If the Real Candidates Aren't Bad Enough for You . . .
Monday, November 12, 2007
By Richard North Patterson
Henry Holt. 339 pp. $26
Richard North Patterson's novels view national affairs from a decidedly liberal perspective, just as Tom Clancy and before him Allen Drury have seen events from the conservative side. In his audacious new novel, "The Race," Patterson presumes to take us inside the battle-in-progress for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. His candidates aren't named Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson, nor are they necessarily modeled on those gentlemen, but they struggle with the same issues of honor and compromise, the same obsessions with gay rights, stem cell research, abortion, evolution and the role of religion in politics, that bedevil the real-life candidates. All this does not make a pretty picture -- Republican partisans may be outraged -- but it has a certain train-wreck fascination. As this orgy of hypocrisy and duplicity unfolds, you think, "My God, have we sunk this low?" And, if you follow politics, you have no choice but to murmur, "Yes, alas, we have."
Patterson's hero is handsome, 46-year-old Sen. Corey Grace of Ohio. Although he seems to hold roughly the same political views as, say, Ted Kennedy, Grace is a nominal Republican, apparently because of a vague feeling that Republicans are strong on defense. Otherwise, he is concerned with health care, Middle East peace, the economy and global warming but in the midst of a campaign whose overriding issues are opposition to gay marriage and proximity to God. Grace is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, and he was cruelly tortured after his plane went down during the Gulf War. He's divorced -- one of his few political flaws -- and during the novel he falls in love with a gorgeous Oscar-winning African American actress, Lexie Hart. This romance does not play well in certain precincts of the South.
Grace's rivals are the Senate majority leader, Rob Marotta, whose craven compromises and flip-flops recall those of real-life Republican candidates, and the Rev. Bob Christy, who rails endlessly against gays, Darwin, the Supreme Court, Hollywood and related outrages. (And yet, in a nice twist, the Rev. Bob is a rather likable fellow -- he's at least sincere -- and he and Grace become friendly.) Lurking in the background are two evil geniuses, Marotta's campaign manager, the ruthless Magnus Price, who combines the worst qualities of Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and Jack the Ripper; and the media mogul Alex Rohr, owner of the right-wing Rohr News, who might as well have been named Murdoch.
Patterson builds his novel around two major political struggles: the South Carolina primary and the Republican National Convention. Magnus Price, the cynical political genius, offers this analysis of South Carolina politics: "A good bit of the electorate is natural selection in reverse -- racists, Confederate flag nuts, gun fanatics, and fundamentalists so dumb they think Jesus spoke English." Or, as a cynical local politician puts it: "South Carolina. Too small for a republic, too large for an insane asylum. You're headed for the heart of darkness, boy." Campaigning in this madhouse, Grace is called everything from a race-mixer to a traitor to a communist. He and his African American lover recognize that some local patriot may well shoot one or both of them.
The vile rumors Grace's opponents spread about him recall those the Bush camp unleashed against Sen. John McCain and his family in South Carolina in 2000. Grace's enemies Swift-boat him by claiming that he wasn't tortured when a prisoner of the Iraqis, but brainwashed, and is now an agent of al-Qaeda. But Grace stands tall when he visits Carl Cash University, a Christian institution that doesn't allow interracial dating, and wins over students with idealistic remarks. Throughout the novel, the notion that someone as idealistic as Grace could be a serious contender in the current Republican ethos is hard to swallow, but it does make interesting reading.
Patterson carries this hellish campaign down to the wire at the national convention. All the delegate counts, vice-presidential scenarios and last-minute double-dealing at times become confusing, but the suspense holds. Could the Republicans actually nominate a saintly liberal in 2008, even in fiction? Let's just say that Patterson offers a surprise ending that is both clever and a bit of a cop-out.
"The Race" is wildly melodramatic, even lurid -- a beheading, a rape, heroin addiction, blackmail, sadistic hazing that leads to suicide, two terrorist attacks and all manner of sex scandals -- but perhaps no more lurid than a real South Carolina primary. It's well plotted but too long and written in prose that is workmanlike at best. "All the King's Men" it is not. And yet it has the virtue of honesty. The kind of hypocrisy and dirty tricks Patterson writes about are commonplace in today's campaigns. Men who know better do prostitute themselves before Bible-thumping political kingpins. Candidates do sell their souls to win primaries -- and, if they're lucky, the White House. This unhappy state of affairs is often reported in nonfiction, but it bears repeating. Perhaps a popular novel can take the message to a larger audience and help elevate the political climate. It's pretty to think so.