Frontrunners: What Obama and Romney Can Learn from Philip Roth’s “Our Gang”

To prep for November 6th – when Brooklynites and whoever else lives in America will cast their votes for state and national candidates – Vol. 1 Brooklyn today premieres Frontrunners: a weekly series examining novels about elections and their entrants. May these profiles both rally citizens, and celebrate the sensual art of civics itself. With any luck, the “absentee ballads” vetted here might even find their way to President Obama and Governor Sideburns, and offer both men solace and inspiration in the exhausting days to come.

TODAY’S ADVENTUREOur Gang by Philip Roth (Random House, 1971).

PARTY PLATFORM: Satirizing the rise and fall of President Trick E. Dixon. Roth opens his fifth novel with Orwell’s notion that the language of all political parties “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable… to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.” That wind too often blows through Our Gang, rife with Mad Magazine puns and zingers that could have been crafted mid-doobie. The Kennedys are renamed “the Charismas”. A sycophantic reporter is introduced as Mr. Asslick. If this sounds like the worst student newspaper comic strip ever, wait until Dixon spends the closing chapters in post-assassination Hell, challenging the incumbent Satan for the gig of underworld Commander-in-Chief. Still, bright spots emerge. A scene of Dixon conducting a staff meeting in his pristine college football uniform amuses, as do punchlines from his Hades debate which if nothing else well surpass Billy Crystal’s spiel as the Devil in Deconstructing Harry.

LESSON WITHIN FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: You can come back from a lethargic early outing to show pundits that you contain the wit of Nathan Zuckerman, the vengeance of Ira Ringold, and the fire-in-the-belly of Mickey Sabbath.

GUIDANCE FOR GOVERNOR ROMNEY: For every Sheldon Adelson, there stands in Roth a very different kind of seventy-nine year old Semitic curmudgeon. “Mensches for Mitt” merchandise remains an untapped late-inning opportunity.

SWAYING THE UNDECIDED VOTER: Much of Our Gang – published less than two months before Roe v. Wade’s first oral arguments – is comprised of the blowhard Dixon’s screeds against abortion. The prime suspects in Dixon’s murder prove to be a troop of Boy Scouts, verifying the President’s insight that these aren’t just “women’s issues” after all.

EXIT POLL: Most great novelists write a clunker or two. And lo: this one clunks. But history has largely forgotten Our Gang. The prose – a thicket of monologues complete with stage directions – milks the candidate’s banal rhetoric so often that the book sinks into limp tedium. During the Dubya administration, there was a bumper sticker popular among boomers which read, “I Never Thought I’d Miss Nixon”. To which 21st century readers of Roth’s hit-or-miss parody might today reply: “True, But I Really Never Thought I’d Miss Frank Caliendo”.

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