Let’s just put the Primary Colors thing to rest right away, OK? It’s been very savvy of Simon and Schuster to mention O in the same breath as Joe Klein’s iconic 1996 novel about Clinton’s 1992 campaign. (In fact, S&S has launched the most skillfully-executed marketing campaign in recent publishing history to promote O, but that’s another story.) Primary Colors brimmed with sharp, funny, sly satire. Americans were all too aware of the Clintons’ foibles by the time it came out, so that made it even more compulsively readable.
O, set during the 2012 campaign, hits all the right inside-politics note. I’m not a Washington journalist – I suspect the Beltway crowd will be able to weigh in better than I can about whether the nuts and bolts of running a campaign are portrayed correctly. But it almost doesn’t matter. You didn’t read Primary Colors to learn how to execute a crippling “ad buy” or how to draft a candidate’s message. You read it for the dirt. And that’s what’s conspicuously missing from O.
The Obamas, both in real life and in the novel, come off as squeaky-clean. And the Republican candidate in the book, the McCain-like Tom “Terrific” Morrison, is almost too good to be true, a morally upright, confident, affable retired general whose only Achilles heel, it seems, is his son, a teenager who might be mentally ill. (At one point, the kid attacks a reporter in a frenzied rage.) So how is a presidential race between too-good-to-be-true candidates a dishy, fun read? It’s not. There’s literally nothing to build the plot around except the inexorable month-by-month trudge to the polls.
Granted, if the characters were terrific – if you really got some sense that the author intimately knew the players in the room – then you might be able to make a book like this work. Simon and Schuster has said that the author of O is someone who has been in the room with Obama. I’m thinking that means a very big room. O himself is little more than a sketch, as familiar to us as the man we see every day in news clips and photos, nothing more. There’s even less of Michelle Obama. Sarah Palin is reduced to caricature (“There she was, thick hair piled up high, chin out, defiant, taunting, flaunting that whole lusty librarian thing, sweet and savory, mother and predator, alluring and dangerous”) as is Obama’s presidential adviser David Axelrod. I don’t know who some of the other characters are meant to be and I’m not sure I want to, either – the oversexed bimbo reporter, the legacy campaign staffer; the unpleasant campaign director.
So there you have it. Short on character, short on plot – a hapless, poorly executed attempt at satire that’s missing literally everything that Primary Colors had going for it: the detail, the zing, the insidery knowledge, the humor. Let’s give S&S an A for marketing O so well. But let’s give the book itself a D.