What could possibly be more au courant than a novel that melds White House intrigue with courtroom drama? At times, the parallels between Richard North Patterson’s Protect and Defend and our ongoing real-life politico-legal epic are downright spooky. The book begins in the wake of an extraordinarily close presidential election night — although Democrat Kerry Kilcannon is declared the winner the following dawn after narrowly carrying California (I guess truth really is stranger than fiction).
Echoes of recent headlines continue to reverberate when Kilcannon’s controversial new Chief Justice nominee, Caroline Masters, is warned that opponents may dig up old dirt to use against her, ”even your driving record in college — like Dick Cheney.” Later, there’s a debate over whether Supreme Court hearings should be televised. Hell, this book is so timely there’s even a character named Chad.
That’s Republican senator Chad Palmer, the Judiciary Committee chair who oversees Masters’ contentious confirmation hearing. A dead ringer for 2000 presidential also-ran John McCain, Chad’s a maverick ex-hostage and military hero who clashes with his party over campaign-finance reform. This makes him a potent potential ally for Kilcannon, who’s presented as a psychological commingling of Bill Clinton (as a teenager, he stood up to his abusive dad) and Ted Kennedy (an Irish American, he lives in the shadow of his assassinated brother).
Patterson previously wrote about the Kilcannon clan in 1985’s Private Screening and 1998’s No Safe Place, and he knows his political stuff. (He also knows his politicians — among those thanked in the acknowledgments are his ”old friend, President George Bush” and ”President Bill Clinton, who shared his thoughts, and opened doors.”) He nails every detail of the current gotcha culture, from how irresponsible Internet ”journalists” are utilized to spread scandalous rumors to how public officials can gain credit for candor by preemptively revealing damaging info about themselves. And Patterson’s a whiz at decoding partisan doublespeak, like when the aptly named right-wing senator Paul Harshman implies that never-married Chief Justice wannabe Masters may be gay by asking, ”How do we know she shares our values?”
The author is also an ex-attorney, as evidenced by his excruciatingly protracted courthouse sequences. Protect and Defend crosscuts between its D.C. scenes and a San Francisco trial in which idealistic young lawyer Sarah Dash represents Mary Ann Tierney, a 15-year-old girl seeking a late-term abortion against the wishes of her fervently pro-life parents. It turns out Dash once clerked for Masters in a federal appeals court, so it’s clear that these plotlines will eventually converge. But it takes a looong time.
The chapters are blessedly brief — there are no fewer than 110 of ‘em packed into 549 pages — yet while the Tierney trial winds its way through the bowels of the judicial system, the President is largely reduced to a passive bystander, wondering how its outcome will affect him and his Supreme Court appointee. In a credibility-stretching coincidence, both Kilcannon and Masters have abortion-related secrets buried in their pasts, as does Chad Palmer. Still, these ticking political time bombs supply the novel with some much-needed suspense amid the often frustratingly redundant if undoubtedly realistic Tierney testimony. It doesn’t help matters that Sarah Dash is a cipher without a life; all legal work and no play make her a very dull character. Ironically, several of the book’s minor figures are more fully fleshed out, as Patterson is able to capture their essences in single sentences. (We can immediately picture Oklahoma senator Dave Ruckles, who is limned as ”mean as a snake, with the sincere voice and constant eye contact of an evangelist or a stockbroker.”) The author overdoes the eyes-as-the-window-to-the-soul device, however, as he describes the orbs of at least seven other characters.
Patterson ultimately acquits himself by drawing Protect and Defend’s two central players with masterful depth. Masters, whose prior bench adventures include the best-sellers Degree of Guilt and Eyes of a Child, is a paradoxical mix of ambition and compassion. (Reading the previous Masters and Kilcannon novels isn’t necessary in order to understand this one, but it helps.) When Masters must justify her murky past before a hostile Senate panel, it’s hard not to picture Joan Allen as the embattled vice-presidential nominee in The Contender — and wish the actress had waited for this more complex role. And like The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), President Kerry Kilcannon is a man possessed of both prodigious intelligence and genuine principles. In other words, he’s the antithesis of… well, is it too late to demand a revote? B+