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Who Wrote 'O'? Who Wrote 'O'?

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White House / ANALYSIS

Who Wrote 'O'?

With few clues to go on, our man hazards some guesses.

President Barack Obama walks to the Oval Office after speaking at a rally celebrating the passage and signing into law of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health insurance reform bill at the Interior Department in Washington on March 23, 2010.(AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Marc Ambinder
January 20, 2011

From Edgar Allen Poe to Joe Klein to Henry Adams, anonymous authors eventually find themselves outed.  

So—who wrote O: A Presidential Novel? It’s not as interesting as it was when Klein, the Time magazine columnist, was hiding beyond “Anonymous," in his 1995 book, Primary Colors, about the sexual appetites of the man who would become President Clinton. There’s not nearly as much at stake here because there is no equivalent revelation, or insinuation about wrongdoing.

Here are the clues I followed:

 

Point One: Because the dialog is mellifluous yet crisp, I think its author has written words that other people speak, perhaps as a speechwriter or as a writer for serial dramas.

Point Two: Since the male characters have more depth than the female ones, I’m guessing that the author is a man—or a female who has worked at a high level in a male-dominated campaign environment. This doesn't narrow it down too much.

Point Three: The person understands how reporters work.

Point Four: The person is less familiar with how the White House works; there are a few small technical errors that someone who has worked inside the 18 acres would not make. (There is no “White House Office of Personal Management” that fires presidential appointees. There is an OPM and a presidential personnel office; the former is not located inside the White House, and the latter would be involved in the firing.)

Point five: The person had time on his or her hands over the past year to write nearly 350 pages of prose.

Point six: The author’s politics, to the extent that we can judge them by how he or she writes about “O,” seem to be centrist; his or her preference is for civility over conflict.

Klein was ultimately identified as the author because his prose style contained too many similarities to Primary Colors. I don’t know if this author has a sufficient paper trail. I suspect, however, that someone will recognize one of their insights rendered as another’s, and will remember having a conversation with someone a year ago, maybe more, and will become angry, or proud, and will out the author. But if we never know who wrote O, we won’t be too much the worse for it. 

I did not write O, and I'm flattered that some fellow journalists asked. Neither did Matthew Cooper, who edited this piece.

My guess? I think "Anonymous" could be Lawrence O'Donnell, host of MSNBC's The Last Word. A producer of The West Wing, former aide to the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., O'Donnell fits the criteria. He knows how to write, his politics match up with the book's fairly perfectly, he is adroit and astute about the structure of Washington relationships—and he had a perch, as a Huffington Post and MSNBC contributor that would have given him "in the room" access to Obama—and a relationship with Obama's aides that would have allowed for private insights to be passed.

O'Donnell, responding to my direct question about whether he is "Anonymous," e-mailed a gentle reproach: "I think all writers should help writers who want to remain anonymous remain anonymous. We might all need that help some day."

My other suspect is Mark Salter, John McCain's former chief of staff and author of his books; his observational perch fits "Anonymous" quite well. Salter declined to comment. Twice.



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