This is a presidential election year in the United States, and that fact alone renders every remotely political book published this year as intensely suspect. The prize is so great and the contest so brutal that all interested parties will use any means possible to sway the electorate, and as publishers learned long ago, there's a fair amount of money to be had by loading bookstores with incendiary election-oriented volumes
Such books are unlikely to get more lively than Edward Klein's The Amateur. Subtitled Barack Obama in the White House, Klein's book is animated by a sense of alarm bordering on hatred, all turning on his central point, which is that President Obama and his inner staff came to the White House entirely unprepared for the job of running the country and have shown little willingness to learn, intent instead on petty politicking and the promulgation of a radical agenda. Klein is a long-time writer on politics (including a string of books about the Kennedys and a would-be expose of Hillary Clinton), and in this short, angry polemic, he paints a picture of a doctrinaire, dilettante commander-in-chief whose na´vetÚ and arrogance have brought the country into disrepair and disrepute.
The art of political raillery has been practised in the United States since the first rabble-rousing pamphlets of Thomas Paine, and the goal of such quick productions is to persuade, not inform. Readers coming to such raillery full of biddable curiosity and foolish neutrality can be forgiven for feeling vaguely preyed upon: after all, who's to say how much of all this anger is justified? Such a reader might have liberal Democrat friends who've expressed bitter disappointment in Obama, which gives pause - but didn't Klein self-publish a book entirely about the crackpot "theory" that Obama isn't a US citizen at all? Haven't interviewees for several of his books publicly stated that their words were taken out of context, or fabricated entirely? To put it mildly, that gives pause too. How to know what to make of any such new book as The Amateur?
The surest way - chasing down every one of Klein's interviewees and comparing their complete transcripts to the snippets cut-and-pasted into the finished book - is hardly something the average reader can be asked to do. A less-than-charitable view would be that Klein himself is counting on the reader's reluctance to check his work, but in either case, there must be some way to evaluate that work without duplicating its composition.
One alternative is for that open-minded newcomer to simply read the book, although such an approach, it turns out, doesn't exactly help Klein win converts.
The Amateur opens with a declaration: "This is a reporter's book." Klein claims that he's interviewed nearly 200 people - and then immediately undercuts himself with the confession, "My job as a reporter was complicated by the fact that Obama and his advisers have gone to elaborate lengths to hide his dark side." A disinterested reader, coming to this book free of ideological baggage, will rightly observe that a writer who goes into an investigation already convinced of a "dark side" isn't writing a "reporter's book" at all.
A few sentences later, however, there's a quote from an unnamed and uncredited source, one of the president's "oldest Chicago acquaintances", that sounds the book's opening theme as plainly as possible. "Ever since I've known him," that source tells Klein, "Obama has had delusions of grandeur and a preoccupation with his place in history. He is afflicted with megalomania. How else can you explain the chutzpah of an obscure community organiser who began writing his autobiography before he was 30 years old - and before he had any accomplishments to write about? And how else can you explain the chutzpah of a first-term United States senator, who believed he was qualified for the most difficult job in the world - the presidency - even though he had never held a real job in his life?"
The questions aren't questioned by Klein - they clearly aren't meant to be rhetorical. But even if the reader knows nothing about Obama except what Klein and his anonymous mudslinger are saying (if, for instance, the reader is unaware of the fact that the man who'd "never held a real job in his life" was during this period both a lawyer and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School), the quote itself stops disinterested reading. Obama's autobiography was about his childhood and upbringing, not his adult accomplishments, such a reader will point out. And isn't "community organiser" a real job? And isn't Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate for Obama's job, far less experienced, having precisely one term as governor of Massachusetts in his political resume? An objective reader will wonder if Klein is going to produce a quickie volume on Romney and call it The Other Amateur, but it seems unlikely.
Even so, any book can have a rocky start, and in these early pages Klein's passionate conviction might still command some attention. His next chapter takes us to the Chapaqua, New York, home of former president Bill Clinton, who's urging his wife Hillary to run against Obama in the coming election, angrily pointing out that if she waits too long - until 2016, for instance - he, Bill, with his frail health, might not be alive to enjoy a return to the White House. Carried away in his rage, the former president finally gives Klein his golden quote: "President Obama is ... an amateur!" And even in that moment of greatest conviction, any objective reader will be thinking, "Wait - didn't this same Bill Clinton just moments ago admit his motivation is fear of his own mortality?" The chapter is only a few pages long, but it invites its own dismissal (and both Clintons have dismissed it).
And so it goes, for page after page. Klein interviews David Scheiner, who was Obama's personal physician during his Chicago days, who makes reference to the president's "obese" surgeon general Regina Benjamin, airs his resentment that he wasn't invited to the inauguration, and comes across as so stewing in rancour that no sane reader would put any credence in anything he says. Klein interviews Richard Epstein, who was dean of the University of Chicago Law School when Obama taught there and intuits intellectual timidity from the fact that Obama never attended faculty lunches at the Quadrangle Club.
Klein interviews Steven Rogers, a Chicago entrepreneur who donated to Obama's Senate campaign and has remained bitter over the fact that those donations didn't instantly translate into favours. Klein spends dozens of pages attacking Obama aide Valerie Jarrett as some sort of behind-the-scenes Machiavelli ("She has been able to spread her tentacles into every nook and cranny of the executive branch of the government," said yet another unnamed gossiper, although apparently Michelle Obama's former hairdresser doesn't like Jarrett either). Klein describes without documentation a 2009 White House dinner the president had with nine prominent historians and concludes "If the meeting proved anything, it was that Barack Obama didn't have the faintest idea who he was; why he had been elected president; and how to be the commander-in-chief and chief executive of the United States of America." Klein of course wasn't present at that dinner, and it doesn't appear that any of the people who were present drew any of these conclusions, all of which seem fairly portentous for chitchat over coffee and ice cream. It would be funny if it weren't so scurrilous.
Klein accuses Obama of having turned his back on virtually all of the people who helped and guided him in his rise to political power, including female, Jewish and African-American voters, and the Kennedy family (on this last, no doubt relieved to have a source willing to be identified, he quotes his own book on Senator Ted Kennedy). Over and over, he calls Obama arrogant, elitist, haughty and hypocritical, and he predicts that in order to win the 2012 election, the president will have to "get down in the mud and wage the ugliest campaign in modern American history". But it's Klein, not Obama, who's imagining the hysterical rallies: "Has he learned from his mistakes?" Klein asks. "Has he become a better president? The answer to these questions will strike many readers of this book as all too clear. I can just hear them chanting in unison: "No! No! NO!"
It's the very depth of hypocrisy for a book as sordid as The Amateur to criticise anybody else for waging an ugly campaign.
In his acknowledgements, Klein writes, "One of the great pleasures in reporting a non-fiction book is that it forces you to get outside your zone of comfort." But even a reader who knows nothing at all about 21st-century US politics will be unable to avoid noticing that Klein seems very much in his "comfort zone" in these pages. And long before reaching the end, that reader will have plenty of doubts about the "non-fiction" part as well.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.