By Christopher Buckley. Twelve. 304 pages. $24.99.
President Donald P. Vanderdamp is seeking re-election but he's sick of the job. He's eager to lose so he can take his bowling ball and go home.
He narrowly won the presidency on a promise to change the way Washington does business. He meant it. Faced with a massive national debt, he vetoes every spending bill Congress sends him. That makes him, Christopher Buckley writes, “the sworn enemy” of Congress, “whose members understand that their main job … is to take money from other states and funnel it to their own.”
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When a Supreme Court justice addled by age, medication and martinis resigns, the unpopular president must win Senate approval for a successor – a hard job for even a strong president. On this struggle Buckley – William F.'s son, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush and one of our best writers of lighthearted political satire – hangs his tale.
Vanderdamp needs support from Judiciary Committee Chairman Dexter Mitchell, who despises the president for two reasons: Vanderdamp vetoed a bill that would have required every helicopter rotor blade in the U.S. military to be made in the senator's home state, and Mitchell wants the Supreme Court job himself.
The committee roughs up and rejects two highly qualified nominees, one of them because investigators dug up a movie review he'd written for his elementary school newspaper saying he found “To Kill a Mockingbird” boring.
While surfing for the bowling channel on cable TV, the president happens upon a show called “Courtroom Six,” presided over by Judge Pepper Cartwright, a vivacious Texan known as the “Oprah of the judicial system.” She'd been a real judge before her TV producer husband put her in what would become a hit show.
The public loves her, so the Senate will have to, the president thinks. Though at first reluctant, once she accepts the nomination she's a fighter. In a courtesy call to Mitchell, she neutralizes him with this declaration: “I've got the number one-rated TV show in the country. As of this morning … Congress's approval ratings are at eighteen percent. So it's my numbers up against your numbers, Senator. And if you and your distinguished colleagues try to pull any s---, I am going to climb up on that nice wooden committee table of yours and beat you to death one by one with your microphones.”
The plot isn't much and many of the characters are thinly drawn, but Buckley's knowing romp through the pomposity, egotism and self-serving silliness of the political elite is a treat. Even pretty good Buckley is a very good read.
Ed Williams is editor of the Observer's editorial pages.