- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2011


By Anonymous
Simon & Schuster, $25.99, 353 pages

The last thing many political junkies - especially those who work in the field - want to read is a novel about the inner workings of that world. It is such an all-encompassing field that for fun you are more likely to want to read a spy novel or murder mystery.

Therefore, the author of a campaign political novel has an especially steep challenge to meet. Not only must the book be well-written, it must have a story line that is both somewhat plausible and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, on almost all these points, “O: A Presidential Novel” comes up short.

While it is being marketed as this era’s answer to the Clinton campaign’s roman a clef “Primary Colors,” this volume isn’t as well-written and doesn’t draw readers in as much. While the parlor game of guessing who wrote it has added to the buzz, that’s not enough to make up for the book’s shortcomings.

It is set in the 2012 presidential campaign in which President Obama squares off against a Republican nominee who is a composite of Gen. David H. Petraeus and former Gov. Mitt Romney.

The book contains all the requisite parts of a campaign novel: Machiavellian campaign staffers, aggressive journalists, a tawdry affair between a reporter and her source on the president’s campaign staff and leaked dirt about an opponent.

That, however, is the problem.

Everything about the book seems formulaic and predictable. There aren’t enough moments when the reader thinks: “Wow, I didn’t see that twist coming.”

The Obamaesque character seems to have been cut and pasted, with little additional tinkering, from the depictions in the traditional media. The occasional “insights” into what Mr. Obama supposedly is thinking are almost a caricature of the thought process of an effete, condescending liberal.

While Mr. Obama certainly has an air of superiority about him, he’s politically savvy e-nough to understand the electorate more than the novel’s lead character seems to: “The Tea Party movement. A movement? Are you kidding me? A disorganized mob of conspiracy nuts, immigrant haters, vengeful Old Testament types, publicity hustlers, and people who just have too much time on their hands.”

The late New York Times columnist William Safire regularly used that literary technique with pieces such as “Reading Kerry’s Mind” and “Reading Putin’s Mind.” He did it masterfully, and you really felt as if he understood the thought processes of his subject. Maureen Dowd also does it, though she’s not as effective. But those writers should have added a cautionary note: “Don’t try this at home.”

Unfortunately, Anonymous did try, and the result isn’t terribly compelling.

This reviewer hasn’t a clue about the author’s identity. The publisher describes him as someone who has “been in the room with Obama and wishes to remain anonymous.”

When his or her identity eventually is revealed, there will be the requisite “Oh, wow” and “I knew that” among some in the chattering class.

The author is a bit more on the mark when chronicling the discussions of Mr. Obama’s staff about whom they want to run against. One can only imagine that Mr. Obama’s aides see the prospect of a Sarah Palin candidacy as the political equivalent of manna from heaven. “He would have to pretend she was a serious person with serious ideas worth detailed rebuttal no matter how ridiculous they were, no matter how incomprehensible the syntax she used to convey them,” the author writes.

“And by defeating her, he would be defeating the myth, even if it were only a personal triumph that would not outlive his presidency.”

Mark Twain famously wrote of Henry James’ writings, “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

One can’t say the same about “O: A Presidential Novel” because that would imply that there is reason to pick it up in the first place.

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

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