‘O’ Is for Obviously Overhyped

Posted January 24, 2011 at 5:32pm

It’s hard to write about “O: A Presidential Novel,” which hits book stores today, and not mention another political tome, “Primary Colors.” Both were penned by anonymous authors who claimed to have inside knowledge of what goes on during a presidential campaign. “O,” of course, is based on President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign, while “Primary Colors” focused on President Bill Clinton’s run in 1992.

Beyond that, both books had brilliant marketing schemes based on the mystery of who wrote the book. But that’s where the similarities end: While “Primary Colors” was widely regarded as a fun and interesting read, “O: A Presidential Novel” is neither fun nor interesting. 

The novel is allegedly written by someone in the know, yet the story is basic and predictable. There is nothing shocking about people sleeping together on the campaign trail or big-name donors trying to be overly involved in the races that they fund. At best, “O: A Presidential Novel” should be categorized as a mindless beach read. In fact, if the book was not relying so heavily on the hunt for the author, it’s likely “O” wouldn’t even make the political radar.

The novel is set in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election. Incumbent President O is facing off against a one-term Republican governor with an extensive military background.

The story weaves together the lives of the usual suspects on any campaign. There is Cal Regan, the hard-working campaign manager; Allen Knowles, a millionaire donor who has information that is potentially damaging to the opposition; and Walter Lafontaine, an old protégé of O’s who was left behind in Chicago during the president’s first term. And of course, every novel like this has to have a
Maddy Cohan, the ambitious young reporter from a startup newspaper based in Rosslyn, Va.

Publisher Simon & Schuster claims the author “has been in the room with Barack Obama and knows this world intimately.” Frankly, if the author had any sort of secret information, one has to think the novel would, at the very least, be a bit more groundbreaking and titillating. From appeasing donors to managing dead weight staff, the book shows just how mundane the details of a campaign can be.

The largest scandal unveiled on the pages involves the fact that the Republican candidate once employed a man who bribed foreign nations to get contracts for small arms and body armor. In the end, the scandal isn’t what it seems. This plot point allows the reader to see exactly what kind of precaution is required when a campaign is researching details that may damage the opponent. This is perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the book.

While “O: A Presidential Novel” is overflowing with tales of men working in politics, it lacks a female presence. The only two women who play significant roles in the story have slept with the campaign manager. One is a young campaign staffer, while the other is a reporter with a disregard for journalistic ethics. Whether that is a commentary on campaigns being a boys’ club or the output of a sexist author is up to the reader to decide.

In the end, “O” is a letdown. While the publisher promised a tale of the inner workings of a campaign war room, the book lacks salacious tidbits and instead focuses on much of the obvious.