Book Review: The KGB Candidate by Owen Sela


Two weeks ago, I returned to my project of going through all of the paperbacks that I inherited from my aunt and I read The KGB Candidate.

(My aunt, by the way, is fine.  She just moved to a new place and couldn’t take all of her books with her.)

Published in 1988, The KGB Candidate is a brisk read.  It opens with CIA agent Drew Ellis losing most of his men and his lover in Germany and then switches focus to the United States and a presidential election.  Looking to continue their time in the White House, the Republicans have nominated  a decent candidate who happens to be named after Abraham Lincoln but everyone knows that the Democrats have got the momentum.  However, the Democrats also have several candidates competing for the spot at the top of the ticket and, as the convention approaches, none of them has won enough delegates to claim the nomination outright.

Who will win the nomination?  Will it be the woman who announces early on that she has no interest in being vice president?  Will it be the veteran civil rights activist?  How about the dour, bow-tie wearing academic, the one who speaks about nuclear disarmament?  Will it be the veteran politician, the one who feels that it’s his turn to run?  Or will it be the young and charismatic dark horse, the one who no one initially gave much of a chance but who stunned the establishment by becoming a contender?

It’s an important question, not just because the winner of the nomination will probably win the election but also because one of the candidates is secretly pro-Russian!  KGB agent Boris Pomarev is determined to get his candidate into the White House.  He’s even stolen a computer program that can correctly predict how people are going to vote and what answers a candidate should give to the tough questions of the day.  However, Pomarev is responsible for the death of Drew Ellis’s team.  Along with wanting to protect democracy, Ellis is looking for revenge….

The KGB Candidate was an entertaining read.  Author Owen Sela does a good job with the action scenes and the characters are memorable without being particularly deep.  I have to admit that I was amused by the debate scene, in which all of the potential KGB candidates introduced themselves to the convention delegates.  Each candidate represented a different stereotype that most readers would associate with the Democratic Party and the American Left and one gets the feeling that Sela wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them.  Of course, in real life, there’s very little chance of any of us ever seeing a contested convention.  The primary system is designed to force each party to quickly coalesce around whoever has the momentum.  Still, contested conventions are always fun to read about.

For me, the most interesting part of the book dealt with the computer program that could predict who would win the election.  In the book, everyone is shocked that a program could do such a thing and I guess, in 1988, it might have been a shocking idea.  But today, that’s the sort of thing that people take for granted.  I remember that, all through 2016, all I heard was that Hillary Clinton was guaranteed to win because her entire campaign was based on data analysis and algorithms.  At the time, I thought that was kind of a hubristic way to run things and it turned out that I was right.  I also felt it was a bit of a depressing way to look at the world, if just because it assumed that people would always behave in the same way and that it wasn’t even necessary to actually listen to the voters or even ask for their votes.  Algorithms have their place but, in the end, people are more than just data points.

One response to “Book Review: The KGB Candidate by Owen Sela

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 9/26/22 — 10/2/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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