Jonathan Alter Shares Insight on Obama, Media

Jonathan Alter
Zorigoo Tugsbayar

Jonathan Alter ‘79 discusses his life and his experience of reporting about seven presidential elections, including Obama’s, at Kirkland House.

Jonathan Alter ’79 entertained a group of Harvard students on Thursday with colorful stories of recent presidential campaigns and the personal life of President Obama, explaining that our president is “fundamentally different in private and public.”

Alter, an award-winning author, reporter, columnist, and television analyst was the latest guest at Kirkland Conversations, the House’s tradition of hosting prominent individuals for conversations with students.

Alter spent much of the evening discussing last year’s presidential campaign, often drawing on his personal experiences on the campaign trail. He said that as a journalist who followed Obama from start to finish, he was exposed to a private side of Obama’s personality that others rarely see.

At one point, Alter highlighted the difference in the way Obama interacted with others at parties and the way former President Bill Clinton interacted.

“I argue that Obama is missing the schmooze gene that Clinton had,” Alter said. “Obama likes to hang out with his real friends, not his fake Washington friends.”


Explaining Obama’s inability to enact his legislative agenda, Alter said that the president may have had difficulty translating energy from the campaign into achieving his legislative agenda.

“We might be entering an era where Democrats win the popular vote and Republicans prosper in midterm elections,” Alter said.

Alter characterized the current political climate as a period of asymmetric polarization, in which Democrats are “a little left of center,” while Republicans are “really right of center.”

“Obama has the misfortune of being president during a time of greater radical Republicans,” Alter said.

Alter, a former Crimson editor, is the author of three New York Times bestselling books and was a columnist and senior editor of Newsweek for 28 years. He is also an analyst and correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.

Turning to the media, Alter argued that journalism has become too focused on validating prior beliefs, enforcing partisan polarization.

“The problem is that [journalism] doesn’t bother challenging your assumptions--we need to be testing our ideas and ourselves,” Alter said, echoing former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s sentiment that “everybody’s entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”

Alter closed the event by extending personal advice to the students in the audience, encouraging them to find friends “out of your comfort zone” and to not “get too burrowed in your world.”

“You want to be gregarious enough so you come into contact with people that maybe aren’t so cool now, but will be 30 years from now,” Alter said.


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