It’s Election Night in 2012 and President Obama is pacing at his hotel suite in Chicago, joking with nervous aides, while awaiting the final returns in a too-close-to-call race with GOP challenger Tom “Terrific” Morrison, with New Mexico, Colorado or Washington the pivotal states in last month’s quickly-forgotten political novel O. If it weren’t winter, I suppose you could call O—penned by an anonymous author who “has been in the room with Barack Obama,” publisher Simon & Schuster’s embarrassing attempt to recreate the mystery caused by Joe Klein’s riveting Primary Colors in 1996—beach reading, although one could find as much intellectual nourishment in three back issues of Esquire or GQ. That’s how pedestrian and sloppily written O is.
So, considering that about 100 people (including this sucker) plunked down upwards of $24 for this compendium of campaign clichés, is it too much to expect the modest payoff at the book’s conclusion of finding out whether “O” will retain his White House residency for another four years? Apparently, S&S and the author—revealed in a matter of days after the book’s release as Mark Salter, the longtime John McCain adviser and co-writer of several books with the Arizona Senator, at least if you believe Time’s steno-man Mark Halperin—were so sure that they’d concocted an airtight, and publicity-driven ruse that would sell half a million copies, that the result of the fictional election needn’t be revealed. It hardly matters now, a week after I read the book with mild interest (and before perusing any reviews or speculation on the author’s identity) but it’s still sort of a dirty trick.
After reading about 50 pages, I’d suspected Slate’s Jacob Weisberg as the writer, since the portrait of Obama as “O” was generally sympathetic and Weisberg’s known to supplement his income with quick projects (the collected “Bushisms” for example). In addition, Weisberg covered the 2000 presidential campaign—with requisite jeans-creaming over McCain’s supposed virtuous “straight talk” primary challenge to Bush that so enraptured political journalists of all viewpoints—so the mechanics of a campaign’s long slog were familiar to him. But Weisberg—despite his insufferable elitism and habitual lecturing the little people that they’re too stupid to vote for a candidate who’ll watch their backs—is too smart and accomplished a writer to churn out the cartoonish character development (and that’s charitable) and plot that renders O meaningless. Hey, did you know that campaign aides, especially during the “crunch time” of the last two months of election, get virtually no sleep, subsist on fast food, booze (since this is 2011, virtually no tobacco) and casual romps in the hay with the last woman or man left standing at the hotel bar?
The Los Angeles Times’ Tim Rutten, in a review written before Salter—who’s neither confirmed nor denied his authorship—was nabbed as the culprit for this trashy book, summed it up neatly. He wrote: “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 submissions from assistant poli-sci professors at the local state college, as this novel too frequently does.” Okay, maybe Rutten’s dismissal of academics who don’t teach at a prestigious university—where so many “name” mainstream journalists matriculated—is unnecessarily mean, but his point that the writing in O stinks is valid.
Still, as the old saw goes, every dog his day, and there is one passage in O that Obama and his 2012 campaign team ought to consider. Never mind if it was indeed written by a quirky Republican like Salter (memories are short, but before McCain betrayed all his principles, he was considered a “maverick” politician—the “bipartisan sort that Obama allegedly craved to work with—championed by editorialists at The New York Times as well as The Weekly Standard), the following, in Tom Morrison’s words, is pretty accurate about how millions of Americans now view the President.
He’s incompetent. People can like you a lot, but they won’t have you as their brain surgeon or accountant or president if they don’t think you can do the job better than the next guy. Maybe he wanted to change Washington. Maybe he wanted to fix our problems. Maybe he wanted to run a smarter government. Maybe he wanted to avoid small-ball politics. But he couldn’t do it. He’s not who we hoped he’d be. He’s not as good a president as he was a candidate. And he’s given up trying.
I didn’t support Obama in 2008, but he was one cool cat, an Ali/JFK/Namath combo, and didn’t exude the sanctimony of Al Gore or John Kerry. And what reasonable American could disagree that the election of a bi-racial candidate would be a momentous historical milestone? But the novelty’s gone: if unemployment is stuck above eight percent next summer, then all of Obama’s diminishing power as an elegant, even inspirational, speaker won’t do him a lot of good, particularly if the GOP nominates a man who appeals to swing voters with center/right economic proposals and bats down the noxious Beltway/academia/Manhattan/Hollywood notion that American “exceptionalism” has run its course. Unless Obama really is as arrogant and self-absorbed as his critics claim, he already knows this, and he’ll run a different campaign next year than that of ’08. So maybe he ought to read O as a reminder: Obama (and his handlers) really is about the only person who can profit from consuming this drab novel.
What Obama Could Learn From the Trashy Novel O
The President is perhaps the only person who might profit from reading this fictional speculation about the 2012 speculation.