L.A. Times reviewer may find himself in hot water over fictional McCain aide quote

Will Rahn Senior Editor
Font Size:

Late last month, journalist Timothy Rutten wrote a scathing review of the anonymously written “O: A Presidential Novel” in the Los Angeles Times. A few days later, Rutten again criticized the book, its publisher Simon and Schuster and its presumed author, former McCain aide Mark Salter. Rutten called the book’s publication a “shoddy and deceptive little enterprise” because of Salter’s “demonstrated history of antagonism for Obama” and “carload of political scores to settle.”

Particularly distasteful to Rutten is a passage in which Obama reflects on his unnamed presidential opponent’s noble character. He quotes the titular star of “O” admiring how his opponent “always put his country first” and wishing “he had his former opponent’s courage, valor, integrity.”

Rutten’s column denouncing “O” caught the eye of the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who was reading the book at the time and couldn’t find the passage Rutten was referring to. “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,” Goldberg writes on his blog. “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.”

Intrigued, Goldberg asked Rutten where he could find the passage. Rutten was unsure, but believed they were contained in the galley copies sent to reviewers prior the book’s publication. “The only problem with that is that Simon and Schuster didn’t send out galleys,” writes Goldberg. “And then I Googled the words themselves: ‘always put his country first’ and ‘wished he had his former opponent’s courage, valor, integrity.’”

The search turned up a humor piece on the Guardian’s website in which writer Oliver Burkeman jokingly claimed that he was in possession of Obama’s private emails. In one of the fake emails, Obama tells his daughter Malia that he should have expected a McCain aide wrote O’ because “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’”.

Goldberg has been unable to reach Rutten since their first conversation about the missing passages, and he allows for the fact that there may be a reasonable explanation for Rutten’s attributing of these lines to Salter. But for now, “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.”

Please check back here as this story develops.