It used to be that authors chose to publish anonymously so as not to draw attention. Today, deciding to be "Anonymous" guarantees it.
Washington has been rife with speculation about who wrote O: A Presidential Novel. The clues thrown out by the publisher are spare. We are teased about the author's having been "in the room" with the real Obama, which could make him or her one of the 80,000 people who attended his 2008 nomination speech in Denver—or the poor man's proctologist or Michelle Obama.
The "in-the-room" lure tantalizes, raising the promise of juicy revelations about Obama's character or deeds. The fascination with anonymous tomes about Washington give lie to the post-structuralist premise that only the text matters and that the author—and his or her intentions—are unimportant. But when it comes to O we can't really assess how well its characters parallel their read-life counterparts without knowing how the author obtained those impressions.
O is not strictly a novel based on reality. The characters are more persuasively drawn than the plot. It’s not even principally about “O,” the stand-in for President Obama. It is not even about the White House, per se.
Set during the 2012 election, when a president modeled on Obama seeks reelection, it's a fairly conventional novel about the capital. All of the familiar tropes: candidates struggling to be ethical in an unethical world; rapacious journalists; a sex scandal—two, actually, but no sex scenes.
The "O" of O is not especially admirable. He's urbane and patient at times, but he's also vain and condescending, never more so than when he tries to bond with the American people: “What a curious people. Their mania for self-improvement encompasses everything that touched them and they resented the cost of every change. They were proudly self-reliant and quick to blame others for their disappointment…. They admired the candidates they voted for and believed politics was a profession for double dealers, cheats, frauds.” Moments of hubris like this abound.
Novels need a plot and this one centers on Cal Regan, a campaign consultant who is generally honest but whose weakness for female reporters indirectly brings the president’s reelection campaign to its knees—and not in a good way.
Regan doesn’t seem to have a real-life counterpart. I am not sure if the author intended him to be a hybrid typical of presidential campaign managers who, as a breed, are smart enough to appreciate how ridiculous politics can be but serious enough to know that the fate of the free world is at stake. Regan’s background matches most closely with that of Democratic consultant Steve Hildebrand, who, like Regan, was an Obama supporter who did not join the campaign staff.
Regan's affair with Maddy Cohan, the ambitious young upstart reporter for the politically obsessed tip sheet, called the “Body Politic,” leads to some amusing riffs on Washington reporters and those that feed them.
Even more interesting is Walter LaFontaine, a subordinate to “O” during his early political service but who got pushed aside as "O's" ambitions grew. The author describes the “bewildering estrangement” proposed by "O’s" newly hired insider team after the first election: Walter would not go with the president into the White House; he was no longer a member of the inner circle.
“O walked Walter to the door, affectionately rubbing the back of his head as he told him again not to worry. He was still needed and appreciated. Everyone was just looking out for his best interests.” There is a hint that the “familial” relationship between the two men threatened the first lady, but Walter, for the next 70 pages, recedes from view.
LaFontaine is an amalgam of Obama's old Illinois Senate campaign guard; the young people he mentored in Chicago as a community organizer and a lawyer; the earliest people in the room when the room was a small one he used to deliberate running for president.
Most important, LaFontaine is also very clearly the embodiment of who "O" was before he became dazzled by himself and his promise—and before Democratic campaign insiders took over and strained the progressive instincts out of him. The author seems to believe this process was neither good nor bad—just inevitable, the collateral damage of ambition.
The book winds along; the leak nearly brings down "O's" reelection campaign. "O's" opponent in the 2012 election is a stalwart Republican four-star general who used to head U.S. Central Command and has a Bullworth-like moment sans profanity. The candidates debate, and one of them wins—and LaFontaine, abandoned by the president, is brought back to meet him one final time, gets himself a humble apology, and never talks to "O" again.
Despite LaFontaine's being pushed aside, the author is not cynical about politics. Every character except the villain—a campaign donor with a penchant for destructive leaks—is ultimately redeemed. But the author isn't a naif either: There is no single redeemer who stands above the redeemed. Even “O” comes to realize that his hovering high above the clouds is off-putting.
And so is, to be honest, thinking too much about what this simple, entertaining, book means.