Some Critics Skeptical About Jodi Kantor’s New Book, The Obamas

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Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.

Corrections appended, 9:33 a.m. Jan. 11

Jodi Kantor’s White House tell-all The Obamas (Little, Brown and Company; $29.99) hit bookstores Tuesday, but some of the juiciest details have been aired online for days.

Courtesy Amazon / Little, Brown

The book chronicles the first 1,000 days of the Obama White House, providing an intimate look at the trials and tensions of a job as simple as, you know, running the nation.  The Obamas, as a political power couple who liberals very much want to admire, rarely encounter such specific personal criticism, so journalists are keen to reprint it. But Barack and Michelle Obama reportedly turned down every interview request from Kantor, so the New York Times correspondent simply wrote around that minor detail, interviewing no fewer than 33 White House staffers and aides who work closely with the Obamas. Sure, this makes the story no less accurate, but it has caused some skepticism among critics.

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But the strongest opinion on the book so far has come from the White House. It has taken issue with some of Kantor’s reporting and conclusions — without flatly denying all the relevant facts — such as the Administration’s alleged efforts to downplay an extravagant, star-filled Alice in Wonderland-themed Halloween party in 2009 (pg. 133) and supposed tension between the First Lady and key Obama advisers, in particular Robert Gibbs’ swear-laced tirade about comments Michelle Obama made in a French book (pg. 253).

White House pushback was immediate:

  • “The book is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years.… The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the President and First Lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts.” – (Eric Schultz, White House Associate Communications Director, The White House blog)
  • “Washington will enjoy the second-hand gossip … She begged for an interview up to the day the book went to the printer … Is it really news that Rahm wasn’t seen as a great manager? Or that, as is true in every White House, there were occasional East Wing-West Wing tensions?” – (an unnamed White House adviser, in an email to Politico’s Mike Allen)

And many reviews were decidedly mixed:

  • “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.” – (Erik Wemple, Washington Post)
  • “The conflict, the profanity, the yelling: it’s the sort of vivid, if ultimately meaningless, detail that provides … lurid and irresistible zing. Such books regard more earnest matters like history, context, and ideas the way a child looks at a plate of Brussels sprouts. They aim to serve up big bowls of ice cream. And, no matter what Michelle Obama counsels, we political gluttons will lick the spoon clean.” – (David Remnick, The New Yorker)
  • “There are strange moments of a gee-whiz tone that sounds forced from a seasoned reporter, and a few signs of haste in the proofreading, like an almost verbatim repetition of this point: ‘It was hard to name more than one or two Republicans with whom the president had a close, trusting relationship.’” – (Jeffrey Burke, Bloomberg)
  • “Cue the groans. What kind of journalist presumes to know Michelle Obama’s mind? In lesser hands The Obamas would be an act of astonishing overreach, but Ms. Kantor, who covered the Obamas for The New York Times during the 2008 presidential campaign, and is currently a Washington correspondent for the paper, has earned the voice of authority. A meticulous reporter, Ms. Kantor is attuned to the nuance of small gestures, the import of unspoken truths. She knows that every strong marriage, including the one now in the White House, has its complexities and its disappointments. Ms. Kantor also — and this is a key — has a high regard for women, which is why hers is the first book about the Obama presidency to give Michelle Obama her due.” – (Connie Schultz, The New York Times)

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Correction: The updated version of this article corrects the book’s price, distinguishes between White House dissent and critical review and clarifies one of the reviews.