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Jonathan Alter Interview: Inside the Mind of a Veteran Journalist

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Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter is an award-winning author, reporter, columnist and television commentator. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers: The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2006), The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010) and his latest, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, released June 4, 2013 and in paperback May 3, 2014.

The Chicago native spent 28 years at Newsweek where he was a senior editor and columnist and wrote more than 50 cover stories. Alter has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, Bloomberg View and other publications. Since 1996, Alter has been an analyst and contributing correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.

“I think Shinseki’s resignation was necessary but not sufficient. They should give every vet a credit card that can be used at any American hospital. The VA should be reserved only for specialty services, especially for mental health, brain injuries and substance abuse, which should be beefed up.”

Alter is currently an executive producer of Alpha House, a political comedy created by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau which stars John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos as four U.S. Senators who share a house in Washington, D.C. The series, inspired by real life Congressmen who share a home in the Nation’s Capital, was released in 2013 and is produced by Amazon Studios. Alpha House has been renewed for a second season.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jonathan, your twitter feed a few days ago had something to do with Edward Snowden (the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked secret documents to the media)?

Jonathan Alter: Yeah. I got into it a little bit. There was a critical review of Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Michael Kinsley, and I tweeted it out. Greenwald responded, and I tweeted out another piece by a guy named George Packer. I find Glenn Greenwald, one of the people who helped Snowden’s revelations come to light, a man with not a very good reputation within journalism. It might not even be right to call him a journalist because mostly he’s an advocate, and he argues passionately and very effectively for his views.

Greenwald’s very smart, and I actually support what he accomplished in helping to tell the world about the Bulk Data Collection by the United States government. It doesn’t have everything to do with my view of the basic decision he made, but people need to know the context, and they need to know quite a bit of what he and Edward Snowden are saying. They don’t have as much regard for full transparency about themselves and their views as they’ve been on record in the past as they claim. So people need to make the distinction between their act, which is historic, and the way they operate which deserves more scrutiny.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about your latest book for a few minutes. How do you respond to critics who say The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies was written only from the stance of your political views and was not objective at all?

Jonathan Alter: First of all, good books have a point of view. They aren’t stenography. They shouldn’t be stenography, and the tone should be connected to the facts and where they lead. Also in the interest of transparency, I say very openly that I believe that the United States dodged a bullet in 2012 when radical republicans were prevented by the people from taking full power.

The test of a book is whether it’s truthful and well researched and reported and well written not whether the author has views that he advances in the book. Having said that, this book is not an argument or an op-ed piece. It’s a very heavily reported, detailed account of a two-year period in our national political life.

I interviewed people on all sides. I spent a particular amount of time, for instance, with Stuart Stevens who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist. We were emailing each other and talking on the phone at midnight routinely. I think if I had not heard the other side out or I had buried relevant facts that might’ve put them in a better light, that would be another matter, but I didn’t do that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were slammed hard by Fox News when the book was released last year.

Jonathan Alter: That wasn’t a surprise because I have a chapter in which I document things about Fox News and it’s founder Roger Ailes. Pretty much everything Roger Ailes said by way of trying to contradict me was factually untrue, and I’d be happy to go through each of them one by one and provide proof. In accessing my little confrontation with Mr. Ailes, those who don’t want to go through every bit of reporting can make a basic decision about credibility, and I would put my credibility over my 35-year career over his 50-year career any day of the week.

Roger has been documented on repeated occasions saying things that are untrue, and fortunately that hasn’t happened to me during my career. I’ve made mistakes, and when they’ve been brought to my attention, I’ve corrected them as quickly as possible, but I haven’t been guilty of documented falsehoods as he has.

In this book I’m trying to pull back the curtain on the backstory, the kind of hidden story of the 2012 campaign. Interestingly, in the year since the hardcover came out, with the exception of Roger Ailes, nobody has challenged any of the tens of thousands of facts in the book. The details of how the Obama campaign used big data to change American politics forever are only now coming to a wider audience. I learned recently that the book is being used in a class at the Harvard Business School to help people understand how American politics is changing.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool, Jonathan. Recently Roger Ailes and Bill Shine (executive vice president of programming at Fox News) were mentioned in a Gawker (New York City news blog) story that claimed Shepard Smith asked to come out as homosexual on the air but was stopped and demoted by Fox executives. Bill Shine issued a statement denying the allegation.

Jonathan Alter: I have no idea about that particular story because I haven’t done any reporting on it, but I tend to believe Fox. I don’t believe that Shepard Smith was demoted because he’s gay. But I have not looked into the story.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I find it interesting that the two political parties have undergone many changes over time. How have both the democrat and republican parties evolved over the last 30-40 years?

