When you went to a traveling American circus in the nineteenth century, you got scammed. Pay for the freak show, and you'd sometimes be offered the chance, for a bit more money, to see the "Feejee Mermaid." A real life mermaid! How could you pass this up? You'd pay, walk past the illustrations of some creature out of Hans Christian Andersen, and be greeted by the torso, arms and head of a monkey stitched to the body of a fish. It was compelling taxidermy, but not quite what you paid for.
O: A Presidential Novel is a Feejee Mermaid. Simon & Schuster promoted the book to journalists as an all-too-real, anonymous account of how President Barack Obama acts and thinks, from someone who had been "in the room" with the president. One slogan dreamed up for the book was "What's Between Those EARS?" A Washington Post poll let readers guess the identity of the author (presumably before most of them had cracked it open). The options included Rahm Emanuel, Christopher Buckley, and President Obama himself.
The decidedly minimal fun of this guessing game was snuffed out in a week. Mark Halperin, co-author of the gossipy 2008 campaign account Game Change, confirmed that O was written by Mark Salter. Salter had been "in the room" with Barack Obama, sure. More notably, he'd spent 20 years in the company of John McCain, co-writing the senator's two memoirs and three books of moral advice. Reporters—the intended audience for O—knew Salter as the author of McCain's most ringing speeches, the ur-protector and ur-promoter of his image, and the sender of e-mails, or "Saltergrams," scorching them for stories he considered unfair. (Disclosure time: I've been in a couple of rooms with Barack Obama. Also I once got a curt-but-fair e-mail from Salter after I penned a Reason magazine piece he didn't like.)
So O, set during a theoretical 2012 presidential campaign, isn't an insider's account of Barack Obama and his world. The author is one of the people who was most dedicated to defeating Obama. This isn't what Simon & Schuster promised, but it's a solid background for a first-time political novelist. The average roman a clef from a debut author draws on his or her experience with school or heartbreak or drugs. This author spent years of his life building up a politician only to see him bronzed for history as the guy who lost to the First Black President.
This novel is, in essence, Salter's therapy. Sadly, it's not even interesting to observe. The president, only known as "O" (he refers to himself as "a black man with a Muslim name," in one of many irritating end-runs around the obvious), is vain, tired, and approaching re-election with a mixture of dread, fatigue, and resignation. He sounds off in an internal monologue or to his foul-mouthed, simpatico adviser Avi Samuelson; he delegates campaign work to Cal Regan, an "impressively accomplished" fixer who is carrying on an affair with a much younger campaign reporter Maddy Cohan. His staff tries to bloody up his opponent, Tom "Terrific" Morrison, then tries to peddle a non-story of a scandal—it has something to do with military contracts—to finish the job.
It's not a gripping plot. Most politicos are not interesting, and O's characters vanish from memory as soon as the book is closed. The few characters clearly based on real people are comparatively colorless. The real life Ariana Huffington, for example, is a Greek-born dervish with a thick accent and an agenda-driving liberal website that, because it used her married name, is an accidental tribute to one-term Republican congressman Michael Huffington. O's Bianca Stefani, founder of the Stefani Report, has "copper hair" and ends phone calls with "ciao."
The campaign that unfolds is duller than any campaign in memory, and far too many pages are given over to rote descriptions of how campaigns work. This dry recitation's made weirder and duller by the author's refusal to name locations or publications. O's re-nomination happens at "a domed football stadium at a university in the Midwest that seated seventy thousand people." Tom Morrison's slacker son Alex gets in trouble when he stands on his dorm's roof and sings "several verses of a song that had achieved modest commercial success for a recording artist with a nasally voice that was distinctive and, until recently, under-appreciated." Why no names, real or fake, for any of this? What secret vault is being protected, exactly?
Let's be fair: This territory would be barren even if dozens of Aaron Sorkin scripts and Christopher Buckley novels hadn't already strip-mined it. The selling point of "O" is the picture of the president. And what we learn is that Mark Salter thinks the president is snooty and arrogant. O's internal monologues have him constantly on the edge of a tantrum, aghast at how lazy and stupid his electorate is, and how little they appreciate him.
"I'm not taking them seriously as they piss themselves in terror," O thinks, in a typical rant, "stoked by those pompous, opportunistic multimillionaires Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and the Ward and June Cleavers in Minutemen costumes; as they Photoshop Hitler mustaches on my picture and wait for orders from their Calamity Jane of the North, who is still too pig-in-shit happy with her seven-figure book deals and reality TV politics to give in to their fevered desire that she lead them on righteous crusade to take the White House from the Ivy League elitists and their enablers in the 'Lamestream Media.'"
Remember: This book is being marketed as a surgical examination of what Obama is "really thinking." Does anyone believe the president actually thinks like this?
Most of the novel, mercifully, does not take place in the cardboard president's head. It's about the consultants and the Republicans. That sounds promising, coming from a McCain ally. There aren't many politicians more compelling than John McCain. A McCain manqué was the star of Joe Klein's novel The Running Mate, his follow-up to the anonymously published Primary Colors. But O's fantasy Republican, Tom Morrison, is only interesting as a springboard for the sort of things that might irritate a former McCain staffer. After Morrison wins New Hampshire and is clearly going to be the Republican nominee, he sits with his campaign manager, Sandy Stilwell, and discusses just what a lackluster person the president is. Morrison says the president seems rattled, because he's already launched negative ads.
"General," Stilwell interrupted, "in the last election, O ran the biggest negative ad campaign against his opponent we've ever seen. And no one in the press, none of the voters who were open to persuasion, held it against him or thought it said anything about his character."
"That may be true. But it didn't seem desperate then or a surprise. And it happened well after the story line for the election had already been set."
The reader might think that no one talks like this. That's not quite right—McCain advisers talked like this, right after Obama beat them. "McCain staffer rants at length" isn't much of a sales pitch, though. That's what anonymity and publishers are for.
David Weigel is a political reporter for Slate.