Plenty of Juicy Plot Twists in a Thriller of a Race

By Stephen L. Carter
Sunday, May 4, 2008

A s a novelist, I am jealous of the present national moment. I'd love to have invented it -- what author of thrillers wouldn't? The fate of the nation is at stake. Powerful characters vie for the chance to save it, and each one's supporters contend, loudly, that the others are being manipulated by the malevolent forces that secretly run Washington. No albino monks or evil wizards -- not yet -- but the plot is still chock-full of unexpected twists and turns, cliffhangers, even car chases (well, chases by journalists, which can be equally harrowing).

We have war, we have religion, we have race, we have gender, we have class, and we have confusing subplots galore. What reader could resist?

Not many, evidently. Rasmussen Reports recently released a survey in which four out of five respondents said that they've been watching this year's presidential campaign "very closely" or "somewhat closely." Older people followed unfolding events more closely than younger ones did -- just as older people buy more books. And while those who read a novel only somewhat closely instead of very closely may miss some of the key clues, they can and often do develop a rooting interest. This year, almost everybody seems to have one.

And why not? Consider the lead characters. Will Hillary Clinton be the first president who's not a man? Will Barack Obama be the first who's not white? Will John McCain be the first to have suffered in a prisoner of war camp? We follow their adventures avidly, wondering which one might be the secret enemy of all that is just and which will turn out to represent the forces of good.

The bit characters, too, are fun to watch as we try to guess which one will play the biggest role in the ending. Might it be the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, last seen declaring that any criticism of his words represents an attack on the black church? What about former Georgia congressman Robert Barr, who, perhaps unsatisfied with the many signs pointing to the Republican Party's defeat in the fall, is considering adding to the mess by running himself? Or former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who evidently has similar feelings about the Democrats? (What is it about Georgia, anyway?)

And then there's Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently in our thriller as a plot device, enabling the Democratic candidates to show their steel by promising to use force if he dares to do what he says he's going to.

But what readers really want to know -- the sooner the better -- is who the hero is. Every novel, especially every thriller, needs a hero. They take huge risks for the greater good -- including the risk of defeat. In the contemporary thriller, the plot comes down to a standard model (sometimes called the Ludlum Formula, in tribute to master thriller writer Robert Ludlum). In the Ludlum Formula, the hero alone knows the truth and spends several hundred pages fleeing the good guys, who think he is a bad guy, and the bad guys, who know he is a good guy out to expose their secrets. He is not popular. He has no cheering section. But he knows he's right, and he presses on.

Usually, the novelist tells us early on who the hero is. This is important. Once we know the hero, we know whom to root for. We also know who's likely to win in the end, unless of course the writer is someone like John le Carré or Graham Greene -- authors from the noir school, whose heroes often fail.

McCain, of course, is already a hero, with a war record and hard-earned medals to prove it. He has tried to be heroic in peacetime, too. In the Senate, he has been aggressively bipartisan, so often forsaking the GOP grass roots that many on the Christian right seem willing to sit the election out. Most of the country, however, seems to have forgotten that a Republican is even in the race; the only reminder comes when pundits opine about whether the fierce contest for the Democratic nomination will help the GOP in the fall.

Nevertheless, any candidate can be a hero. The question is whether his or her supporters will allow this to happen. Powerful forces restrain the would-be hero from taking chances. The media often make new ideas look scary. Interest groups demand obeisance. Now and then, one of the candidates looks ready to lead rather than follow. But each step forward is followed by a step back.

One way supporters keep their candidates from becoming heroic is by trying to shield them from adversity -- even when adversity only means tough questions from the media. If reporters challenge McCain, it's evidence of their left-wing bias. If they challenge Obama or Clinton, they are playing the Republicans' game. Forgotten is a crucial lesson from literature: Only by confronting adversity can the potential hero be tested.

But supporters try to keep adversity at bay. Thus it turns out that it's fair to criticize only the sermons of political pastors of the Christian right. On the left, well, we should try to understand the roots of the preacher's "controversial" comments. And you might remember the last time around, when each candidate's supporters said, in effect, "Checking on your guy's military record is important, but checking on my guy's military record is dirty politics."


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