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Literary siege: Obama and the authors

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 9:41 AM

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.

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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's 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.


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