Like the people who end up running for president, this anonymous novel about Barack Obama's reelection campaign isn't as good as you hoped or as bad as you feared. Maybe the American people get the roman a clef they deserve. Because regardless of how closely "O" anticipates next year's campaign, it's an uncanny response to this month's call for a more civil political discourse.
In fact, its anonymity may be the sexiest thing about "O." The publisher is being coy, claiming it was written by someone who "has been in the room with Barack Obama," which means we can rule out Kim Jong Il, but just about everybody else is still fair game. In any case, trust me, it's far too earnest for Christopher Buckley. And "O" has none of the snazzy wit of Joe Klein's briefly anonymous novel about the Clinton campaign, or the grandeur of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," or the pathos of Ethan Canin's "America America." No, in the pages of this new novel, primary colors fade to soft pastels.
The story opens just a few months in the future: The economy is picking up slowly, the war in Afghanistan is still grinding along, and the political operatives are getting their soldiers into position for that once-every-four-years ordeal mandated by our Constitution. A tawdry scandal has swept aside Obama's campaign manager and opened up the job for Cal Regan, a handsome, affable insider who plays the novel's central character in a cast that remains surprisingly small. There's a list at the front of the book, but you won't need it. Despite the world-altering import of these events, "O" operates like one of those underfunded BBC productions in which eight actors represent the angry citizens of Rome.
Cal's job is to engineer the reelection of Barack Obama, and like a well-run campaign, everything in this novel remains relentlessly "on message." Even the physical world seems excluded from these characters' lives, a fair representation, I'm sure, of the claustrophobic concentration the campaign requires. In fact, that's what "O" does best - without any undue cynicism or gooey romanticism: It clearly illustrates, season by season, just how effectively presidential campaigners plan, draft and articulate the political discourse that the press pretends it controls. "The Office of the President has the power to change the subject anytime," a staffer reminds Obama as they consider an opponent's accusations. "You could get another dog, and the press would forget about this and start begging for bulletins about how it's getting along with your other dog."
"O's" dramatization of a presidential race may shock an eighth grade student council member somewhere in Kansas City, but most of us will wish that the author had pursued his themes with a little more satiric bite. Nonetheless, he describes the typical campaign with documentary accuracy, and he's particularly good at the dynamic between old and new journalism. Gabby online news sites, such as Bianca Stefani's Stefani Report (a thinly veiled version of the Huffington Post) float salacious stories, while the mainstream media tut-tut and report on the controversy surrounding the rumors. Largely ignoring the pressing issues of the day, the New York Times and The Washington Post obsess over the horse race, the tone and the process of the campaign. And while each candidate portrays himself as above the fray, Cal and his men trade scoops with their favorite reporters in exchange for favorable treatment. (And yes, they're mostly men. For all its up-to-the-minute pretensions, "O" consigns women to the roles of wives, mothers, spunky beat reporters and obnoxious divorcees.)
Dramatically, "O" suffers from its concentration on a pair of candidates determined to be civil and restrained. That would be nice for our country, but it's damning for a novel. The author seems incapable of competing with the outlandish real-life characters who have blessed and cursed American political life. Sarah Palin, "flaunting that whole lusty librarian thing," has decided not to run. "But I'm not going away," she says in a brief, barely parodic appearance. "I'll be keepin' an eye on our candidates."
Instead, Obama's opponent is Tom "Terrific" Morrison, the perfect amalgamation of John McCain (without the maverick instability) and Mitt Romney (without the Mormonism): "square-jawed, straight-backed, irresistibly perfect." He's got it all: military service, humility, savvy and business acumen. You think this is a setup for the big reveal - the pregnant campaign aide, the blue dress that's never been dry-cleaned, the wide stance in a public restroom - but Morrison really is a fine, upstanding man. And what's more, he's determined to run a clean, fair, courteous campaign. Wake me up when it's over.
But at the center is Obama himself - the cool, brilliant black man from Chicago, with "an anthropologist's detachment," who has to keep worrying about coming across as too articulate, too good a talker. "O" stays very close to the conventional wisdom and never presses into the intimate details of his life or his marriage - none of those squirm-inducing intimacies we got from Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife" about the Bushes. It wouldn't be fair to say "O" is a stridently partisan novel, but it's clear that the author's sympathies are with the current resident of the White House. Obama comes across here as determined but weary. "I'm tired," he tells his staff as they begin planning for "nine miserable months" of campaigning. "He feared nothing more than losing control of his own destiny," the author writes.
But how to win over these fickle American voters - portrayed in these pages largely as a mob, "impervious to facts and reason or even the memory of their recent experience with Republican incompetence"? Obama laments that everything he did "to alleviate the anxiety of the American middle class seemed at times only to exasperate the people more. It was as if they had expected O to turn the country around in his first month in office, and when he didn't, they hardened their hearts against him."
According to this story, the White House will run with the slogan "Promises Made. Promises Kept." That's a little flat, but it feels about right for what we're about to endure over the next 22 months. If you want to get a jump on all that - the ads, the debates, the op-eds, the speeches - here's a blueprint that's probably pretty close to the mark.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post.
A Presidential Novel
Simon & Schuster. 353 pp. $25.99