Press secretary calls biography “an overdramatization of old news”
Jodi Kantor's upcoming biography "The Obamas" has been criticized for not being entirely accurate by some, but one thing is certain about the book: It's certainly generating its share of headlines.
Though the book isn't due for release until Tuesday, "The Obamas" — written by New York Times correspondent Cantor and published by Little, Brown & Company — has already generated an avalanche of media coverage, along with a sharp refutation from White House press secretary Eric Schultz.
In the book, Kantor claims that First Lady Michelle Obama has experienced numerous tensions with the West Wing staff. Per Kantor, Obama has refused to to attend events and once became so enraged with former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel after he said that she would campaign at an event for the 2010 midterm elections — which promised to be difficult for the Democrats — that she refused to campaign at all. (Ultimately Obama agreed to attend only a few campaign events, the book claims.)
The First Lady also reportedly drew the ire of former press secretary Robert Gibbs, according to "The Obamas." Kantor's book claims that, infuriated by a quote in a French book claiming that Obama had told French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that life in the White House was "hell," Gibbs went on a furious mission to find out if the quote were true. Frustrated by the lack of response from Michelle Obama's staff, Gibbs was reduced to cursing out the First Lady during an early-morning meeting with an adviser.
In a strongly worded blog post published on the White House's web site Monday, Schultz criticized "The Obamas" for its reliance on second-hand accounts and Kantor's own interpretation of events.
“The book, an overdramatization of old news, is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years. The author last interviewed the Obamas in 2009 for a magazine piece, and did not interview them for this book," Schultz's statement reads. "The emotions, thoughts and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the President and First Lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts. These second-hand accounts are staples of every Administration in modern political history and often exaggerated.”
One particular claim has stirred Schultz's ire: That, on Halloween 2009, the Obamas attempted to cover up a lavish "Alice in Wonderland" bash — complete with Johnny Depp in full costume as the Mad Hatter — for fear that the recession-strapped public would be enraged by the extravagance.
“White House officials were so nervous about how a splashy, Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans—or their representatives in Congress, who would soon vote on health care—that the event was not discussed publicly and Burton’s and Depp’s contributions went unacknowledged," the book claims.
However, in his blog post, Schultz calls B.S. on Kantor's interpretation of the party.
"This was an event for local school children from the Washington DC area and for hundreds of military families, and certainly nothing that the White House was ashamed of," Schultz wrote. "
Addressing Kantor's suggestion that the White House took steps to keep the party out of the media, Schultz wrote, "We would invite all readers to read that extremely detailed and colorful pool report, or the stories that emerged from the party, and decide for themselves. In addition, the event was previewed in the official White House Daily Guidance and discussed by then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on camera from the podium — before he dressed up as Darth Vader at the party of course."
Kantor defended her book on NBC's "Today" on Monday, asserting that the White House hasn't "disputed any of the facts" in the book. Asked by host Matt Lauer if she had interviewed President or First Lady Obama for the book, Kantor hedged, "The book is mostly reported through top aides and close friends of the president and First Lady. I’m one of the only people to get access to the East Wing and the First Lady’s staff there. What I found is that aides and friends were able to tell stories that the Obamas don’t talk about.”
A New York Times review of "The Obamas" gives the book high marks — perhaps not surprising, given Kantor's affiliation with the paper — but even reviewer Connie Schultz acknowledges Kantor's tendency to intersperse her own impressions with facts.
"Cue the groans," Schultz writes, after reproducing a section of the book in which Kantor attempts to divine First Lady Obama's thoughts. "What kind of journalist presumes to know Michelle Obama’s mind?"
Nonetheless, Schultz ultimately gives Kantor a pass on her attempt at psychic journalism.
"In lesser hands 'The Obamas' would be an act of astonishing overreach, but Ms. Kantor … has earned the voice of authority," Schultz writes. "A meticulous reporter, Ms. Kantor is attuned to the nuance of small gestures, the import of unspoken truths."