New York Times veteran Jodi Kantor abandoned her journalistic senses this past week. Kantor is a trending topic in Washington, author of “The Obamas,” the second ambitious Obama administration look-back tome in the past several months. Unlike Ron Suskind’s “Confidence Men,” however, “The Obamas” goes a bit lighter on policy disputes in favor of exploring the personal relationships among the first lady, the president and key White House advisers.
To gin up interest for the book, which comes out on Tuesday, Kantor did an interview with Chicago Magazine that pumped new life into the tired Q&A mold. In the course of several hundred words, Kantor grabbed conventional journalistic wisdom, turned it on its head, stood it rightside up, then inverted it again. The gyrations spilled forth in an exchange about the book’s sourcing.
Kantor didn’t score an interview with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for the book. When asked about that omission in the interview, Kantor responded:
The story I wanted to write was never going to come from the Obamas’ lips. There’s so much they can’t say. I’d [previously] interviewed each of them on different topics, from religion to parenting to their marriage. I interviewed 33 White House staffers, most of them many times. I wouldn’t trade that for a quick interview with the president, because I’m not sure he’s at liberty to discuss the real questions I asked in this book. In a way, it goes to Barack Obama’s own predicament as president: He’s such a gifted storyteller. Yet can he really tell his own story anymore?
Only the most sophisticated GPS devices can track that logic. First Kantor says she didn’t need an interview with the first couple. Then sets up a false choice between an interview with the president and old-fashioned legwork with White House sources; no such either-or predicament ever faced the author, according to knowledgeable sources. Then Kantor constructs a notion that the president can’t speak out.
It’s not a transcription problem, believe it or not. Carol Felsenthal, who did the piece for Chicago, notes, “I taped the interview, transcribed it myself, and certainly stand by it.”
So what could explain such a series of assertions by a reporter from the New York Times? Money. In November 2009, media watchers reported that Kantor had secured a seven-figure advance for the book, which followed a story in the New York Times Magazine about the Obamas. The New York Observer called it a “stunning” coup for the then-34-year-old reporter. The account added this bit of speculation:
It could not be determined whether Ms. Kantor has secured the Obamas’ cooperation, but the fact that her story featured an extensive interview with them in the Oval Office seemed to indicate that she is going into the project with a good working relationship with them.
Million-dollar book deals garner adoring press and no small amount of pressure. The author has to deliver a memorable product packed with news and maybe a little back-biting to go along with it. And it’s clear that from the beginning, Kantor understood that delivering on her promises meant delivering the Obamas. According to one source close to them, Kantor pushed “repeatedly” for interviews with her primary subjects.
Rejections came her way, for reasons that didn’t reflect on Kantor, her journalism or the New York Times. Michelle Obama’s office, for instance, had decided not to cooperate with books, including Kantor’s project. Camille Johnston, a top aide to the first lady, favored this course because Michelle Obama may one day wish to write her own memoir, a work that would presumably cover the same territory that Kantor was espying.
To judge from the excerpt of “The Obamas” that ran in Saturday’s New York Times, Kantor’s work is a lot like her previous stuff on the first couple. That is, keenly narrated, personality-driven stories sourced deep within the walls of the White House. “The Obamas” has already earned a lot of attention from its revelation that the first lady had something approaching a freak-out over the failure of the White House to thwart the election of Republican Scott Brown to a Massachusetts Senate seat in January 2010. From the excerpt: “To her, the loss was more evidence of what she had been saying for a long time: Mr. Obama’s advisers were too insular and not strategic enough. She cherished the idea of her husband as a transformational figure, but thanks in part to the health care deals the administration had cut, many voters were beginning to view him as an ordinary politician.”
Fine writing. That storyline, though, suffers from the lack of input from the principals. Though we hear from others on how Michelle Obama felt about the Democrats’ losing Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat, that is, we don’t get her thoughts on the matter. [Full disclosure: I have not read the book which hasn’t yet been released.]
Perhaps a more intense relationship with the Obamas would have helped Kantor. Excuse the snark — that’s a riff on another noteworthy passage in the author’s interview with Chicago Magazine. Here goes:
They know exactly who I am. We have an intense relationship. They really care about the Times, they read the Times. I’ve seen them at the [White House] Christmas party every year. After the big marriage piece was published in the New York Times Magazine, I brought my husband to the Christmas party. I walked up the Obamas, and I said, “Well, now you can check out who I’m married to,” and they thought that was very funny; they pretended to inspect [him].
Though a Brooklynite, Kantor couldn’t have stricken a more Washingtonian tone. Playing up your intimacy with the president — that’s the classic ploy of the sharp-talking lobbyist sitting around a cherrywood conference room and exaggerating his access around town.