It’s probably best to begin a discussion of Nicolle Wallace’s flawed but fascinating new White House novel with a bit of background. Wallace served as communications director in George W. Bush’s White House and was a senior adviser in John McCain’s 2008 campaign for president, during which she clashed repeatedly with McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
A year ago, Wallace published her first novel, “Eighteen Acres,” which featured four women: Republican President Charlotte Kramer; Melanie Kingston, the president’s friend and chief of staff; Dale Smith, an ambitious television reporter who was having an affair with the president’s estranged husband; and Tara Meyers, the Democratic attorney general of New York, whom President Kramer made her surprise choice for the vice-presidential nomination when she sought reelection. The novel presented Tara as tacky, tasteless and obnoxious, although an effective campaigner, and she could only be taken as Wallace’s vitriolic — but not necessarily inaccurate — portrait of Palin.
Now we have Wallace’s second novel, “It’s Classified,” a sequel that could have been called “The Return of Tacky Tara.” The four main characters are all back. The president remains elegant and saintly. Melanie has become the nation’s first female secretary of defense. Dale has broken up with the president’s still estranged husband and become press secretary to Vice President Meyers. In the novel’s opening pages, the vice president is tearfully resigning, after just a year in office, because she has triggered a scandal that has Kramer facing impeachment. We eagerly read on to learn the origins and outcome of this ungodly mess.
The novel glances at the four women’s love lives — is the president doomed to endless celibacy? — as well as at problems with Iran and terrorists, but mostly it’s about Tara Meyers. The new vice president suffers from adult acne and is a glutton who is rapidly gaining weight. (“Her back fat was visible around her bra straps and she could barely find her waist.”) She would rather read romance novels than study policy papers, and she often calls in sick to avoid briefings. She’s insecure, depressed and prone to tantrums. And she’s cursed with a husband who is both a jerk and a bully. (Almost all the men in this novel are essentially worthless.)
Has Tara no redeeming qualities? Well, she was once a successful prosecutor, she loves her young daughter, she occasionally endears herself to audiences — and sometimes, amazingly, she’s even perceptive about politics. No matter: Her downfall begins when she blows a televised interview, one that recalls Palin’s ill-fated encounter with Katie Couric, a real-life disaster that Palin blamed on Wallace. Tara’s botched interview sets Washington abuzz and calls forth charges by Democrats that she’s unfit for office and that the White House cooked up a terrorism crisis to divert attention from her incompetence. These charges lead, improbably, to calls for a special prosecutor and the president’s impeachment.
If you enjoy seeing Palin mugged, all this is diverting enough, but if you’re looking for a coherent character, it’s puzzling. Tara feels like an awkward stitching together of Wallace’s personal scorn for Palin, with her novelistic need to grant Sarah/Tara a few positive traits. We might ask, too, if Palin is worth all this attention. There have been memorable romans a clef about American politicians — such as Robert Penn Warren’s invocation of Huey Long in “All the King’s Men” and Billy Lee Brammer’s take on Lyndon Johnson in “The Gay Place” — but those were leaders of consequence. With the increasingly irrelevant Palin, it’s more like kicking a dead horse.
Yet the novel has many virtues. It moves along smartly and suspensefully, with insightful glimpses of White House life. There are delicious asides, like a moment on television when “David Gergen was droning on about the history of special counsels and Wolf Blitzer was trying to look riveted.” The book is at its best near its end, when the president and her aides struggle with an investigation they consider entirely partisan — and that may have been suggested by Wallace’s painful memories of the prosecution of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby.
The special prosecutor’s probe tears the Kramer administration apart. Washington-wise Melanie warns a colleague, “This place is about to become a snake pit,” and it does, as friends fall out, lawyers are hired and the backstabbing begins. Wallace often seems to be sharing hard-won truths, as when the president reflects, “Idealistic aides were the most loyal and hardworking, but they had a tendency to turn on you with a vengeance when they became disillusioned.”
Wallace gives her story an inspired ending when one character emerges from the bloodletting as a master of duplicity — a cunning and dangerous new White House power broker. It’s a gloriously cynical climax to an entertaining tale, and by itself could justify another book about Charlotte Kramer’s troubled White House. Wallace’s first two novels have been impressive, but if she has finally exorcised Tara/Sarah’s demonic spirit, she might go on to write an even better one.
Anderson reviews mysteries regularly for The Post.
By Nicolle Wallace
Atria. 325 pp. $25