Who Wrote the Secret New Obama Novel?

Could it be Robert Gibbs? Joe Klein? David Plouffe? The race is on to figure out the author of a new novel about the Obama administration says Lloyd Grove—and no one has even read the book yet.

01.06.11 10:40 PM ET

Could it be Robert Gibbs? Joe Klein? David Plouffe? The race is on to figure out the author of a new novel about the Obama administration, says Lloyd Grove—and no one has even read the book yet.

It is, at minimum, an intriguing coincidence that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced his resignation a mere three weeks before Simon & Schuster is publishing its much-buzzed-about January 25 release, O: A Presidential Novel by the celebrated author “Anonymous.”       

The book, described in news accounts as a 368-page roman à clef inspired by President Obama and his inner circle, has yet to leak, nor has Campbell Scott’s audio version been heard. The rumors suggest that the mysterious unnamed author has “vast personal experience” of the president and is privy to Obama’s 2012 re-election strategy.    

That fits Gibbs to a T—though any informed speculation shouldn’t ignore the fact that the presidential spokesman has seemed rather busy during the past two years and hasn’t heretofore demonstrated much literary flair (unless one counts some of his priceless tweets and official “Statements by the Press Secretary,” which can, on his best days, be reminiscent of Tolstoy in the original Russian).     

Perhaps we might direct our search elsewhere.        

“I don’t think it would be a member of his administration—more likely a reporter who is looking to cash in, and thinks he or she can sell more books by writing it anonymously,” said a veteran White House correspondent—who, naturally, demanded anonymity. “Doing it anonymously could be a lot better than the reality. Primary Colors was a pretty good book before you found out that Joe Klein had written it.”

“And what would they dish about? How they compromised on the public option doesn’t really make for a great dishy book,” says Richard Wolffe.

Primary Colors, of course, was the 1996 Bill Clinton roman à clef that became a runaway bestseller for Random House long before a couple of enterprising journalists outed Klein as the novelist. (It was later a movie starring John Travolta.) The author’s secret identity was so well protected—and, let’s face it, such a brilliant marketing gimmick—that it was news even to Harold Evans, who cooked up the marketing gimmick as president and publisher of Random House and these days is a Daily Beast contributor.     

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Maybe Klein, a very well-connected columnist for Time magazine, has tried to repeat his earlier success?   

“You get to do that only once in a lifetime, I think,” he told me on Thursday. “For the record, what I’m saying is I didn’t write it. Of course the real author would say the same thing. But I have no interest in this. If it turns out to be a well-written book, I will have an interest.”      

Klein insisted he’s not at all miffed that Simon & Schuster stole his marketing strategy.  “I stole the author of the Bible’s marketing strategy. I stole Henry Adams’ marketing strategy; he wrote Democracy anonymously. I stole Jane Austen’s marketing strategy. She published her novels ‘By a Lady.’ This is one of the oldest literary traditions around. I truly believe that it should be used by anybody who can get away with it.”     

Among Obama insiders, departing presidential aide David Axelrod, a former political journalist and longtime media consultant, is a certified professional writer—but way too disorganized to have produced a novel in his spare time. Incoming White House communications czar David Plouffe, who wrote a very readable memoir of the 2008 campaign, might have the organizational ability but not the inclination to dish on his boss and colleagues.    

Perhaps “Anonymous” is Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, who oversaw much of the Obama campaign’s ground game but didn’t follow his friends into the White House; he’s certainly in a position to gossip about them in novel. No such luck.    

“I don’t have the attention span to write a book so it’s not mine,” he insisted. “However, if the book says really bad things about me, I probably wrote it.”     

Maybe Daily Beast contributors Richard Wolffe, who so far has written two books about Obama, and Jonathan Alter, who has written one, The Promise, and is working on another, needed to spread their wings and express themselves fictionally.     

“Nah,” Wolffe told me. “I’m productive, but not that productive. Three books in one year would be even too much for me.”     

“No, I’m not that industrious,” Alter likewise demurred.      

Both were skeptical that a genuine Obama insider would do something so arguably disloyal—or, for that matter, artistic—as tell tales out of school in novelized form.      

“Let’s just say you’d really have to have quite powerful imaginative and literary abilities,” Wolffe said. “And what would they dish about? How they compromised on the public option doesn’t really make for a great dishy book.”     

Unless, of course, Anonymous is an established bestselling author of two well-received memoirs of surprising literary merit, whose compulsion to publish is so strong that, even while holding down an impossibly demanding day job, he has managed to write a children’s book and continues to keep a meticulous diary for future nonfiction works. Far-fetched? Sure. But a possibility worth considering.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.