Jonathan Alter: Let’s look at it over the last 40 years and go back to 1972. The Democratic Party that year nominated George McGovern, a staunch liberal, for president, and he had very liberal views on foreign and domestic policy. In the years since then, particularly when Bill Clinton was president, the Democratic Party moved to the center. It became more receptive to Wall Street and the arguments and the priorities of American business and more centrist and interventionist in its foreign policy, so the democrats over the last 40 years moved to the center.

Republicans, going back to 1972, nominated Richard Nixon for re-election. That year the Republican Party platform had gun control and support for the agencies of government that Nixon established including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a much more regulatory approach to business. In the years after that, even under Ronald Reagan, there were a series of tax increases as well as cuts, and Reagan’s party had room for those who were pro-choice and moderate on both the social and economic issues.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting.

Jonathan Alter: Yes. Today’s Republican Party is not your father’s GOP. In fact, it’s not really a “grand old party” at all. It’s a radical new right party. This is true even beyond the Tea Party because if you look at Republican Party platforms, it is sharply to the right of where it used to be. The Republican Party was founded in 1854 on two issues: the opposition to expansion of slavery in the territories and support for what were then called internal improvements, and what we now call government spending on infrastructure and human needs (laughs). This is what the Republican Party was founded on.

Well into the 1950s, a hundred years later, Dwight Eisenhower supported almost all of the accomplishments of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He opposed certain ideas that democrats had, but the parties were in much closer alignment in those days, and there were many conservative democrats and liberal republicans. The presidents, whether it was Eisenhower or Kennedy or Nixon (Johnson’s a different story), tended to keep pretty close to the median strip.

When Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were president, they compromised with the democrats on all kinds of things. There continued to be compromise through George W. Bush’s administration, and they did things like push through a prescription drug program for seniors that Bush strongly supported as well as stepping up federal involvement in education. Many of the kinds of things that President Obama favors were being done in republican administrations in the past. For instance, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is similar in most respects to the proposal offered in 1994 by republican senators Howard Baker and Bob Dole and then implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But you are saying that the compromises have now ended?

Jonathan Alter: After the 2010 mid-term elections, new House Speaker John Boehner went on 60 Minutes and said that his party did not believe in the use of the word “compromise.” This is a word that our nation was founded upon, and we had one of our major political parties decide that it wasn’t a useful way of governing anymore, so over the last four years, the republicans have refused to compromise.

Democrats have offered many opportunities and many concessions. All they asked was a little bit of “give” by republicans most conspicuously on having some very modest and responsible tax increases to try to close the deficit which during the bulk of the 20th century was the main issue that animated the Republican Party but an issue that now takes a decided second place to cutting taxes.

The republicans became a tax cut party not a deficit reduction party, refused to vote for efforts to cut the deficit that required compromise and moved sharply to the right on almost every other issue repudiating its 150 years of support for rebuilding America, repudiating its 150 years support for funding of education, that goes back to the land grant colleges of the Lincoln administration, and became essentially a pre New Deal 1920s Republican Party.

I’m sort of jumping around in time, but that brings us to the 2012 election. I thought it was such a defining election because it wasn’t far left versus far right. It was center left versus far right, and the center held. That’s why I called the book The Center Holds.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The country seems much more politically divided than in years past. Even two years after the president was re-elected, anti-Obama people are still espousing all sorts of citizenship conspiracy theories and birth certificate questions. Is the majority of the hate primarily race based, or does it simply originate from differing political opinions?

Jonathan Alter: I don’t think it would be fair to say that it’s primarily racial. There are an awful lot of people who oppose the president for reasons that have nothing to do with race, and it’s unfair to them to say that it does. There are others, and their sentiments are clear from social media and other ways of communicating, that they’re animated by racism. Among them are some of our more influential conservatives. I would include Rush Limbaugh and others in that.

In my book, I go through the record. Nowadays with the Internet, you can research people’s records more easily than you could in the past, and somebody like Limbaugh has a long record of saying racially tinged things. I think if you look at the “birthers,” for instance, and the kinds of things that Donald Trump was saying, those are racially tinged. Trump was trying to get Obama to release his college transcripts despite the fact that several of his Columbia professors testified to Obama’s brains, and he became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, which is a major honor.

Trump seemed to have it in his head that Obama was stupid, and if you’d reveal his transcripts, it would show that. What is that? It’s just old-fashioned racism. So there is a racially tinged quality to some of the opposition to Obama, but I think most of it is part of a long historical tradition that goes back to John Adams. George Washington was really the only president who wasn’t subjected to this kind of thing, and every president since has been harshly criticized including most recently Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

It’s easier to see the venom with social media. In the old days at Newsweek, we would get letters typed in all caps with the red typewriter ribbon and exclamation point, throw them in the wastebasket, and nobody else would see them, or you’d hear some people raging a bit on talk radio before they were cut off. Now there are no boundaries on people’s venom. I wrote a book about Franklin Roosevelt, and he was viciously attacked. Anyway, it’s what I call “Obama derangement syndrome,” which is where the critics are so angry that they lose touch with reality.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Oh yes, it was very prevalent on the Internet and social media also when George W. Bush was elected.

