You Can Call Him Al
Monday, July 2, 2007
By Kristin Gore
Hyperion. 384. $24.95
Kristin Gore, the second of Al and Tipper Gore's three daughters, has been known as the one with a hyperactive funny bone. The young writer, who recently turned 30, has advanced from the Harvard Lampoon to television's "Futurama" and "Saturday Night Live" to comic novels involving Washington politics. "Sammy's Hill," published three years ago, introduced lovable, klutzy Samantha (Sammy) Joyce, then an aide to Sen. Robert Gary. Now, in "Sammy's House," Gary is vice president, in the administration of President Max Wye, and Sammy works on health-care issues in the White House.
The new book is readable, sometimes funny and certainly interesting, but ultimately it has the problem of being two different novels that don't fit together. Perhaps two-thirds of Gore's story is high-grade chick-lit about Sammy's romantic adventures and professional mishaps. The rest can only be read as an angry, down-and-dirty roman a clef in which President Wye and Vice President Gary stand in for President Clinton and Vice President Gore; we watch as the former becomes embroiled in a scandal that horrifies the honorable No. 2 who has served him loyally. Kristin Gore is a comic writer, but there's nothing remotely funny about her scathing fictional portrait of Clinton.
The book starts as chick-lit. Sammy is sweet, smart, sexy and scatterbrained. In the opening scene, she's on a Potomac cruise, hears fireworks, thinks it's a terrorist attack and dives into the river. She has a goldfish named Cal Ripken Jr. She hates cottage cheese and loves Steve Martin. In India she takes a rough ride on a camel that leaves her worried about "possible harm done to my reproductive organs." Most of all, Sammy is in love. Mr. Right is named Charlie, and he's an investigative reporter for The Washington Post; he is, needless to say, handsome, talented and generally adorable, but still things go wrong. The lovers have endless misunderstandings. They make up and break up, over and over. When they plan a romantic Thanksgiving in her apartment, her parents appear unexpectedly, catch them in bed and move in. A little of this goes a long way -- and Gore strings out the Thanksgiving fiasco for about 15 pages, which include poor Charlie having to sleep on the sofa and Sammy's dad inadvertently killing Cal Ripken Jr.
Meanwhile, a darker story begins to surface. President Wye, a former governor of Louisiana, is sometimes brilliant, but "he always stared at himself for too long in mirrors," "he wanted to please too many people to be able to consistently take tough stands," and "he lacked a strong inner compass." There was a problem during the campaign when reporters realized that Wye's stump speech had plagiarized an obscure foreign politician (something like this happened to Sen. Joe Biden), but he was saved when Gary, the loyal vice presidential candidate, used his "integrity credentials" to defend him.
Now, two years into the presidency, a far bigger scandal looms. President Wye claims to have not used alcohol for many years. But our Sammy, in her Nancy Drew mode, is among the first to learn that's not true. Soon the president is behaving erratically. He's leaving incoherent voice-mail messages around town, and rumors are spreading. Worse, as Sammy knows, he's also been using an illegal experimental drug to combat his drinking. At a televised news conference, he flatly denies he's had a drink in years, although many people know better. An independent counsel is appointed, and subpoenas begin to fly. Where will it end? Will the erring president survive like Clinton or go down like Nixon? We must take this drinking-and-lying scandal as an analogy to Clinton's problem with bimbo eruptions in general and Monica Lewinsky in particular. (Somewhat similarly, William Safire, after writing speeches for President Nixon, wrote a post-Watergate novel called "Full Disclosure" in which a Nixonesque president suffered from physical blindness that suggested Nixon's moral blindness.)
The upstanding Vice President Gary is agonized by the scandal and, before he goes to testify, confides in Sammy -- they seem to have almost a father-daughter relationship: "I didn't realize how weak he truly is. . . . It's just amazing how quickly a person you thought you knew can completely disappoint you. . . . And now we're all trapped. . . . Now he's made us all look like liars."
The roman a clef doesn't stop with the president and vice president. The first lady has a nasty disposition, a "glossy smile," a "hairsprayed coif" and "heavy perfume" (it makes Sammy sneeze), and her "paranoia was legendary." The villainous opposition leader in the Senate is described as waxen in appearance and in bed with the pharmaceutical companies; he also has the rather odd name of Frand, which might be confused with either fraud or Frist. And there is a George W. Bush-style ex-president named Pile (make of that what you will), who in his two terms nearly destroyed the country and in retirement makes a fool of himself in a televised reality show called "Piling On."
In all this, Gore demonstrates narrative skill and a knack for good dialogue and vivid descriptions. But will readers who come to this expecting chick-lit enjoy the political hardball, or will political types endure Sammy's romantic tribulations? Gore should have gone one way or the other. If she had written this as a political novel, without the cute stuff, it would certainly have been a cut above average in that genre. As it is, Kristin Gore has not told us anything about Bill Clinton that we haven't known for years. Still, for Al Gore's daughter to remind us of the former president's failings (and of her father's virtues) in this very public manner, at a time when Al Gore may still seek his party's presidential nomination, and Clinton's wife might be his rival, leaves us wondering if her excursion into recent history can be entirely innocent of political intent.