Jonathan Alter's Blinders: 'White House Free of Scandal'; Obama Asset Is That 'He's Honest'

October 29th, 2011 11:10 PM

Jonathan Alter, who spent 28 years at Newsweek, has been a columnist at Bloomberg News since early this year. Just this year, the reliably and insufferably liberal Alter, among many other things, called the Republican House's passage of Paul Ryan's budget plan in April an attempt "to throw Granny in the snow," and coldly calculated that in the wake of her shooting, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was more valuable to Barack Obama's reelection efforts alive than dead.

In early January, Alter, appearing on an MSNBC program, took great offense at Rep. Darrell Issa's suggestion that the Obama White House is "one of the most corrupt administrations ever," claiming that "there is zero evidence" of it. The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney proceeded to identify seven such examples. Alter must have been saying "la-la I can't hear you" during Carney's chronicle, as his October 27 column was an exercise in sheer fantasy from beginning to end (bolds are mine throughout this post):

Obama Miracle is White House Free of Scandal

President Barack Obama goes into the 2012 with a weak economy that may doom his reelection. But he has one asset that hasn’t received much attention: He’s honest./p>

... Although it’s possible that the Solyndra LLC story will become a classic feeding frenzy, don’t bet on it. Providing $535 million in loan guarantees to a solar-panel maker that goes bankrupt was dumb, but so far not criminal or even unethical on the part of the administration. These kinds of stories are unlikely to derail Obama in 2012. If he loses, it will be because of the economy -- period./p>

Even so, the president’s Teflon is intriguing. How did we end up in such a scandal-less state? After investigating the question for a recent Washington Monthly article, I’ve been developing some theories./p>

For starters, the tone is always set at the top. Obama puts a premium on personal integrity, and with a few exceptions (Tim Geithner’s tax problems in 2009) his administration tends to fire first and ask questions later./p>

... But the White House’s intense focus on scandal prevention has had mixed results. The almost proctological vetting process has ended up wounding Obama as much as prospective nominees. He gets cleaner but often less imaginative officials./p>

... The vigilance about wrongdoing has worked better when it comes to oversight of the $787 billion stimulus program. The money might not always have been spent on the right things. But a rigorous process supervised by Vice President Joe Biden, and made transparent with the help of, has prevented widespread fraud and abuse./p>

... Every time Representative Darrell Issa, the Republican from California who leads a House investigative committee, calls the Obama administration “corrupt” without offering any evidence, he hurts his cause. It’s much harder to make a story register as a bona fide scandal when the political motivation is so obvious./p>

It’s also harder to find room for such stories when so much other news is breaking. Scandals like the Monica Lewinsky affair were almost a luxury of good times, when the nation could afford to obsess about a blue dress. Not these days./p>

.... According to a metric created by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Obama set a record earlier this month for most days without a scandal of any president since 1977. The streak probably won’t last, especially if he gets a second term, where scandals are more common. But the impression of rectitude will be part of the voters’ assessment of him next year. He’ll need it.

Here's Brendan Nyhan's hysterical definition of a scandal:

Nyhan says that political scientists generally see The Washington Post as a solid indicator of elite opinion -- so for his study, a problem officially curdles into a scandal once the S-word is used in a reporter's own voice in a story that runs on the front page of the Post. Bush made it 34-months before he faced a scandal in the Post. And as of this morning, Obama has beaten that record.

You read that right. A scandal is a scandal when -- and only when -- the Washington Post says it's a scandal, and only on its front page. For what it's worth, the headline at Associated Press story (possibly supplied by the subscribing outlet) called Solyndra a scandal on September 17.

For the rest of us, here is what a scandal is:

1. a disgraceful or discreditable action, circumstance, etc.
2. an offense caused by a fault or misdeed.
3. damage to reputation; public disgrace.
4. defamatory talk; malicious gossip.
5. a person whose conduct brings disgrace or offense.

In advance of a column I wrote in September in response to American University history professor Allan Lichtman's claim that the Obama administration had to that point been "scandal-free", I compiled a by no means complete list of items which would fit one of the five areas just described. In the column itself, I added Solyndra, LightSquared, and Operation Fast and Furious. Scandal-free? It's more like scandal fatigue.

As to Obama's honesty, the contrived tale of his mother's supposed lack of health insurance during the time leading up to his death will do for openers. There are roughly three dozen more arguable lies identified here since his term began. Honest, schmonest.

Jonathan Alter is of course entitled to his opinion, but he's not entitled to his own comprehensive set of made-up facts. Bloomberg executive Washington editor Al Hunt should have laughed Alter's column out of the building -- but as another bondafide far-lefty, the odds are he thought it was brilliant journalism.

Cross-posted at