Barack Obama's candidacy has got me thinking of Irving Wallace's 1964 novel The Man , which imagines an America led by a black president. But Wallace's hero, Douglas Dillman, isn't elected; he's a Midwestern senator who inherits the White House after the president and the speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident. The vice president has recently died, and since the novel was published before the adoption of the 25th amendment the office remains vacant. As president pro tempore of the Senate (a ceremonial post he was chosen for to appease the party's liberal wing), Dillman is therefore next in line.
Unlike with Truman and LBJ, the country doesn't rally around the new president: sixty-one percent disapprove of him. Dillman can't fault them; he holds a low opinion of himself too. Racial insecurity bedevils him. "I am a black man," he says, "not yet qualified for human being, let alone for President." Though a widower, he is reluctant to pursue a relationship with a biracial woman because he fears the lightness of her skin will raise the specter of miscegenation. To calm people's worries, he agrees to play the role of a figurehead. He doesn't even veto a clearly unconstitutional bill prohibiting him from removing any member of his predecessor's Cabinet.
But little by little he asserts himself, to the growing frustration and fury of his enemies. They finally pounce after he fires a backstabbing secretary of state. Dillman is impeached on spurious charges, but at the Senate trial he is dramatically acquitted by one vote. Several weeks later he is celebrating the New Year with his lady friend, whom he no longer feels nervous around. A new poll has been released: two-thirds of the public have drifted into the undecided column. This is good news, an advisor tells Dillman. He isn't liked, but he isn't disliked either. Whites are willing to give him a chance.
The Man isn't a great novel. Like Wallace's other bestsellers, it suffers from the author's need to empty his notebook. (A question about how a Cabinet meeting is run, for example, provokes a lecture on the history of the Cabinet.) Also: exposition is relayed through dialogue, too many characters are cartoonish and stereotypical, and a few subplots should have been jettisoned. Then there's the datedness: references to the Cold War don't quicken the pulse like they used to.
But Dillman's dilemma resonates, especially now that Obama is poised to lock down the Democratic nomination. The senator will have to ask whites to give him a chance. His losses in Ohio and Pennysylvania are worrying. Green supersedes black and white, however, in a dispirited economy. Obama is ideally suited to make this point. A post-Jim Crow, post-black power figure, he doesn't bear the scars of Dillman's generation. His principled avoidance of identity politics has been a cornerstone of his appeal. Still, a lot of Americans would agree with a congressman in The Man, who objects to Dillman taking office because "I like the color [the White House] is right now." Obama's task is to convince them that he's not bringing a paintbrush to Washington.