Pity poor Shakespeare. Moored as he was in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the heyday of the divine right of kings, the Bard did not have a wealth of democratic systems upon which to draw for inspiration. When he wanted to write a succession drama, the playwright, who was nothing if not adaptive, was stuck with monarchies and the boring right of primogeniture, where everyone understands that the king’s son or another male relative will without argument take the crown when the old king dies. Which means that a Shakespearean usurper who wanted to seize the throne was also stuck. He couldn’t pack the ballot box, or bribe a judge, or engineer an impeachment, or persuade five judges of a Supreme Court who all happen to come from the same party to set a nonbinding, good-for-one-use-only precedent to decide an election. All he could do was kill people, which is how we end up with Claudius killing Hamlet’s father, and Macbeth killing Duncan, and Richard III killing the young princes, one merry murder after another, all designed to move the killer into a higher slot in the order of succession.
by Roy Neel
Recount Press, 328 pp.
Imagine the fun the Bard would have had with a modern democracy like the United States, the most powerful country in the world, the lone superpower, the apex of modernity, which persists on selecting its chief executive with an elaborate eighteenth-century, pre-industrial system that allows the meddlesome participation of county boards, state legislators, party officials, federal bureaucrats, the House of Representatives, judges and justices of every stripe, and a mystical entity called the Electoral College that, Brigadoon like, appears once every few years to select a president, all to avoid leaving the decision purely in the hands of the voters. Perusing the elaborate apparatus, writers have found all kinds of nooks and crannies from which to upset the election process. Gore Vidal chose the nominating convention as the setting for his splendid succession story, The Best Man. In his lively novel Dark Horse, the conservative activist Ralph Reed used an upstart third party to sow chaos in a presidential election. The commentator Jeff Greenfield’s novel The People’s Choice turned on what would happen if a winning presidential candidate died during the vaguely regulated period between the elections and the certification of the Electoral College. Kevin Spacey has been having fun with his TV series House of Cards, whose point of origin is the Michael Dobbs novel about a British MP who fashions a series of scandals to manipulate the party succession system to grease his ascension to 10 Downing Street.
Now comes the novel The Electors, by Roy Neel. A longtime aide to Al Gore, Neel headed the vice president’s transition team following the 2000 election, which must have been something like being the captain of a ship that boldly sails into the Bermuda Triangle. From his advantageous seat on that particular bridge to nowhere, Neel got a good look at the many ways in which the garden-variety political act of voting can go wrong if a partisan Rube Goldberg designed it and mendacious people manipulate it. That folly led him to ponder the most paternalistic institution that exists in our constitution, the Electoral College, and how it might be brazenly manipulated to give the presidency to an undeserving candidate, and to serve as the premise of a fast-paced political thriller as well.
As The Electors begins, it is two weeks before the election, and a rather disengaged President Grady Holland looks destined for defeat. Not that he much cares; privy to his thoughts, we hear him mentally muttering, “Last debate. Last rope line. I win. I lose. I don’t give a shit.” The little pleasure Holland seems to take in being president seems to be focused on flying on Air Force One and wearing the coveted bomber jacket that comes with it. What he does enjoy is watching football, a pastime that the duties of office intrude upon with irksome frequency. His opponent, a fit, flirty, flip-floppy senator named Calvin Bridges, doesn’t appear to have much in the way of gravitas, but he could at least get himself motivated to read a briefing book prior to the last presidential debate. Suddenly, fate intervenes: in Washington, a young visitor to the Capitol building named Ian Wilson sets down his backpack. He has been carrying it for forces unknown, and as it turns out, untrustworthy, for as soon as Wilson calls his backpack’s backer, the dirty bomb he’s been toting in the knapsack explodes, incinerating him and creating a radioactive mess outside the Capitol. Fortunately it’s just mess, not tragedy; government grinds on.
Neel doesn’t hide the identity of the perpetrator for long: the mastermind behind the bombing is an aspirational terrorist named Jack Raglan. A racist, right-wing rustic from the Pacific Northwest, Raglan managed to get ahold of two dirty bombs made from cesium seized from a Gammator research machine located in a warehouse in Zagreb, Croatia. He then went to all the trouble to get one transported to Washington, and to have one of his agents lure this nincompoop Wilson into delivering it, all so that Raglan could break into the big leagues of terrorism and promote a rather unimaginative freedom agenda that reads like a lightly edited Ted Cruz campaign flyer.
Ha-ha, as they say: the joke is on him. Raglan takes credit for the explosion, but no one believes him, or, for that matter, even pays attention to him. Credit-grabbing jihadists in the Middle East also claim authorship (not content to wage war and commit crimes against humanity, now they are plagiarists, as well). Lo and behold, these extremists, not Raglan, are the people that a suddenly roused President Holland decides to bomb the snot out of. Two weeks later, when an outraged America goes to the polls, the voters give the incumbent enough votes to shrink the gap, but not quite enough to win. Bridges takes enough states to give him 271 electoral votes, to Holland’s 267.
And that’s where the fun begins, at least if you’re the sort of political science dork who gets giggly at the thought of arcane constitutional anomalies (and if you’re not, by what perverse set of circumstances have you been delivered to these pages?). Most people who vote in presidential elections believe that when they make their choice, they are voting for the man or woman they want to be president; in fact, they are voting for electors who are pledged to vote for that candidate in the Electoral College. Okay, it’s a goofy system, but fairly foolproof, right? Not entirely, for only twenty-nine of the states oblige the electors to actually vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged. In the other twenty-one states, an elector is a free agent, and can vote for whomever he or she wishes. As it happens, this has occurred 157 times, most recently in 2004, when an elector pledged to vote for John Kerry and John Edwards instead voted for John Edwards and John Kerry. Nothing nefarious: simple human ineptitude was the explanation.
Innocuous in real life, calamitous in fiction. Pulling on this constitutional loose thread, Eldon Mann, Harding’s scheming, unscrupulous chief of staff (part Mann, mostly monster), begins the hunt for enough faithless electors to reverse the outcome, or at least create a tie. That would throw the election into the House of Representatives, where more fluky rules apply.
And therein lies this lively story. Scene to scene, Neel keeps the moment real and the action rolling. He enjoyed a long political career played out at the highest levels; evidently he sat in enough meetings in enough rooms and was privy to enough conversations that he is able to convey a real sense of how people think, talk, prevaricate, and lie. Never does he give us one of those forehead-slapping, credibility-destroying moments where the reader simply cannot believe what sits on the page. The characters could be a little more rounded and detailed, but on the upside, never does one of them come up with a fat blob of introspection that clots the blood flow of the story, and if they wander off for a few chapters, at least you know they’ll be busy thickening the plot when they get back.
All writers working in this genre face the same predicament: how to end. Political campaigns are zero-sum games: one wins, one loses, or it’s the other way around. It is very hard to come up with a satisfying and realistic ending that the reader can’t see coming from miles away. I don’t think I’m exactly spoiling anything to say that Neel neither escapes this predicament nor exactly becomes imprisoned by it. Somebody does win, and somebody does lose, but there are enough wild cards, loose ends, and unresolved questions—where’s the second bomb?—to make us think that before long we will be returning to Roy Neel’s campfire, eager to hear the next installment of this yarn.