Published April 14, 2010
There may be no better credential for membership in the Washington establishment -- or at least the journalistic equivalent of it -- than to be one of the 10 journalists said to be writing books about President Obama and receiving special access to the White House to do it.
The list of authors, first published in Politico and much discussed across the blogosphere, includes such bold-face names as David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine; Bob Woodward, the famed Washington Post reporter and chronicler of presidential administrations; Jonathan Alter of Newsweek magazine; Jodi Kantor of the New York Times, and Chuck Todd, NBC News White House correspondent.
The phenomenon of White House correspondents, the elite of the Washington press corps and members of New York literary society penning book-length treatments of the president they cover -- in real-time -- is hardly unique to the Obama era.
Long before there was Mark Halperin's and John Heilemann's "Game Change," the latest incarnation of the best-selling "insider" campaign chronicle, there was Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President, 1960."
And almost a decade before Woodward's sensational "The Final Days," his 1976 book with Carl Bernstein, the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak produced what may be the granddaddy of all "insider" White House books, "Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power," published in April 1968, when LBJ was still in office. The duo followed that up with 1971's "Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power," published before the end of President Nixon's first term.
But the number of aspiring John Boswells presently trampling through New York publishing houses and the West Wing, peddling dramatic accounts of Obama's rise to power and his exercise of it in the Oval Office, appears to be greater than during previous presidencies -- and to have accumulated faster than in the past. The list of writers shadowing George W. Bush for hardcover treatment was nowhere near this long at this point in Bush's presidency.
And the money at stake now may be greater, too: Halperin and Heilemann have reportedly received a $5 million advance to produce their sequel to "Game Change," which will be a chronicle of the 2012 campaign.
As in the past, however, observers question whether these writers will be tempted to go easy in their daily and weekly coverage of the president in exchange for real-time book interviews that will yield the "fly on the wall" scenes that give publishing companies something juicy to sell.
"Whenever reporters cover the White House, there are more journalists than there are knowledgeable sources," says Mark Feldstein, a professor of journalism at George Washington University. "So the sources are always in a position of power, and they dole out the information to reporters that they trust to give them the spin they want -- whether that's the Obama White House or the Bush White House.
"When you start getting into book territory, the 'fly on the wall' narratives, the reporters become even more desperate for the inside skinny and it actually translates into dollars for them. So they are eager to curry favor -- even more eager than usual -- with the officials that are going to give them this inside color."
At least one of the authors on the current list, speaking on background in order to protect his continuing access to officials inside the Obama White House, told Fox News he occasionally withholds information from his deadline reporting, to use it instead in his book. But this serves to make his sources more honest, not less, he argues.
And this author made the case that securing access to these sources in real time ensures that their memories -- of specific statements or actions by the president, for example -- are fresher and more reliable than they would be if they went untapped until oral history programs are conducted with them years later.
But some historians disagree. "When journalists do this first cut at history, even if they give us a great deal of information ... it's really only that, a first cut at history," said Jay Winik, a Civil War historian. "Only historians -- with a longer reach, when they're not swayed by the different passions and ebb and flows of the different players, when they're not being spun by the White House itself -- only historians can really give us a kind of fuller treatment on what happened and why something happened.
"And that really does take time," Wink added. "It's not instant; it's not overnight; it happens over decades and sometimes centuries."