A Political Club Soda

The Center Holdsby Jonathan Alter

Simon & Schuster. 448p $17

In The City of God, St. Augustine describes how the destruction of Carthage led to Rome’s demise. The cloud placed over Rome by its fierce rival kept its morality in check. When Rome destroyed Carthage, “a crowd of disastrous evils forthwith resulted from the prosperous condition of things.… The lust of rule, which with other vices existed among the Romans in more unmitigated intensity than among any other people, after it had taken possession of the more powerful few, subdued under its yoke the rest, worn and wearied.”

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In The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies, Jonathan Alter tells the tale of “the more powerful few” in the American empire and their lust for rule. But what does it say to the rest of us, the worn and wearied?

Alter speaks from within the chambers of the powerful few. The son of a Chicago politician, he attended Philips Andover, edited the Harvard Crimson and moved swiftly into a prime columnist slot at Newsweek, which he occupied for nearly three decades. During that time, he held fast to the inside track of the Democratic Party.

During his years at Newsweek, Alter was an informed pundit, a fizzy standby. If reading Anthony Lewis was or David Brooks is like sipping a nice brandy, then Alter offered a club soda.

This is what Alter offers in The Center Holds, an insider view of the last political season, but with little depth as to the meaning of it, other than that it prevented a rightward swerve. For campaign strategists, political junkies and Washington operatives, the book might be required reading. For the average educated citizen, it’s soda water.

Take Alter’s treatment of campaign finance. He gives colorful details about major individual financiers—familiar names like Adelson, Soros and the brothers Koch. But do not look for much insight as to where the current of campaign finance is taking us.

One problem is that the book comes too soon. Here we have, just months after Obama’s re-election, a book about the president’s first term and how he got re-elected. The same book about Eisenhower or Reagan or Clinton would be more compelling—not because their stories are more compelling, but because the passage of time allows for greater perspective. The Center Holds sometimes feels like reading a year-old newspaper.

On the other hand, because we are just past the midpoint of the Obama presidency, parts of the story already feel dated. Alter tells us, for instance, that Mr. Obama will someday “be seen as the president who pioneered the use of digital technology that, in various forms, will now be a permanent part of politics around the world.” There, he is not talking about Edward Snowden or Prism, the secret surveillance data mining program. He is talking about the Obama campaign’s use of data in electioneering. Prism was still behind the curtain when Alter’s book hit the presses.

In recent months, we have learned that the National Security Agency is collecting U.S. citizens’ phone records, e-mail and Web visits for future reference; that the Justice Department confiscated Associated Press phone logs; and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been maintaining a secret fleet of drones for domestic surveillance. Had Alter published a few months later, would he have commented on how President Obama has presided over the expansion of an architecture for mass surveillance?

For a clue, let us look to the ramp-up in overseas drone strikes under the president. Alter assures us, without irony, that “Obama was worried that a successor wouldn’t be as careful as he was in assessing targets, though the expansion to so-called signature strikes (targeted on ‘likely’ enemy combatants, not specific individuals known to be dangerous) had already greatly increased the casualties.” Alter makes a passing reference to the C.I.A.’s targeted killing of a 16-year-old American boy and his friends in a Yemen restaurant in 2011 as “collateral damage.” But he says nothing about the killing of 21 children in a drone strike in 2012. Nothing on the “double taps”—a second bombing on the same target that kills first responders. Mr. Obama has let the drone genie out of the bottle, and Alter declines to delve.

Of course, Alter might not be in the best position to squawk about the “war on terror.” In November 2001, Alter penned a column that waved forward the Patriot Act and encouraged the use of torture or “transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies.”

In The Center Holds, Alter again comes off as jaded when he describes Mr. Obama as the man who “had all but pulled the trigger and blown Osama bin Laden’s brains out.” Alter also reveals a bit of his worldview when he faults President Obama and his team for spending “endless hours confronting a crisis that would soon be forgotten” instead of focusing on political problems. The forgettable crisis in question? The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Alter is interested in the president’s ability to obtain and keep power, not in whether he wields it justly.

Still, The Center Holds depicts a president whose distaste for the grubbier aspects of politics has diminished his ability to rule. Mr. Obama is portrayed almost as a modern philosopher-king. One thinks of Marcus Aurelius, a deep thinker surrounded by shallow, divisive egotists. (Leave aside that the empire began to fall apart upon his death.)

Alter deals gently at times with Gov. Mitt Romney. But he also reminds us, in case we had somehow forgotten, just how obscene a collection of candidates the Republican Party put forth in the 2012 primary, a “clown car” of panderers and narcissists. The few candidates who refused to embarrass themselves in their lust for rule never had a chance.

It could also be that the Obama who was elected in 2008 never had a chance to be the president he promised to be. He gave many the hope that he would turn America away from the path of empire, that he would bring a renewed sense of moral direction to the White House. But beyond arguing that things would have been worse under Mr. Romney, Alter offers little to encourage that subset of worn and wearied Americans that their hope was well-placed.

For Alter, it is enough that Obama held the line against the barbarians he sees swarming in the Republican Party and middle America. The president’s principal flaw, to this loyal insider, is that he is too noble to deal effectively with the knaves crowding the earthly capital. If true, there are serious implications for the rest of us. Unfortunately, Alter does not explore these. Like so much in politics, his book is mainly about winning.

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