Jonathan Alter at National Constitution Center, a storyteller with authority

Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page Editor Harold Jackson, at right, interviews Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter about his latest book on the first year of the Obama presidency, as depicted at the National Constitution Center on June 22, 2010.

Riding into the White House, the angle was that Barack Obama would be a president whose celebrated communications skills would work to balance his governing inexperience.

But Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek senior editor and author of a new book chronicling Obama’s first year as president, says Obama has instead taken to private, dispassionate discourse on the issues, which he has struggled to liven up to connect with American people.

“So he seems aloof,” Alter said last night in front of a paying crowd of nearly 250 inside the Kirby Auditorium of the National Constitution Center. “And that has hurt him.”

Alter was interviewed by Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page Editor Harold Jackson on the same stage that Obama gave his celebrated 2008 campaign speech on race. The hour-long conversation included mostly Alter sharing anecdotes from his book, which brought me back the old ethos behind the journalist, being a storyteller.

Alter’s second-hand accounts of private interactions between those who govern — like Obama separating a near physical altercation between Hank Paulson and Bernie Frank — give us a better sense of their personalities, mettle and capabilities. His books and articles and recordings will be source material for future generations to evaluate what our country is doing now.

So the historians and research aides and professors and the like are all journalists, just on a slow burn.

For his day job, Alter works on a weekly print cycle — Jackson, on daily — but for the book, Alter had months — and that was rushed. But like the newspaperman, Alter drew on years of knowledge — he had written the first cover story of Obama, right after his noted 2004 Democratic National convention.

It was right the event was held at NCC, charged with keeping the memory of a foundational document and chronicling its impact today — telling the story and already working with journalists.

More and more people are collecting those stories, so the next battle will be about getting the most authority, a familiar battle indeed.

[Full Disclosure: My Technically Philly colleagues are collaborating with the National Constitution Center, which we will announce more formally in the next month or so].

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