Jonathan Alter: That actually started with what was called “Bush derangement syndrome,” when certain people on the left would be so twisted by their own hatred of Bush that they would say ridiculous things like, “You knew about 9/11 beforehand.” There’s a tradition of this kind of what used to be called calumny that goes back a long way. But having said that, the intense polarization in the country right now and the race of the president make it worse than average.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A recent Washington Post article states that there have been periodic blunders made in Obama’s administration, and the title of the piece is Where’s the Love? Even Obama’s Liberal Base Bailing. Comments?

Jonathan Alter: There’s no question that he mishandled healthcare.gov and the rollout of his healthcare plan, his signature plan. It was a fiasco as I’ve written about. Fortunately, in the time since, Obama’s administration has been able to make the website function. There have been these occasional flaps that come along. Some of them, like the problems with the VA, are serious. Interestingly, the veteran’s groups, with one exception, do not lay this at the door of the Obama administration but at the door of Congress which has not responded to a request for more funding for the VA system. At the same time, the president has made a number of blunders over the last five years, but there have been many fewer scandals than in most administrations which is something I don’t think gets much attention.

As for Obama’s liberal base, his overall numbers are down, but the base of his support remains strong. It just doesn’t happen to be present in the battleground states in the 2014 mid terms. His base is not a factor in those states because most of the important contests of the Senate are in red states where he doesn’t have much of a base. But if you look at his support among core democrat constituency groups with the exception of his support among young people, which is an important part of his constituency and where his numbers are down, the rest of the base (right now) still looks pretty solidly in the president’s corner.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was Eric Shinseki’s resignation as Secretary of Veterans Affairs necessary, and in addition to more funding, what else can be done to solve the VA crisis?

Jonathan Alter: I think Shinseki’s resignation was necessary but not sufficient. They should give every vet a credit card that can be used at any American hospital. The VA should be reserved only for specialty services, especially for mental health, brain injuries and substance abuse, which should be beefed up.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you familiar with the story of Mississippi attorney and Tea Party leader Mark Mayfield being among several people arrested for conspiracy in connection with allegedly photographing Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) bedridden wife in a nursing home?

Jonathan Alter: Oh yes. They did it to help Cochran’s republican primary opponent.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Cochran’s opponent, Sen. Chris McDaniel, has been endorsed by the Tea Party Express.

Jonathan Alter: I think it would be a shame if the Tea Party candidate were to beat Sen. Cochran in that Mississippi primary because the republican will be elected to the Senate. We don’t need anymore Tea Party extremists in the U.S. Senate. We already have a few, and we certainly don’t need somebody whose people do things like spy on the physically infirmed. But these kinds of things by overzealous campaign aides happen in both the republican and democratic parties from time to time, and I tend not to get too worked up about them.

I’m more interested in the way members of Congress vote. Recently there was a bipartisan bill to encourage energy conservation, which everybody’s for. It didn’t cost money, and it wasn’t controversial. It had much republican and democrat support, but for silly political reasons, the bill was killed. That has happened over and over again to legislation in the interest of this country.

It has been sabotaged by petty politics mostly, though not exclusively, on the part of the Republican Party. We can argue the particulars, which I’m happy to do. But if you go right down the list of things the American people support by wide margins in polls, each one of them has been stymied by the refusal of the Republican Party to compromise.

Democrats generally are willing to have a watered down compromise bill go through on something like background checks on gun purchases after the Newtown massacre which, by the way, used to be the position of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the early 1990s, but they couldn’t get it through Congress. What’s happened is republican incumbents are so scared of Tea Party challengers that they vote like the Tea Party whether it’s Mitch McConnell or anybody else. That’s why the recent news of some Tea Party setbacks isn’t really meaningful because the mainstream of the Republican Party voters like the Tea Party at this point, so there’s not really a dime’s worth of difference between them.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will the recent shootings in Santa Barbara prompt new gun control laws or mental health legislations, or have the American people just become too complacent when it comes to this type of violence? A victim’s father just recently met with the father of killer Elliot Rodger and said that they wanted the deaths of their children to mean something.

Jonathan Alter: The sad thing is that we are becoming numb to these shootings, which is a really terrible situation. What should happen is that people on both sides should say that we need both. We need more mental health counseling, more money for early warning of mental health issues and maybe more law enforcement that are trained to deal with mental health issues, mental health cases.

In this particular Isla Vista case, the sheriff’s deputies went over to Elliot Rodger’s apartment and didn’t see anything amiss. Now maybe that would’ve happened even if they’d had more resources for mental health. Some of these things are unavoidable, but we have as a society decided we’d rather endure these than have both increased mental health funding and common sense gun safety legislation.

