“What is O really thinking?” That’s the lure O: A Presidential Novel, dangles before readers. Those hoping to better understand America’s 44th president should take the bait, cautiously.
Its fiction – a future history of the 2012 campaign – is equal parts fun and forgettable. Its “truth” – an acid exposure of modern politics and a perceptive study of the mind of President Obama, his advisers, and the American people – is equal parts trite and transcendent.
The anonymous author, we are told, has “been in the room” with Obama. He or she clearly: considers the president (called O) a genius, holds most of the media in contempt, has a grudge against Arianna Huffington (mocked mercilessly as “Bianca Stefani”), and thinks every young woman is as ambitious as she is promiscuous.
The author has a gift for unpacking the psyche of politicos. And while not as nuanced as “Primary Colors,” the 1996 satire of Bill Clinton, its insights about campaign culture and political counsel are astute. Its shortcomings arise mainly when the author, like an amateur toying with Adobe Photoshop, oversharpens the characters by setting the cynicism levels too high.
On the surface, the novel is quite friendly toward O and his team. It strives to make a president who doesn’t suffer from low self-regard seem more human and sympathetic without appearing whiny. Some imagined exasperations might succeed in making all but the most hardened Obama critics appreciate O’s toil, skill, and sacrifice in the face of daunting burdens. But this psychological photo-realism takes a toll, betraying O’s insufferable elitism even in its praise. “He had an anthropologist’s detachment,” the author observes.
“[H]e understood the people he governed more completely than they understood him.”
It’s odd that a novel full of obvious real-world references depicts a Republican fantasy candidate, instead of a real GOP front-runner, to battle O in 2012. “Tom Morrison” combines Mitt Romney’s wholesomeness, John McCain’s military heroism, and Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism.
Such an eye-rolling caricature undermines the novel’s verisimilitude but strengthens what may be its real aim: to provide cautionary counsel to Obama’s reelection team. Making Morrison the ultimate foil, however, means the author must give voice to a view of government that implicitly rebukes O’s patronizing sentiment.
Morrison believes the O administration does not trust or even like the people it governs. O’s view confirms this suspicion. “It was always going to be hard, delicate work to convince Americans they needed government to protect them from themselves and not just criminals and natural calamities and foreign enemies.”
That deep cynicism disguised as sophistication is what makes reading “O” a depressing experience. Its note-perfect mockery of Washington mores produces high-fidelity fiction. But its pretensions to convey Tocquevillian insights about America evince an ugly contempt for Americans themselves.
Josh Burek is the Monitor’s opinion editor.