With a terse, three-word explanation -- "confirmed by sources" -- Mark Halperin at Time has identified Mark Salter
as the author of "O: A Presidential Novel," the book released earlier this month by Simon & Schuster.
Halperin is well-connected and an intrepid reporter. Salter is widely known in Washington as a longtime Capitol Hill aide, speechwriter, and confidant to Sen. John McCain, as well as a collaborator on McCain's acclaimed biographical books.
Those works, especially "Faith of My Fathers
," are evocatively written -- there is a reason they are runaway best sellers -- but they are true stories. An Iowa native who lives half the year in suburban Virginia and the other half in a cabin on the coast of Maine, Salter has told friends he is interested in writing a novel. And he has expressed concern how it might be received, both because of who he is and because, well, fiction is new territory for him. Critics can be harsh.
If Salter is indeed the author of "O: A Presidential Novel," those fears were well-founded. Ben Smith of Politico praised the book, as have others, but in the main the reviews have ranged from tepid
. The New York Times' influential Michiko Kukutani
was particularly unforgiving: "Well, now we know why the author of this much gossiped about, heavily marketed new book wanted to remain anonymous," her review begins. '"O: A Presidential Novel" is a thoroughly lackadaisical performance - trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny."
Yet, if you read it closely, her review offers strong clues as to why the author of "O" would want to remain anonymous, especially if he (or she) is a Republican -- and why the publisher would imply in the publicity materials that the author is a Democrat: The author of this novel has a low opinion of Barack Obama, a position not exactly universally held in the liberal bastions of the New York City book publishing industry.
"The title character turns out to be a ... a conceited narcissist whose inner life consists of gripes about his opponents, frustration with his job, daydreams about golf, and self-congratulatory pats on his own back, combined with put-downs of the country at large," writes Kukutani.
At one point in the book, President O's interior monologue describes himself thusly: "This is who he had always expected to be, this competent, cool, commanding leader who was always a step ahead of his rivals, a step ahead of the country..." As for the Tea Party, they're a bunch of "conspiracy nuts, immigrant haters, vengeful Old Testament types, publicity hustlers (who share a) sneering self-righteousness and burning hatred for me."
Whether or not that accurately captures the real life "O," astute political writers such as Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence
did quickly spot various Washington insiders in this book. They range from David Axelrod ("Avi Samuelson") to Ariana Huffington ("Bianca Stefani") to John Harris and Jim VandeHei of Politico (an amalgam named "Willem Janssen"). Speaking of composites, the Republican presidential nominee who runs against the Obama character is a man with the best traits of Mitt Romney and John McCain.
His name is "Thomas Morrison" and he's clearly the best candidate nominated since Ronald Reagan. This character, in addition to the towering arrogance and casual hypocrisy of "President O," led Kukutani to suspect the author of being "a Republican sympathizer" or someone disillusioned by the real-life Barack Obama.
Mark Salter fits both of those descriptions, which would help explain Simon & Schuster's coy marketing approach. First, however, a word of background.
In January 1996, "Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics," made its appearance. Random House had high hopes for this book (those hopes were certainly realized) and it took both the high road and the low road in its marketing strategy. For the high road, the publisher asserted that this novel about a Southern pol named Jack Stanton (Bill Clinton) was the literary heir to "All the King's Men." Unlike Robert Penn Warren's classic, however, the author of this book was ... "Anonymous
." That was the low road.
The publisher of "Primary Colors" deftly encouraged a Washington parlor game of guessing authorship, one that invariably evoked top Clinton aides, a tantalizing possibility that fueled the book's sales. In time, "Anonymous" proved to be, not a Democratic Party traitor, but Joe Klein, a sharp political writer. Klein's denials of authorship left a bad taste in the mouths of many colleagues, although his true friends accepted Klein's after-the-fact explanation: he wanted the work to be judged purely on its literary merits.
In this, Klein largely got his wish. The book was not only a huge commercial success -- a movie deal followed -- but the critics were, on balance, impressed. (Michiko Kukutani herself
was a bit more demanding: "Anonymous, however, is no Robert Penn Warren," she wrote at the time. "And Anonymous's Southern pol, Jack Stanton, is no Willie Stark; he's a cartoon version of Bill Clinton. And therein lies both the fascination and disappointment of this novel.")
When it came to "O: A Presidential Novel." Simon & Schuster's executive vice-president, Jonathan Karp, wrote
a teasing letter to readers: "The author is someone who has been in the room with Barack Obama and knows this world intimately." If that was supposed to steer suspicion onto a Democrat (and away from Mark Salter?), it worked only partially. Jon Karp, you see, was Mark Salter's and John McCain's editor on "Faith of My Fathers," and speculation in the New York Post centered on Salter
before the book was even released.
For his part, Salter has issued generic "no comments." (On Thursday, he told Politics Daily, "I've been asked by Jon Karp, as others have, not to comment, and am happy to oblige.") If Salter is not the author, he's doing his friend Karp a solid by helping keep the secret. If he is the author, which seems likely, he's learned at least one thing from Joe Klein: Refrain from issuing an actual denial.
As for that part about having "been in the room with Barack Obama," well, Salter is among the several hundred, perhaps thousands, of Americans who fit that description. In itself, that is hardly noteworthy, except that when Salter was in that room, he developed a low opinion of the man. It's little-remembered now, but in 2006, then-Sen. Obama approached McCain, an older, vastly more experienced senator of the opposition party, and proposed they work in tandem on ethics and lobbying reform. The alliance fractured almost immediately, amid mutually recriminating letters
that were leaked to the press.
Who is to blame is hardly important at this late date. The point is that Team McCain was always divided on Barack Obama, just as they were on Sarah Palin, who, incidentally, is called "The Barracuda" in this novel and introduced memorably: "There she was, baby on her hip, thick hair piled up high, chin out, defiant, taunting, flaunting that whole lusty librarian thing, sweet and savory, mother and predator, alluring and dangerous."
But back to the interesting feelings about Obama among the McCain inner circle. Some McCainiacs, one in particular
, found the African-American newcomer to presidential politics one of the most inspiring political candidates in modern U.S. history. Others considered him a preening poseur whose word couldn't be trusted. Mark Salter was in the second camp, and if he didn't write this book, one imagines that he'd like to buy a drink or two for the person who did.