That’s a very depressing decision, and it’s one that 90% of the American public doesn’t agree with. In other words, 90% of Americans, including millions of responsible gun owners, favor common sense gun safety legislation that Congress will not pass. The reason they won’t pass it is because that the 10% is very well organized and very vindictive politically against those who don’t toe the line. The NRA is out of control. People are afraid of it, and I don’t think the politics of fear is good for anybody in this country.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe it was reported that law enforcement officers spoke to Elliot Rodger several times over the past year, but they did not check the database to find out if he owned weapons. The guns were legally owned. Will Hillary Clinton win in 2016?

Jonathan Alter: Oh, Hillary is the favorite to be the next president. The Republican Party is becoming an old white political party in a country where the demographics are moving sharply against them. Republicans will do well in 2014 because they’ve established a pattern where 50 million fewer people vote in mid-term elections than in presidential elections, and those 50 million are largely democrats who stay home.

Republicans are in the habit of voting more often than democrats. In presidential years, republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and they don’t have a lot of avenues in turning that around unless they start figuring out ways to appeal to younger voters, Latinos and other fast growing parts of the population.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there someone who has come to the forefront in the Republican Party that might be a presidential candidate?

Jonathan Alter: I think it’s wide open on the republican side, and it would be very foolish to predict who the Republican nominee is going to be. The democrats are a different story. If she decides to run, Hillary Clinton will be the overwhelming favorite to be the democratic nominee and at least a slight favorite to be the next president.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jesse Ventura has stated that he might make a surprise appearance in that election with no party affiliation.

Jonathan Alter: There are a number of people who may run as republicans, maybe even a couple of democrats for the publicity. We’ve seen that in the past for both parties. Jesse could run as an independent, but he may have trouble getting on the ballot in most states, however, stranger things have happened than for Jesse Ventura to run and get some votes.

I remember visiting Jesse in his office when he was the governor of Minnesota, and nobody expected him to be elected governor, but his chances of actually being elected president are very slim. There’s an entertainment value in politics. It’s good for those of us in the press if a lot of colorful characters run. Otherwise we’re facing a fairly boring campaign. In my own journalistic self-interest, I say the more the merrier.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There’s Ted Nugent. Is he entertaining?

Jonathan Alter: Actually I don’t find him entertaining. I think he’s a menace because he just contributes to a climate of hate. He says extremely hateful and aggressively ignorant things, so do we need Ted Nugent in our politics? Not so much.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jonathan, can I assume that your early interest in politics stems from family influence?

Jonathan Alter: (laughs) Yeah, well I grew up in a democratic family in Chicago, and my mother was the first woman ever elected to public office in 1972 in Cook County which is where Chicago is located. Both my parents were very actively involved in different political campaigns and often in opposition to the famous “Daley machine.” But they had a lot of political interests, so that was influential for me growing up.

I had many other interesting experiences covering candidates of both parties, and probably my favorite campaign of all the ones I’ve covered was John McCain’s 2000 campaign. Sen. McCain let me get very close to the action, so I had a real front row seat for that one. I was even with him in the hotel room when he found out he lost the famous South Carolina primary that year which was a very dirty primary.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I remember the personal attacks. I cannot let you go without talking about Alpha House because I’m hooked on that show.

Jonathan Alter: Oh good. I’m so happy. That’s fantastic!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in the series?

Jonathan Alter: The story really started during the 2012 New Hampshire primary. Every four years I’ve taken a road trip with my friend Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury. That year when we were in New Hampshire, Garry told me that he had this script he’d written, a pilot about four republican senators who lived together in a man cave on Capitol Hill. It was based loosely on a collection of democratic senators who in real life lived together. Senators Schumer and Durbin are in that house.

Garry thought it was funnier and more poignant to change it to republicans although we have a couple of democratic senators in our cast. He had a script but no studio, and after a little while, I was able to sell the pilot to Amazon, and Alpha House became their first original television series.

Once House of Cards aired, people understood what I was talking about when I said I was involved in online TV. I have no experience in analog television, but as much experience as anybody as an online, digital TV producer (laughs). It’s all new which is part of what makes it a lot of fun. At first, Garry was saying it was just going to be like a You Tube video, but it turned out that we got HBO type budgets. We have over 100 people working for us and John Goodman and other fine actors in our production. The second season will be out in the middle of the fall.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on another book?

Jonathan Alter: I am working on the next book, but I’m too superstitious to tell you about it (laughs). It’s a history book. It’s a World War II book that I am just starting to work on. I’m also starting to write more for The Daily Beast where you can increasingly find my pieces, and I have a piece coming out soon in Slate magazine. I continue to appear on NBC and MSNBC.

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  1. David Farrar

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