Roman Scumbag

They are male and female, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, legislator and executive, insider and publicity hound. They are Boxer and Gingrich, Libby and Clarke, Carter and Cheney and Mikulski and Perle, and to their corpus of earnest yet cynical, idealistic yet worldly, not-all-that-bad-but-never-quite-that-good novels, please add Dark Horse by Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, running buddy of Jack Abramoff, unsuccessful candidate, consultant, and now novelist. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but churning out a potboiler seems to be the last refuge of the overweeningly confident.

Dark Horse is the story of Bob Long, the governor of California and candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. With this status he is afflicted only temporarily, since his all-but-secured nomination is swiftly undone through a tricky procedural maneuver sprung after some underhanded double-dealing by his rival, whose nefariousness is signaled by making him the liberal (!) Senate majority leader (!) from New Jersey (!) and giving him the very un-Bob Longish name of Salmon P. Stanley. Skunked by Stanley, Long declines an offer to join the ticket in the second spot, and shuffles back to Cali to observe from the sidelines Stanleys struggle against his GOP rival, the incumbent vice presidentand very vice presidentially namedHarrison Flaherty.

Then, something unusual happens: God tells Bob to run for president as an Independent. Or signals him. Gives him a thumbs up. A nod and a wink. Whateverthe Lord works in mysterious ways, and here he opts against appearing as a burning bush or Morgan Freeman Jr. or any of his regular guises in favor of far subtler communication. What happens is that when Bob leaves the convent ion, he heads straight for the hospital, where his daughter is in labor. There is a complicationits a breech birth, the baby is deprived of oxygen for a timeand Bob ends up in the chapel, where he offers God a proposition: If you will spare my grandsons life, I will serve you for the rest of my life. As it turns out, God apparently accepts the deal. The infant recovers, and Bob concludes, as almost any of us would, that the best way to serve is to continue his campaign for the White House against that varmint Stanley and that weasel Flaherty.

Whats interesting is that although Long is the first Democratic candidate since 1996 who has partnered with a campaign advisor who might finally outsmart Karl Rove, Long no longer seeks signs from the Almighty about where to spend his money in Pennsylvania or what bumper-sticker design to approve. Instead, he turns to mortal helpmates, including the brilliant strategist Jay Noble, and the Christian movement leader Andy Stanton.

And theyre off and running. Very soon we meet assorted vice presidential candidates, corrupt power brokers, sexy check thatattractive press secretaries, a Middle Eastern terrorist, a Washington madam, a moderate African-American former general and secretary of state (whered he dream that one up?), unctuous pundits, gotcha-driven reporters why, everybodys here except a cute dog, a crippled kid and an old lady with a lot of gumption. Reeds predilection to pep up his narrative by throwing in new characters serves him pretty well for the first half of his book, but after the exciting assassination scene at the novels midpoint, the continuous parade of newcomers (the Israeli ambassador on page 332, the Speaker of the House on page 393) splash the book with the kind of dismal anonymity conventionally found in a bad baseball teams late-season, scrubeenie-laden line up.

As a prose stylist, Reed generally scales the heights of readability, which is no mean feat for an amateur, and every once in a while he really connects. The aftermath of losing campaigns resembled a battlefield amputation more than putting the family dog to sleep. The end was quick and bloody is a good line, and his characterization of a veteran political reporter made me laugh out loud: Dorman was dressed for battle: rumpled jacket, wrinkled khakis, a knotted rep tie that hung at an odd angle, and tousled, matted grey hair. There are also a couple of places where Reed the novelist seemed to be allowing Reed the well-connected insider to show us something privileged and rare, such as the time we find Jay Noble, the not altogether noble strategist, meeting with his candidate but thinking about his take. The consultants would split a 15 percent commission, or $18 million. Not bad for 100 days work, Reed writes with casual candor, generating the kind of frisson one gets when overhearing something that ought not to be said in front of the children. He has an excellent chapter in which a superbly-connected, dirtyup- to-his-eyebrows power broker visits the beach house of a constantly-trading zillionaire and glamorous wife. Although the scene ostensibly depicts Democrats (the spirits of Geffen and Burkle and other sharpies is conjured), the authority of this scene causes one to conclude that the Republican Reed must have spent time in these rooms, and his depictions of narcissism, materialism and appalling self-regard are sharp.

Indeed, Reed seems to have done a good enough job that he might have grounds to sue his editors for non-support. (On the other hand, he might have turned in a terrible manuscript, and his editors should be admired for their heroic rescue. Only they know the truth.) But sterner oversight might have tempered Reeds worst habits: a weakness for clich (The joke in the Senate was that the most dangerous place on the planet was between Tom Reynolds and a camera; He lived by the rule that when your opponent is busy committing suicide, get out of the way); and a compulsion to cite historical antecedent. Phrases like Vidkun Quisling, who collaborated with the Nazis; After Senator Thomas Eagleton stepped down and Look at Walsh during Iran-Contra dot the landscape like cow patties. Some historical references in a political novel are inevitable, but you dont want the thing to read like an interview with Norman Ornstein.

If Reed were to stick with fiction-writing, he might get pretty good. The first half of the book is complex and the narrative moves briskly. But something happens in the second half; pages disappear in conversation and speechifying, and complications arise and are settled without drama. Situations that have been the grist for entire novelsthe discovery of a prostitution ring, Electoral College dysfunction are here just additional curves in the road. Reed doesnt help himself with the thinness of his characterizations. Some of these people are not much more than the Tommy Bahama and Versace brand names that they wear, and while the most fully drawn may be brilliant or greedy or cunning or shrewd, seldom are they afflicted with a psyche. Virtually none of them possesses an inner life.

The sole exception may be Bob Long, the candidate who grows more prayerful and devout. In Long and some of the other characters, Reed gives us a portrait of a Christian politician who is principled and inclusive, and who cares about issues like abortion just as much as he cares about poverty. Christians in this book function as an interest group, but Long is not an interests candidate, only a man of conviction. Strikingly, there are no Falwells or Robertsons or other freelance hate mongers condemning homosexuals or Muslims or ascribing the sufferings of the victims of a natural disaster to their insufficiency of belief. It is as though the last thirty years had never happened, as though chunks of Ralph Reeds resume had never happened. One wonders if Dark Horse should in some ways be read as a clever strategists blueprint for the next phase of the political evangelical movementless confrontational, less partisan, more open. A kinder, gentler Christianity, as it were.

Dark Horse, by the way, is published by a division of Simon & Schuster called Howard Books, which states that its purpose is to increase faith in the hearts of growing Christians, inspire holiness in the lives of believers, and instill hope in the hearts of struggling people everywhere, because He is coming again. It is a book in which the numerous adult characters are aware of sexual possibilities, but in which the two most sexually explicit words in the book are straddle and birthday suit. It is the only political novel that I can remember reading in which nothingduplicity, disaster, or even murdercauses any character to use any profanity at any time at all.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.