First Impressions: What’s Wrong With O, The Novel

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The higher powers here at TIME have assigned me, a political reporter who covers the White House, the task of reviewing O, the new novel by an anonymous someone who claims to have once been in a room with Barack Obama. This fact alone may already tell you all you need to know about the book. It means that the great Simon & Schuster publicity machine has succeeded. I could cook my editors cupcakes every day for a week, send flowers to their mothers and spit shine their cars, and they would not let me near another work of fiction. But for this one, I am apparently qualified, because maybe, just maybe, it was written by someone who knows something from inside about the White House operation.

Fat chance, is my guess. On Page 33, I came to this passage:

Minutes after the meeting concluded, the Democratic leaders marched together to the North Lawn of the White House and proclaimed to a bank of television cameras assembled there that they and the president were in total agreement on the most important responsibility of the new Congress: “putting Americans back to work.”

Set aside the syntax, which no matter what the New York Post tells you all but rules out Mark Salter as the author. Anyone who knows much about the White House would immediately spot the problem. There is no north lawn of the White House where cameras can be assembled. There is a north driveway outside the West Wing. There is a paved-over strip of real estate called Pebble Beach where the networks do stand-ups.  But the lawn is verboten territory. If I were to walk out there, I could get tackled and handcuffed to the delight of the protesters and tourists looking on through the fence.

The promotional materials for the book also include this excerpt, in a passage about the president’s state of mind:

Staff were always orbiting him, hustling their plans and whispering their worries to one another, trying not to disturb him or take their eyes off him either. Reporters at his heels, importuning him, goading him, trying to steal his secrets, wandering in the Rose Garden, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of him behind his office drapes, with his feet on his desk and his tie loosened.

See the error? Well, the Rose Garden is also tackling territory for a reporter. No one gets to wander out there, especially when the president is in the Oval Office, without an escort and a specific purpose that would severely complicate extended neck craning. There are large men in suits with guns to prevent such things. As for nipping at the president’s heels, I have followed in Obama’s footsteps as much as the next guy, and can attest to Obama’s dislike of his constant press minders. But the space between him and us is well controlled precisely to protect against importuning and goading. (We do that to his staff, instead.) Whatever problems Obama does have, dealing with the constant mutterings of his press pool is not one of them.

That said, this blog posting is not my book review. I am only a few chapters in, and still holding out hope that it is a decent read. By page 35, I have already read my first scene of post-casual-coital-bliss-interrupted-by-urgent-phone-call-from-the-White House, an apparent homage to similar scenes in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors. “I’ll buy you a toothbrush, make you coffee, scramble some eggs,” our hero, the future manager of Obama’s 2012 reelection effort, mutters desperately to his departing lady friend. Maybe this is how Jim Messina actually talks in bed. Maybe Anonymous really knows. I sure don’t.