Inside Obama’s White House
Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise, spent months in Washington, DC last year interviewing 200 Obama observers working inside and outside of the government. He wanted to understand what the President was like — from the meetings he held in the Oval Office to his interactions on the basketball court, and more.
In the book, Alter shares tales of Obama preventing a fistfight involving a Congressman, cursing leaks, playfully trash-talking his advisors, and joking about some taboo topics. Ultimately, Alter found Obama to be an authentic, demanding, unsentimental, and sometimes over-confident leader.
“He adapted to the presidency with ease, and put more points on the board than he is given credit for,” Alter explains. “But he also neglected to use his leverage over the banks and failed to connect well with an angry public.”
Following are some tips Alter says he gleaned from covering the Obama White House:
Perhaps you’d like to take a page from Obama’s playbook?
1. Don’t ‘Re-Litigate’ Decisions
Obama saves crucial time by not revisiting decisions he has already made unless there is new evidence to be introduced. “You’re relitigating” is a real insult from him.
2. Call on the Junior People in Meetings
Obama uses a Socratic dialogue and makes sure to ask questions to the subject experts, not just senior officials. He doesn’t have much use for wallflowers. If you don’t contribute, you’re not likely to be invited back.
3. Strip Emotion Out of the Equation
This works well to improve the odds of a sound, dispassionate decision behind closed doors. Unfortunately for Obama, he fails to re-introduce emotion into his sales job, which hampers his persuasiveness in the public part of the job.
Jonathan Alter’s Tips on How to Write a Bestselling Book
We also picked the author’s brain on the top three tips entrepreneurs can integrate into their strategy to sell a bestselling book. He said:
1. Research, Research, Research
2. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
3. Sell, Sell, Sell
He’s not kidding
When Alter began writing his 2006 book about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, he went through an equally intensive process as he did when researching The Promise.
Again, he posed three questions that he was determined to answer in the course of his research: What turns a person into a leader? What is the relationship between being a great personality and a great president? What enables one person to lead when others—perhaps more intelligent or experienced—fail to rise to the occasion?
It helps, he insists, to have a passion for your topic.
A history buff since he was a young child in Chicago (his mother used to bake a cake on February 12 so he could celebrate Lincoln’s birthday), Alter has covered the last six presidential campaigns for Newsweek and has won countless awards for his insightful columns and political reporting. In 1999, while working on a segment for the TODAY show, the idea for the FDR book came to him.
“We were asking the ‘what if’ questions of the 20th century: What if John F. Kennedy had put up the bubble top on his convertible that afternoon on November 22, 1963? What if Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s car hadn’t slowed down for a turn in the road, enabling an assassin to shoot Ferdinand and his pregnant wife on June 28, 1914; would World War I have started? What if, on February 15, 1933, one of the five shots fired in Miami by Giuseppe Zangara had killed Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who was to become known as the best president of the 20th century?”
The search for answers to that third question sent Alter, 48, to the stacks of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, to research the period between the campaign of 1932 and the end of Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office.
It turned out there was a lot written about Roosevelt’s life and the New Deal, but never before had anyone focused too intently on this pivotal year. So, Alter began digging.
He leafed through hundreds of newspapers from the 1930s and read every magazine and diary he could get his hands on. The Internet also proved to be a useful tool, and he discovered more than 100 books from the time period, many of which had been out of print for decades.
The books, about $5 each, arrived carefully wrapped in brown paper and Alter devoured each one. Soon, the Chicago boy who graduated from Harvard with honors in 1979, landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster. The result was the 432-page bestselling book.
Bringing history to life
This slice of American history comes to life as a series of short, engaging chapters that are grouped chronologically: “Lightweight Steel” is about the people and events that led Roosevelt to the White House; “The Ascent” documents the 1932 campaign, and how FDR nearly lost the Democratic nomination; “The Crisis” discusses the trials the president faced during the winter of 1933, including his near assassination in Miami; and “The Hundred Days” is the grand finale that shows how FDR moved America from one of its lowest points in history into the New Deal.
Alter says one of FDR’s greatest accomplishments was that he redefined the purpose of government: Is it to help the rich stay that way? Or is it to help all Americans, especially those in need?
“Being that he was brought up an aristocrat, the elite in the country hoped he’d not only keep them rich, but help them get wealthier,” Alter says. “But Roosevelt believed that the United States Government had a responsibility to people in need – especially when the country was in the ‘hurricanes of despair,’ such as during the Depression or after a natural disaster. That belief continues to be part of the American way.”
Alter points to the days after Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans: “We didn’t ask if the president should come to the aid of the people. We asked if he was sending in the aid fast enough. Before Roosevelt, the country would have considered it the responsibility of the local government in Louisiana to clean up the mess.”
On a personal note
While writing the book about FDR, Alter faced his own personal hurricane. In 2004, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and a stem-cell transplant. Today, he is in remission. In fact, he wrote a Newsweek cover story about his battle in April 2007 (read that article here.)
“It was incredibly helpful to me to have spent so much time reading about how Roosevelt dealt with polio,” Alter related. “His courage inspired me to overcome my own illness. It’s amazing how everything is connected.”