Review: O: A Presidential Novel, by Anonymous

Of course I was going to read O: A Presidential Novel. Back in my Congressional-reporter and Hill-staffer days, I considered myself a “semi-wonk”: that is, I knew more about the intricacies of committee markups, Senate primary races and presidential campaigns than 99 percent of the American population, but nowhere near as much as the real Washingtonians, the kind of people who can tell you who Harry Reid ran against in his first campaign, which GAO report on the Fish and Wildlife Management Office  Robert Gibbs was referring to in his press briefing, or exactly which House members’ offices to steer clear of (as my past professional experience can attest, I was thoroughly uninformed on this last point in particular).

O purports to be written for people like me—and even people who might call people like me hopeless political nerds—but it’s really written for them, for the twelve people on Earth who would sift through this long, tedious, uninteresting and uninsightful book keeping tabs on all the real-life parallels. Some of them are glaringly obvious—Ariana Huffington is “Bianca Stefani,” Politico is Body Politic, some woman O’s nicknamed the Barracuda is Sarah Palin—and the ones that aren’t are just too boring to bother to follow up on. Primary Colors, the other political roman-a-clef also penned by an anonymous author—later revealed to be journalist Joe Klein—was worth caring about because it was sharp, it was hilarious at times, and it was revealing. It “worked” because it actually told us something about Bill Clinton, both as a man and as a politician, that perhaps hadn’t been entirely evident before (Primary Colors was published in 1996, before Monica and the impeachment). 

All told, of course, Primary Colors wasn’t exactly a work of great literature, but compared to O, it might as well be Ulysses. O is badly drawn, for one: Sure, the main “plotline” is O’s reelection campaign, but the peripheral stuff remains just that. There seems to be nothing personal at stake for most of the characters, no events on which the story hinges, no reappearances from characters you’re sure are going to be far more important than they end up being. It’s safe to say I spent the entire book waiting for something to happen, and nothing of note ever did. You can tell the author wanted to “say something” about the circuses contemporary presidential campaigns have become, about the deterioration of journalistic integrity, about the isolation and inevitable broken promises of any Administration, but really, this guy is no Aaron Sorkin, and O is no The West Wing.

According to Time magazine and the New York Post’s Page Six, the bad writer in question is former John McCain aide Mark Salter, which begs the question: What the hell does he know about Obama? The point of all the buzz around O is that the anonymous author is supposed to have enjoyed close, personal access to the president, enough to fill an entire book with choice tidbits that would elucidate our picture of who Barack Obama is. But having a McCain campaign aide write this book is like asking someone who worked at Elle to write The Devil Wears Prada. His insight is most likely guesswork, along with everybody else’s. And what’s worse, the book’s not even good. The “real wonks” might get something out of it, but I’m fairly certain they’ll be the only ones.

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