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'O: A Presidential Novel' -- By Anonymous, Starring Obama and 'Self-Obsessive' D.C.

4 years ago
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A new story of O has arrived on some capital doorsteps, including mine. "O: A Presidential Novel," is a fictional – or is it non-fiction? – account of the Obama White House and the upcoming 2012 campaign by an author named "Anonymous."

Yes, it's another who-wrote-it mystery. "What can I tell you about the author of O? Very little," teases Simon & Schuster Executive Vice President and Publisher Jonathan Karp in a letter to readers. "The author is someone who has been in the room with Barack Obama and knows this world intimately."

Whether Karp's "room" is the Oval Office or a vast hotel ballroom is not clear. From the first 50 pages, I can say this: Many of the clever descriptions and conversations will seem familiar to close observers of the president and his administration.

You don't have to be a close observer to get the cover art: an O with a large ear attached to each side. "What's going on between those ears?" asks the first line of the Simon & Schuster press release on the book, officially due out Jan. 25.

My reading so far (including the book jacket) reveals some characters who are composites or imaginary, and some who are instantly recognizable. There's the president's closest adviser, Avi Samuelson, aka David Axelrod, "whose rumpled, tired and melancholy appearance belied his effectiveness" and whose "lumbering" walk revealed how long it had been since he exercised.

There's Willem Janssen (John Harris/Jim VandeHei), who "left a promising career at a newspaper of record to start Body Politic (Politico), with financing from a bored billionaire and a plan to make his new venture irresistible to Washington insiders by accelerating the news cycle from a day to an hour with hypercoverage of everything said or done by anyone with political credentials." His particular genius: "monetizing Washington's self-obsessive nature."

And we can't forget Bianca Stefani (Ariana Huffington), "the mercurial founder of the eponymous Stefani Report (Huffington Post), a news-aggregating, occasionally muckraking blogger free-for-all website that became the cyber newspaper of record for leftist activists, intellectuals, and dilettantes from Williamsburg to West Hollywood."

The Obama described in the book, or at least its first 50 pages, is an Obama we know. He doesn't believe his luck or timing are particularly good – rather, he believes he can exceed expectations in whatever he attempts, "which allowed him to glimpse possibilities in faint chances." His basketball style (his political style?) is "crafty and smooth. He let the game come to him and played for the win . . . He looked to pass more than he did to score. And he seemed more pleased with himself when he dished a no-look or behind-the-back for an assist."

There is interior monologue that backs up the author's conceit that this president is chafing at the limitations of the presidency. Who knows if "Anonymous" heard it or made it up, but it rings true to read about O's frustration that CEOs, Cabinet secretaries, four-star generals and members of Congress "can golf any goddamn weekend they please. But if the president plays a round or two on the weekend, the press totals them up, checks the genders and campaign contributions of his foursomes, and runs stories about America's golf-crazy president next to reports on that week's casualties in Afghanistan."

It also rings true when Anonymous says that "O" tries not to "rant out loud. Droll sarcasm was his preferred medium when displeased."

Karp explains that Anonymous has chosen anonymity to "avoid being pigeonholed, or ignored, or scorned." The author, he says, is following in the tradition of "Jane Austen, the Brontes, The Federalist Papers, The Story of O, and, of course, Lemony Snicket."

Not to mention Joe Klein, who wrote the classic "Primary Colors" under the pen name "Anonymous."

Klein has denied authorship of the latest political novel of mysterious provenance. So have a lot of other Washington types, so many that the publisher is nervous about the field narrowing to the point where we'll all figure out who wrote the book. Simon & Schuster is going to some lengths to prevent this, and even asked NBC's Chuck Todd to avoid saying yes or no if asked The Big Question.

"From S&S: 'You may be asked to comment on whether or not you are the author. If so, it would be great if you refrained from commenting,'" Todd tweeted Tuesday.

Experience shows, however, that all those denials don't amount to a hill of beans. After all, Klein initially -- and repeatedly -- denied that he wrote "Primary Colors." The latest Mr. or Ms. Anonymous is bound to 'fess up eventually, especially if the book gets good reviews.

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