Like many others in our business, Jonathan Alter says he is "on fire" about the Justice Department's snooping on reporters and attempting to criminalize investigative journalism, including labeling respected Fox News Washington correspondent James Rosen a "co-conspirator" in a leak investigation.
Alter — whose second history of the Barack Obama era, "The Center Holds," comes out next week — is puzzled about why a former constitutional law professor allowed such a sinister turn.
"What is it about Obama that he so disdains us?" he muses. "Presidents always hate leaks. Ronald Reagan said, 'I've had it up to my keister with these leaks.' But they usually don't act on it. Even if Obama didn't personally sign off, people always sense by osmosis what leaders are thinking and go in that direction. His people know that leaks offend his sense of discipline and that he likes to protect his right flank by being tough on national security.
"Kennedy had been a reporter, but Obama is not friendly with the press. And he has contempt for people who don't do their jobs, and, when you talk to the press out of school, you're not doing your job."
Alter, a fellow Chicagoan who thinks Obama has generally been a good president, has closely studied the central paradox about the man.
"He won a majority twice in elections for the first time in half-a-century without liking the business he's chosen," the writer says. "He's missing the schmooze gene."
As Bill Clinton noted, it was strange that Obama was good at the big stuff, like foreign policy, and bad at the easy stuff, like connecting to people.
By 2011, Obama's insularity was hurting him with Democratic donors, elected officials and activists, Alter writes, adding: "Democratic senators who voted with Obama found that their support was taken for granted. Many would go two or even three years between conversations with the president, which embarrassed them (constituents were always asking about their interactions) and eventually weakened Obama's support on the Hill."
It was not only powerful committee chairs and many Cabinet members who rarely spoke personally to the president, Alter notes. It was only in his second term that the Obamas invited the Clintons over for dinner in the White House residence. Obama is not a needy person, but he needs to think of himself as purer than this town.
He wanted to be, Alter writes, "nontransactional, above the petty deals, 'donor maintenance' and phony friendships of Washington. Here his self-awareness again failed him. In truth, he was all transactional in his work life."