A review of Jonathan Alter's The Center Holds
The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies
By Jonathan Alter
Simon & Schuster, 448 pages
Advertised as “a narrative thriller about the battle royale surrounding Barack Obama’s quest for a second term,” Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds is the second installment of a likely three-volume account of the Obama presidency. Now, if the second of three books about an incumbent politician by an admiring journalist sounds appealing to readers, then The Center Holds might be worth the cost and time. Otherwise, the student of contemporary history might wish to refrain from investing. Strictly speaking, there is nothing to be learned here—almost nothing whatsoever—not known already to the faithful consumer of newspapers and magazines.
The author has been granted various personal interviews, and access to the periphery of the Obama White House, including scenes which seem to have been staged for his benefit. (“The president was feeling liberated and free to express himself a little more now….One of his African American friends, switching to street vernacular, said, ‘Well, I guess that makes it perfectly clear: youse a bad motherf—er.”) But it is no surprise to observe that President Obama and his associates are very careful about what they say to Alter, and the conclusions Alter draws about what he observes are equally unsurprising.
Anyone familiar with Barack Obama, or with Jonathan Alter, can easily guess the theme of The Center Holds. Briefly stated, it is this: Barack Obama is a liberal Democrat of uncommon political skills who, with little preparation or standing for high office, has twice gained election to the presidency. This has been accomplished by a combination of Obama’s innate talents, as well as the ruthless machinery of his staff and associates. It has also been accompanied by a political opposition that is benighted, inept, disorganized, and outmaneuvered. Even a Republican might be willing to concede that, having lost the last two presidential elections, all is not well with the Grand Old Party; and this Republican, certainly, would argue that the field of candidates in 2012 was notably weak.
But it is always dangerous in politics, and perilous in journalism, to assume that the side you don’t approve of has lost its grip on reality, or is “extreme,” which is Alter’s considered judgment of the Republican Party. The same journalistic epithets have been attached to past Republicans—Alter came of age during the Reagan years—and yet they enjoyed electoral success. Did the center not hold in 1984?
Alter is not blind to Obama’s liabilities, and concedes that the president’s strengths—his intelligence, detachment, analytical nature—can be weaknesses as well. No one in his right mind would welcome regular consultation with, say, Senator Harry Reid, but Obama’s aloofness from his party in Congress, his fierce determination to keep his own counsel, has cost him points. And Obama, despite what you may read, is a politician, not purely a man of destiny. He finds himself constrained by facts and events, he is willing to follow rather than lead public sentiment, he travels down paths only as far as he can go.
Alter is caught between admiration for what Obama has achieved and frustration at what he believes Obama might have achieved. In that sense, of course, he is entitled to his opinion, which is nearly indistinguishable from the standard left-wing critique of Obama. But this merely points to the weakness of books such as The Center Holds: They are chronicles of daily politics, told strictly from a partisan standpoint, almost entirely devoid of pertinent detail or historical perspective. You would not guess, for example, that Obama’s principal “enemy,” Mitt Romney, won 47.5 percent of the popular vote in 2012, or that the months-long aftermath of Obama’s victory was consumed with an issue—gun control—that goes unmentioned in The Center Holds.
Similarly, the reader of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 (1961) would not have known that the first year of John F. Kennedy’s presidency would reveal his weakness and irresolution, or that Kandy Stroud’s How Jimmy Won (1977) would celebrate a presidency synonymous even in its first year with failure. Obama’s second term has followed this pattern. The revelations of Edward Snowden’s leaks about surveillance, the discovery that IRS bureaucrats have been targeting conservatives, the campaign to obscure the facts about the murder of the United States ambassador to Libya—none of this figures in The Center Holds. The intuitive reader might assume that Obama, like the grand old Duke of York, would march his men up the hill toward Syria, and then march them down again; but having read The Center Holds, he wouldn’t expect it. All he would know for sure is that Jonathan Alter, like most political journalists, yearns to record the chronicle of a hero; and that, in Barack Obama, he has found one.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?