international analysis and commentary

“O: A Presidential Novel”, imagining 2012


American presidential campaigns are exhausting, stressful ordeals. The pace of work is relentless, the environment is hyper-competitive, and mistakes are rarely tolerated. Careers take off suddenly, in the rapid succession of strategy meetings and round-the-clock phone calls that punctuate a campaign, but crash just as quickly. Ambitious politicos and aggressive journalists consume unhealthy amounts of junk food and cocktails, and some degree of promiscuity is to be expected.

This is the not-so-enlightening lesson conveyed by “O: A Presidential Novel”, published in the US by Simon & Schuster and written by Anonymous. The book, released on January 25, immediately sparked a wave of buzz in Washington, DC due to the question of who may have written it and, of course, because it looks into America’s political future.  

“O”, which imagines how the already highly anticipated 2012 election unfolds, is a pleasant read and a credible insider’s account of the day-to-day insanity of political campaigns.

“For the next two months, they would experience the sensation of drowning,” the author writes about the “O” campaign gearing up for the final sprint. “They would work twenty hours and more a day. They would bull their way, minute by minute, day after day, through an endless list of actions and decisions and discussions and reconsiderations and further discussions and allocating and reallocating funds.”

It is, otherwise, a stale and unimaginative work of fiction, which adds little to the understanding of how American presidential campaigns work and why they matter.

Set between the spring of 2011 and the fall of 2012, this roman à clef follows a small set of sleep-deprived political operatives and enterprising reporters in the whirlwind of press conferences, televised debates and political rallies that traditionally dictate the tempo of a presidential campaign. 

The characters are unsubtly based on the real-life protagonists of today’s political and media establishment. President “O” is a blatant fictional adaptation of Barack Obama; Bianca Stefani, the “heavily accented” editor of the newest opinion/muckraking website is a thinly veiled version of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post; the ever-present, out-of-shape Avi Samuelson, is a barely disguised rendering of David Axelrod, Obama’s former top political advisor.

Add to the mix Cal Regan, an ambitious campaign aide in his thirties, and Maddy Cohan, a young, attractive, go-getting journalist on the rise, and you have all the rather predictable ingredients of “O”.

The novel’s “O” is competent and highly accomplished as president, but also arrogant, thin-skinned and condescending. He has “an anthropologist’s detachment” and believes to have understood “the people he governed more completely than they understood him.” Despite his inner contradictions, “O” never really comes alive as a character, remaining a sketch on the page.

His Republican opponent, Tom “Terrific” Morrison, “square-jawed, straight-backed, irresistibly perfect,” is even more of a vignette. A four-star general, former CEO, former governor and, of course, attentive father – John McCain, Mitt Romney and Michael Bloomberg all rolled into one – Tom is too perfect to be believable. Morrison has the qualities of the GOP’s dream candidate – flawless and free of blemishes – but is unlikely to ever appear on the roster of a real Republican primary (in the novel, a Sarah Palin-like character nicknamed Barracuda has been gracious enough not to run, making space for the picture-perfect Morrison).

Populated with such implausible characters, “O: A Presidential Novel” often reads like one long cliché. Never rising above a daily chronicle of the more mundane aspects of a political campaign, it fails to enlighten us with some yet-to-be-understood take on what campaigning reveals about our true selves.

As a result, the author’s choice to hide his identity – all we know is that he “has been in the room with Barack Obama” – sparked more interest than the literary qualities of the novel itself, which has been poorly reviewed and is experiencing disappointing sales.

Nevertheless, speculation has been rampant as to who, among the usual suspects of journalists, politicos, or campaign insiders, might have written “O”. Some people figured the book had been by a Republican, or at the very least a disappointed Democrat, others came to the exact opposite conclusion, involuntarily crediting the author with the ability not to take sides. Many were quick to point their finger at Joe Klein, Time magazine’s political columnist, who, in 1996, was the anonymous author behind another fictional tale of presidential campaigns, the fun, witty and captivating “Primary Colors”.

Whoever has had the pleasure of reading “Primary Colors” however, knows that Klein cannot possibly have written “O”, which lacks its predecessor’s depth and vivacity. Centered on the larger-than-life character of Governor Jack Stanton – largely based on former President Bill Clinton – a politician so complex and alive, simultaneously capable of unspeakable lows and unexpected highs, “Primary Colors” gave us an honest, multifaceted insight into political campaigns and the moral ambiguity of all great politicians.

“O”, which, according to the Washington rumor mill, might have been written by Mark Salter, John McCain’s speechwriter and campaign adviser, is, in a sense, emblematic of today’s political mood in America, particularly among the ranks of centrist voters and politicians. The novel exudes toxic levels of cynicism and a general disaffection with the political process. Only a few characters in the book seem to actually care about the ideals and the issues, while the majority appears to be in it for the game.

However, by picking two presidential candidates who, at the end of the day, display above-average moral attributes, and by describing a gentler-than-usual, less scandalous presidential campaign, “O” also reveals a degree of hope, wishing to imagine the possibility that America might embrace a more civil approach to the national political discourse.