growing roster of 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 nourishing a deep appetite for 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 bestseller, have just 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 shut off the 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" to the Starbucks or the Caribou Coffee near Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street. "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," says presidential spokesman Bill Burton. "The books are going to be written anyway."

The East Wing is also trying to cope 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.

No first lady interviews

"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 a significant 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. The contract followed a Kantor article about the Obamas' marriage, written with the couple's cooperation, last year in the New York Times Magazine. (Over the weekend, the Times published a soft feature by Kantor about the Obamas' recent history of hosting Passover seders.)

Another Times reporter, Rachel Swarns, is on book leave to write about Michelle Obama's genealogy. This follows a Times article by Swarns and Kantor last fall that traced the first lady's ancestry to a slave girl who was impregnated by a white man just before the Civil War.

A White House official said Michelle Obama is granting no book interviews because it is difficult to pick and 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.

For Obama, kinder words

Fewer big-name authors tackled the subject of George W. Bush, although there were a spate of terror-related volumes after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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 often drawn strikingly sympathetic media treatment.

For the most part, the works in progress are not dispassionate policy analyses. What makes political books sell -- the backstage struggles, the fiery memos, the angry retorts in meetings -- can be gleaned only from the likes of Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and, perhaps, Obama and Vice President Biden.

Woodward, whose book will be published this fall by Simon & Schuster, has been writing bestsellers about presidential administrations since the Nixon years and has secured Obama's cooperation. But given his track record, he will be judged by how many secret documents he obtains and how much news he breaks.

"I'm trying to do what I do and not worry about what others are doing," Woodward says. "It's finding out as much as I can and trying to be as thorough and authoritative as possible."

Some books differ in emphasis. Todd, who is assessing the partnership between two onetime 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," will be published next week by Knopf 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."

The question, says Osnos, who published Obama's first memoir, "Dreams From My Father," in 1995, is: "Will the public appetite continue to be enormous? It will depend to some extent on the quality of the books."

Political hardcovers have fared well lately, with books by Karl Rove, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin all scoring high on the bestseller lists. But those were written by principal players. The journalists, for their part, depend on the long interviews required for narrative writing, and many officials are swamped with the daily deluge of work.

"I don't blame them," Todd says. "They don't want to be doing history in the middle of what they're doing."

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