Just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, the truth is that there are few true cynics in American politics.
The style of our professional politics — never mind the party — suggests otherwise, but the fact is that even though those who make the electing of our lawmakers their vocation wear a protective carapace of indifference, get three inches under that hardened skin and you will find somebody who took up the work because they believed in something or someone — whether it’s Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, the labor movement or limited government. The flame may flicker and grow dim as the years mount and one campaign blends into another, but the embers never quite burn out.
That — along with our society’s astonishing dynamism against which the American political drama plays itself out — is what gives our politics its particular savor.
It’s also what’s missing from the dispiriting and, ultimately, irritating new anonymous novel, “O: A Presidential Novel,” which is less an addition to the rich fictional literature of American politics than an exercise in the genuinely cynical business of marketing and publishing.
My reviewers’ copy arrived with an unusual letter from Simon & Schuster’s publisher, Jonathan Karp, informing us that the author of this novel “is someone who has been in the room with Barack Obama and knows this world intimately. The author wishes to remain anonymous to avoid being pigeonholed or ignored or scorned on the basis of associations, views or background.”
No need to worry there: When the author’s identity is revealed, as it surely will be, this person will be amply dismissed for composing the manuscript that became this leaden book. Elsewhere, Karp has revealed that the editors of Simon & Schuster, none of whom knew the author’s name, worked on the final version. What that says about the condition of the manuscript as submitted or, more worryingly, the decline of standards at a distinguished publishing house, are topics for another day. Suffice to say, that the biggest thing this novel has going for it is the inevitable comparisons to political journalist Joe Klein’s 1996 bestseller, “Primary Colors,” which was published anonymously and, then, brilliantly brought to the screen by director Mike Nichols.
Klein’s name has been bandied about as the possible author of “O,” as has Stephen Colbert’s. This just isn’t possible: Klein has a gifted reporter’s eye for the compellingly instructive detail and a genuine insight into the daily life of political campaigns, and Colbert actually is funny.
“O” displays none of those qualities, which is only the beginning of its shortcomings.
Though he is referred to throughout by only that archly capitalized vowel, Barack Obama is this novel’s putative subject as Bill Clinton was the fictionalized Jack Stanton in Klein’s roman à clef of that president’s first election campaign. That book was a kind of triumph because it used the author’s experience on the campaign trail to illuminate, as only fiction can, the story behind the story of that election and what it implied about our politics. In what one can only assume is another aspect of this book’s marketing campaign, “O” pirouettes off anonymous/Klein’s success and tries to imagine what Obama’s 2012 campaign for reelection will be like.
There’s the first problem: Two years is a lifetime in American politics, and this book’s author has Obama running against a fictional Republican clearly modeled on Mitt Romney. Fair enough, but if a similar fiction had been concocted at this stage in the last election cycle, a smart author would have envisioned a contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.
You don’t have to be much of a political junky to recognize the author’s broadly drawn glosses on current political actors and personalities. There’s a character recognizable as White House political advisor David Axelrod; a Republican woman called “the Barracuda” who is supposed to be Sarah Palin; and a number of other familiar characters, including a caricature of Arianna Huffington, whose news aggregating website throws a particularly difficult roadblock into O’s reelection effort when it publishes a foreign “citizen journalist’s” account of a self-interested financier’s leaked scandal.
The problem is that the author’s view of Huffington — as with all the real-life journalists used as the basis for this novel’s characters — is one-dimensional. Focus solely on her flair for self-promotion — and why should she be different from anyone else in this town or Washington? — and you’ve missed what’s significant about why she and the people who’ve launched the website Politico (it also comes in for a hit) have engaged our politics as they have.
The author of “O” also apes Klein by making the dramatic focus of his narrative a young political operative and his romantic interest, a ferociously ambitious political journalist. Neither is even remotely believable, the publisher’s protestations of the author’s insider knowledge notwithstanding. (It’s hard to escape the impression that this is less a political novel than a New York publisher’s concept of a third-generation Hollywood sequel, but that’s another story. Memo to Simon & Schuster: Don’t look so quickly past the book to the film deal.)
Perhaps this dreary book’s largest shortcoming is its implacably earnest tone. Politics can be raffish, ribald, antic, chaotic and mind-boggling, but an authentic account never reads quite like something pulled out of a newspaper’s pile of unsolicited op-ed page submissions from assistant poli-sci professors at the local state college, as this novel too frequently does. Take, as an example, this summing up of the fictional Obama’s view of America on the eve of the 2012 election:
“What a curious people. Their mania for self-improvement encompassed everything that touched them, and they resented the cost of every change. They were proudly self-reliant and quick to assign blame to others for disappointments. They were certain theirs was the most enlightened and envied society on earth, that human history was mostly a chronicle of their achievements, and were convinced, too, that their country was constantly in need of repair. Everything they had was better than what any other people had, and nothing was good enough.”
Whether Barack Obama actually holds such a joyless, disapproving view of Americans and their politics is a debatable proposition, though the author of this tedious novel — and his editorial enablers — certainly do.