By Patrick Anderson
Monday, October 18, 2010; C02
By Nicolle Wallace
Atria. 322 pp. $25
To say that Nicolle Wallace's "Eighteen Acres" is one of the best novels I've read about life in the White House may be faint praise -- there haven't been many good ones -- but her book is both an enjoyable read and a serious look at what high-level political pressures do to people. The novel will be talked about not only because its author served as White House communications director for George W. Bush but also because her three main characters are women: the president, her chief of staff and a television correspondent who is having an affair with the president's husband.
The president, 47-year-old Charlotte Kramer, is a shrewd and moderate Republican, given to salty language, who was a corporate executive and governor of California before advancing to the White House. Her chief of staff is Melanie Kingston, who is both the author's alter ego and her best-developed character. She's 37, quite attractive (all these women are quite attractive), hard-working and loyal but increasingly restive in the West Wing. You have to escape, she believes, before the job "turned you into someone you neither recognized nor liked." The reporter, Dale Smith, is 32 and fiercely ambitious to be a network anchor. The complicating factor is that she's fallen for Peter Kramer, the handsome lawyer who is the president's husband. He and his wife drifted apart as her political career began to soar and now lead separate lives except for an occasional photo op. He and Dale are in love but have no idea what to do about their secret passion.
The author is well aware that romance can blossom in the harsh world of politics; she met her future husband, Mark Wallace, when both were on the Bush team in the 2000 election. Still, she treads delicately with regard to her characters' sex lives. The Peter-Dale affair is spicy enough, but Melanie's on-again, off-again fling with a younger reporter is rather coyly handled, and the glamorous president seems doomed to celibacy. Even when her husband's affair becomes public, everyone remains quite civilized. The president's popularity even rises because the scandal humanizes her for many voters.
The tone of the book changes when the president visits the troops in Afghanistan. A series of spectacular events there includes a Taliban attack and a life-threatening injury to one character, and leads to a scandal that forces a Cabinet member from office. Granting that Big Dramatic Events are the stuff of popular fiction, these plot twists still seemed improbable. Wallace is more impressive when she sticks to the day-to-day realities of political life, which she knows well and relates with skill.
The novel climaxes with President Kramer's uphill battle for reelection. Wallace has played major roles in two national campaigns -- in 2004 and 2008 -- and she seems to have reached the same conclusion I did when I once spent six months traveling with a (successful) Democratic candidate for president. In a campaign, it's not your opponents in the other party you come to loathe. You're trying to destroy them, but that's not personal. The people you really want to throttle are your staff rivals, the ones who want to deny you the candidate's ear, who stand between you and the spacious West Wing office you so richly deserve. That war is fought not with long-distance missiles but up close, with stilettos. And sometimes, later, in novels.
"Eighteen Acres" (the title refers to the size of the White House grounds) isn't precisely a roman a clef -- there are, for one thing, no characters who suggest George or Laura Bush or Dick Cheney -- but Wallace does seem to be having a bit of sport with two of her erstwhile colleagues. Melanie's chief rival for the president's attention is a pudgy political guru whose ham-handed style offends her, as do his looks: "She stared at Ralph's ruddy complexion and receding hairline. He was so unattractive Melanie almost felt sorry for him." Hmm. Sound like anyone we know?
As for the other character Melanie seriously dislikes, let's note that Wallace was an adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign, and one of her chores was to shepherd McCain's surprise choice for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. According to numerous accounts, the two women clashed over many issues, including the style and cost of Palin's clothing and Palin's disastrous interviews with Katie Couric. In the novel, President Kramer decides to shake up her campaign by choosing a law-and-order Democrat named Tara Meyers as her running mate. This woman, although an effective campaigner, deeply offends our ladylike heroine: "Melanie disliked everything about Tara. She was loud, tacky, and rude. She seemed to calculate the least presidential approach to every situation and pursue it with vigor."
There's more, all delicious. I regret to report that on the last page of this entertaining, sometimes moving novel, Wallace has Melanie tell the president that she (Melanie) has been "too hard" on tacky Tara. It was the only time I thought the author wasn't playing straight with us.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.