Patrick Anderson's latest novel about a fictional president of the United States hasn't even been published yet and it is already causing a stir among aides to the real president.
Some of them got an advance look at "First Family", which Simon and Schuster will publish in January, when proof copies began circulating this summer at the White House.
What they read was a roman a clef about a Tennessee-born president, Tom Painter, and his wife Joanelle, "an attractive woman not terribly well understood by her husband," according to the author, who went on to explain that "a variety of things build up during her first year as first lady and she has a nervous breakdown."
There is more, of course, including an affair between the president and his secretary, as well as characters whose antics might give some people the impression they are straight out of the Carter White House.
None of it would rock any ship of state, least of all Carter's, were it not for the fact that Anderson is a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and his wife Ann is a former deputy press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. She was dismissed in August when it was announced that the first lady's staff was being reorganized and her job was being eliminated. Yesterday, her husband called it "a strange coincidence" in timing.
At the White House, the question seems to be whether Anderson has traded on what he knows to be fact in developing fictional characters, and whether readers will be able to distinguish between the two.
Carter aide Greg Schneiders told The Chicago Tribune he considered it "irresponsible for an author to write in a way that so closely parallels the real world in the details that would make these people identifiable and then to depart from reality in the essential story line."
Schneiders, who works with Carter image-builder Jerry Rafshoon, believes Anderson's characters will be identifiable to most readers but is concerned that "there is no basis for the general public to work out what is real and what isn't."
Anderson said that "obviously the book's characters have parallels.We all know people in political life who have had problems. Part of the political novel game is for people to want to see real people in fictional characters."
But Anderson, who also wrote "The President's Mistress," said the idea of a novel focusing on a first lady first came up some years ago when he discussed it with his editor Michael Korda at Simon and Schuster because he had always been interested in the role of women in politics.
"Prior to ever knowing the Carters, I had known Abigail McCarthy, Eleanor McGovern and Lady Bird Johnson, and it always seemed to me as if there was a story there."
Anderson's fictional first lady Joanelle Painter is "vulnerable and not tough enough to cope," which, in the author's view, could not be more dis-similar to Rosalynn Carter.
"If the Carters weren't in the White House now, people would say the book's first lady is Betty Ford or Joan Kennedy," said Anderson.
There is also a character named Bud Langston whose actions and habits are portrayed in such a way as to remind some who read about him of Carter aide Hamilton Jordan.
"He's not Hamilton in my mind," said Anderson. "But if it weren't Hamilton, people would probably say it's David Kennerly or Dick Goodwin."
"All I hear," said Hamilton Jordan yesterday, "is that Pat Anderson has written a book, and that it is intended to be fiction, and that it certainly was fiction."
It was not his intention, he said, to make Anderson's book a best seller.
Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary, said it was one thing to write a "pot boiler," but something else to "set out to identify fictional characters as real life characters by including enough well known and realistic details.
"It doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of difference," Powell said. "It's a little tacky."