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Jonathan Alter On Interviewing Obama, Clinton & Nixon

I think it’s fair to say that that helped to create the Teabaggers. - President Barack Obama
 

Jonathan Alter

Interview by

Obama interview November 30, 2009 in the Oval Office
Digital recorder

Alter's book available from Amazon

 

Transcript

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David Gerlach: Today: the art of interviewing a President. Okay. Cue the tape. This is President Barack Obama recorded in the Oval Office on Nov. 30, 2009.  Right here he’s reflecting on Republicans in the House of Representatives voting unanimously against his massive economic recovery act right after he took office.

Barack Obama: That was a big deal because it really set the tenure, the tenor for the entire year and I think it’s fair to say that that helped to create the Tea Baggers and empowering that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now basically controls the agenda for the Republicans entirely.

David Gerlach: Stop the tape…rewind that part.

Barack Obama: …you know, the Tea Baggers

Jonathan Alter: He called them Tea Baggers instead of Tea Party

David Gerlach: That’s Jonathan Alter. He writes for Bloomberg now after spending nearly three decades at Newsweek magazine. He’s interviewed every president since Nixon, except for Ronald Reagan. And this interview you’re hearing became a central part of Alter’s book; it’s called “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”

[“Hannity” clip: So Jonathan Alter’s “The Promise: President Obama, Year One]

Jonathan Alter: When details of my book leaked, Sean Hannity and others on Fox News blasted the President for comparing the Tea Party to homosexuals, because they thought he had intentionally used the word “tea bagger.”

[“Hannity” clip continues: You want to talk about setting the tone in America. Obama has set the tone repeatedly by completely dismissing people who don’t agree with his policies...]

Jonathan Alter: It was just like a slip of the tongue but an example of how pretty much anything you say in an interview can be used against you in a political context.

David Gerlach: A slip of the tongue. A surprisingly frank admission. Sometimes they do happen in what are often buttoned up interviews with journalists. Presidents rarely let their guard down. That got me thinking. This challenge, just how do you interview a president. I mean, what tack do you take? How do you start off on the right foot when you enter the Oval Office of a president like Barack Obama?

Jonathan Alter: He’s sort of famously uninterested in more than a minute or two of small talk. He’s very business like. So as we’re circling the couch on the way to where we are going to sit down I come up with a hugely imaginative, fresh question for small talk which was, “How was your Thanksgiving, Mr. President?”

[Music: Your Hand in Mind - “Tea Time”]

David Gerlach: I was also curious if any of Alter’s interviews with six presidents had stood above the rest. So I asked him. He thought for a moment. He had a favorite.

[Sound clip of Richard Nixon: Because people have got to know whether or not their President’s a crook. Well I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.]

David Gerlach: Richard Nixon there back in 1973 right before he resigned. He was president when Alter was a kid. And Alter says he had made it his mission to interview him before Nixon died. That day finally came in 1988.

Jonathan Alter: Reagan was getting ready to leave office, and I said, “So how will history view Ronald Reagan?” And Nixon said, “Well you have to distinguish between history and the historians. The historians are like you; they’re liberals. If you’re a liberal you go into history writing or academia or journalism. If you’re conservative, you go into business. And so history is dominated by the historians.” I loved that. The distinction between history and historians. All his resentment was all contained in that one answer.

[Music continues: Your Hand in Mind - “Tea Time”]

Jonathan Alter: You want these things to be a conversational as you can. You know that if you go in and start firing these questions at him that are very confrontational, instead of the interview being a half an hour, it will be five or 10 minutes. And then you’re really screwed. The press secretary can always end it at any time, so if you’re going to ask challenging questions you need to think about whether you really need to ask that question.

David Gerlach: Well, during one interview Alter thought it was worth the risk. It was toward the end of Bill Clinton’s second term. For the first time since the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Alter got to interview Clinton in the President’s limousine during a trip to Hartford, Connecticut.

Jonathan Alter: I asked him pretty early in the interview, “Mr. President, are you planning to seek or have you had any psychiatric treatment for your problems?” He got really mad. He had one of those purple fits. He said, “I can’t believe you’re asking me that question, Jon. I can not believe you’re asking me that question.” And I said, “Well you’ve talked about pastoral counseling.” And he said, “Then why didn’t you ask me about that?” So I said, “Mr. President, how is your pastoral counseling going?” and he sort of calmed down and answered the question. And then we talked about other things and he did the interview in a rather dutiful, not particularly friendly fashion. And when we got to the event he was going to, he just got out of the car without saying goodbye.

David Gerlach: So we’ve heard about Presidents Nixon and Clinton letting their emotions show behind closed doors while on the record. But what about President Obama? I heard a clue when I first listened to Alter’s 40-minute interview. It wasn’t a Clinton purple fit, but Obama’s emotions were bubbling right there below the surface. Listen closely.

Barack Obama: The job of the commander is to focus on the theater of their actions…

David Gerlach: Can you hear that? That tapping?

Barack Obama: …and to get as much as they can to minimize the risks of failure in that theater.

David Gerlach: That’s President Obama’s finger hitting the table over and over and over. It happened a few other times during their conversation. It just struck me, that tension. It’s such a different side than the measured president Americans get to see.

Barack Obama: And my job is to look at the whole, not just the part.

[Music: Shuta Hasunuma - “Discover Tokyo”]

David Gerlach: Many Thanks to Jonathan Alter for bringing his interview with President Obama and for his thoughts on the art of interviewing the president. You can pick up his book on Obama “The Promise” from Amazon.com. I also want to thank Amy Drozdowska for producing this Blank on Blank with me. Our sound logo comes to us from Jeffrey Alan Jones. And for all the journalists, interviewers, non-fiction authors and documentary filmmakers who are listening: we want to hear your lost interviews, your unheard interviews. So drop us a line to interviews at blankonblank.org. Blank on Blank is brought to you by the Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org. That’s all for now. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.

Music: Your Hand in Mind “Tea Time” | Shuta Hasunuma “Discover Tokyo”