A couple of weeks ago, I picked up the anonymously-written novel O, which concerns President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. The author was described by the publisher, Simon and Schuster, only as someone who "has been in the room with Barack Obama." I read O not because of the reviews (mostly bad) or because this sort of literature excites me (though I thought Joe Klein's Primary Colors was great) but because Mark Halperin identified a former aide to John McCain, Mark Salter, as the writer. I know Salter pretty well (I wrote about McCain in the 2008 campaign) and I asked him if he was the author. He declined to fess up, but Halperin made a convincing case.
I was intrigued, so I started reading. Many of the reviews of O have been negative, a few quite vociferously so. One of the most negative reviews came from Timothy Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, "When the author's identity is revealed, as it surely will be, this person will be amply dismissed for composing the manuscript that became this leaden book." I wouldn't say the book is "leaden" -- it does have its moments -- but it is not by any means great literature.
Rutten's problems with O went far beyond the quality of writing, however. A few days later, on February 2nd, he followed-up his review with a condemnation of Simon and Schuster, and of Mark Salter. Rutten wrote that Simon and Schuster should be "ashamed" for publishing O, in part because its presumed author, Salter, had a "demonstrated history of antagonism for Obama and a carload of political scores to settle." Rutten cites as evidence of Salter's bias against Obama the book's description of Obama's 2008 opponent (unnamed in the book, but obvious to anyone alive in 2008 as John McCain). Salter's authorship, Rutten writes that "'O' reflects admiringly on (Obama's) first opponent's willingness "always [to] put his country first" or one in which he "wished he had his former opponent's courage, valor, integrity."
I didn't remember this passage from the book, and I would have, because I was reading with Salter in the forefront of my mind. In fact, given that O seems to have been written by a McCain operative, its lack of obvious pro-Republican bias is noticeable. I went through the book, looking for these lines, but couldn't find it. I called a Simon and Schuster spokesman to ask if this passage was in the book, and was told no. I asked Rutten a week ago where he found this passage; he said he would check and get back to me, but he thought it was from the galleys sent to reviewers. The only problem with that is that Simon and Schuster didn't send out galleys. And then I Googled the words themselves: "always put his country first" and "wished he had his former opponent's courage, valor, integrity."
It turns out that these words appear in a humor piece written by Oliver Burkeman and published on the Guardian's website on January 30th, a few days before Rutten's second piece appeared. The conceit of Burkeman's parody is that he is in possession of Barack Obama's e-mails, and is republishing them for the benefit of Guardian readers. The fake e-mails include this one, ostensibly from Obama to his daughter, Malia. It is in this humorous, fake e-mail that the words Rutten attributes to Salter appear:
To: Malia Obama <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Told you!
Wait, you're saying you wrote a semantic textual-analysis program in Perl to compare this anonymous novel about "President O" with other books, thus pre-empting the New York Post's conclusion that it was written by John McCain's longtime speechwriter, Mark Salter? That's . . . impressive. Also a bit scary. I guess I should have noticed all those references to the president's former opponent who'd "always put his country first", and the passage where President O "wished he had his former opponent's courage, valour, integrity, valour, character, courage and valour". But still. Wow. xDad
In other words, it seems as if Rutten lifted phrases from an obvious parody of O that was published on an English newspaper's website, and then he attributed these lines to the author of the actual book. Then he excoriates the author not only for writing these "biased" lines, but for general ethical failure.
I e-mailed Rutten a couple of times since he first responded, by telephone, to my initial query, but he has not gotten back in touch. Maybe there is a sound explanation for this strange set of circumstances, and I'll report back if there is.