- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2010


By Richard Wolffe
Crown, $26, 312 pages

“This book is the result of more than two months of intensive, daily reporting from the White House,” writes Richard Wolffe, one of that tag team of liberal journalists who take turns writing hagiographic books about our president.

It’s unclear why Mr. Wolffe chose the two-plus-month period of January to March 2009 as his relay lap. Although it probably involves contractual obligations, he tells us it’s because the signing of health care legislation that January resulted in a revival of spirit in the administration. Hence the title. This may cause some confusion, because a few months later, there was a real revival - a Republican revival - that threatened to blow the president’s programs out of the water.

But a writer can call his book what he likes, and Mr. Wolffe gives it his best shot. These several largely forgotten months, he insists, represent a “defining moment of [the Obama] presidency,” and he underlines it with a passage that should qualify him for a Bulwer-Lytton “stormy night” award for overwriting: “From the depths of a brutal winter inside the Oval Office to the beginnings of spring in the Rose Garden, this is a tale of despair and discovery, of survival.”

Well, not really. Winter can get pretty rough in that Oval Office, but not all that bad. So what else happened? Wretched prose aside - and it’s startling what bad writers these talking-head journalists can be - we should be able to expect a book like this to tell us what the president and his administration actually have accomplished.

But beyond the health care legislation, which appears constitutionally flawed now that people are actually reading it, what successes Mr. Wolffe does convey are continuations of George W. Bush’s programs and policies.

Mr. Wolffe tries to distinguish between President Obama and President Bush, but his focus on Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan policy is unfortunate. After much fretting about how to recast our policy, Mr. Wolffe writes, Mr. Obama decided “to create a hybrid that combined his campaign principles with his commander-in-chief principle. He was both the anti-Bush, setting down a clear timeline for withdrawal beginning in July 2011, and the uber-Bush, adding another 30,000 troops….”

“Anti-Bush” and “uber-Bush” push the analysis to the edge of absurdity, unless Mr. Wolffe is implying schizophrenia. But in comparing relations between the two presidents with the troops, he violates the dictates of good taste. Mr. Obama, he writes, “felt inspired by their spirit of sacrifice and their spirit in the face of casualties. Unlike Mr. Bush, he wanted to see for himself the cost of war even as he was deciding to escalate.”

“Unlike Mr. Bush” - a nasty bit of anti-Bush sniping by a liberal trying to find a way to distinguish Mr. Obama’s surge from Mr. Bush’s, although they’re exactly the same. Mr. Bush’s concern for and generosity to wounded soldiers is well-known. He just didn’t care to share those private moments with gossip-feeding reporters.

Mr. Obama, Mr. Wolffe writes, “wanted to hear what life was like in the front lines and wanted to know what it felt like to lose one of your own men.” If so, there were plenty of opportunities over the years to enlist. He would have been welcome.

Mr. Wolffe concludes with an inflated discussion of the resupply of Haiti, in reality just another routine and already-forgotten American intervention in that unhappy country. Not a satisfactory ending for a book with best-seller aspirations, straining to fill 271 pages and forced to pad it out with an epilogue putting a good face on the administration’s dysfunctional response to the Gulf oil spill and rehearsing nasty little White House spats, already documented by Mr. Wolffe’s literary tag-team partner, Jonathan Alter.

The signs are that Obama hagiographers are running low on things to celebrate. The assumption was that as the One, he would reflect their aspirations. But what if he’s actually what his job description says he is - an excellent speaker with good looks, intelligence and a proven ability to game the system - in short, just a highly successful professional politician?

If so, books like this, the latest in a string with diminishing heft, will peter out. At the least, there will be a decidedly less worshipful tone.

In his final paragraph, Mr. Wolffe writes of Mr. Obama: “Inside the West Wing, he liked to say that he would rather do big things in one term than small things in two terms.”

He may just get that chance.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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