In the proud tradition of Joe Klein's fictionalized (and briefly anonymous) retrospective of the 1992 George H.W. Bush- Bill Clinton race comes O: A Presidential Novel. O, which purports to foretell the 2012 race, has already been dismissed for its terrible writing, its lack of women, and the bald stunt of an anonymous author. But, ladies and gentlemen of Washington (and you brave souls who are reading this despite lacking a Beltway address), I encourage you to read it. Because finally, political journalism of the 2000s has gotten the novel it deserves.
The disdain journalists are showing for O is amusing, if unsurprising. David Weigel at Slate called it "execrable" and mocked the publisher's request that political journalists not comment on whether they authored the novel. (Weigel suggests it is the work of a "young-adult fiction writer.") Alex Balk at The Awl guessed at the "real" ending: "Someone with an attenuated connection to the president will make a considerably larger amount of money than if they had published under their own name, which they will eventually reveal without any detrimental effects to their professional reputation." It certainly seems likely a journalist -- or a former journalist -- wrote it, because of the level of seriousness with which the book portrays old media's role in the political process. In the United States of O, very little attention is paid to blogs or the 24-hour news cycle.
Politico is thinly veiled as the Body Politic, and Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post are transformed into Bianca Stefani and The Stefani Report. But the journalism practiced at Body Politic is not guided by a 24-hour push to win the morning. It is a direct threat to O's campaign, delving into such conflict-of-interest scoops as a White House investigation into a former business associate of O's opponent. The Stefani Report, meanwhile, is little more than a liberal booster. Aside from Stefani's tenacious "baby bloggers," there are no analogues to partisan bloggers at sites like Daily Kos, FireDogLake, or RedState.
But just because Anonymous reveres old media, he does not shy from critiquing it. After a debate where reporters watch the candidates closely for signs they are "too aggressive or too passive," they file into the "spin room" to receive canned quotes from campaign officials about who won the debate. It is, Anonymous despairs, just filler for the stories reporters have "already written in their heads."
O is at its worst in chapters like the one where the plucky Maddy Cohan, a hard-nosed reporter for Body Politic muses on her relationship with Cal Regan, O's campaign manager. (The perspective switches from hers to his, then back again. This trick, employed to play up the tension between various characters in conflict, is confusing, not clever.) While Regan wants to continue the relationship in secret, Cohan breaks it off before the campaign begins, hoping Regan won't be offended that she "preferred him as a source rather than a lover."
In O, female characters are mere foils. More women than ever before participated in the last two election cycles, but in O, women have mostly been erased or silenced. Hillary Clinton isn't mentioned at all, Sarah Palin makes a cameo, but Michele Bachmann does not. (O has an amusing moment where he considers the pleasure of running against an unelectable Palin, but he dismisses it quickly.)
Even O's challenger, Tom "Terrific" Morrison, treats Palin as a curiosity -- picking her brain about how to reach her small but devoted base while musing on how distasteful he finds the emotional response she elicits.
And move over, Valerie Jarrett, there are no high-level women advisers on either campaign. The most prominent woman working on O's campaign is "irresistible" 20-something junior staffer Tess Gilchrest who has a one-night stand with campaign manager Regan and nonchalantly swallows her birth control without water. She also happens to be the daughter of a billionaire.
Again, this is what we deserve: While women were a huge part of the last election, conversations in the media about gender and the campaigns were often weak and essentialist. The focus was more on Hillary Clinton's cool demeanor and pants suits and Palin's winks and high heels than it was on the historic nature of their candidacies or their takes on policy. To redeem her public image as an angry black woman, Michelle Obama made Americans comfortable by talking at length about her family. Leaving women out, or making them clichés, is as American as the three-makes-a-trend story.
Perhaps, though, the most unforgivable sin of O is that the book is boring. As Ron Charles points out in his Washington Post review of the novel, "The author seems incapable of competing with the outlandish real-life characters who have blessed and cursed American political life." Despite producing a book that's clearly influenced by the media climate we now live in, Anonymous has created a world where the silliness is kept at a minimum -- possibly in an attempt to avoid unbelievable non-troversies that have a way of dominating our election cycle.
Yet, if ever there were an occasion where truth were stranger than fiction, U.S. presidential politics is it. The 2007-2008 election season seemed at times to be one long joke: John McCain suspending his campaign to assist with the financial crisis, the phrase "palling around with terrorists" entering the lexicon, and Michelle Obama getting criticized for being proud of her country are but a few of the ludicrous moments from which Anonymous could have taken cues.
It's in portrayals of the media that O is at both its most and least realistic. The novel is clearly informed by today's news cycle. Its study of two campaigns as they attempt to manage and influence the cycle in their favor is deadly accurate. But Anonymous' refusal or inability to delve into how journalists perpetuate this silliness is unfortunate.