As before, Buckley (Boomsday, 2007, etc.) blurs the line distinguishing the historical, the plausible and the preposterous amid the political circus of anything-goes Washington.
The satiric scenario has plenty of potential, but sketchy characters and slapdash plotting result in a split decision. On a Supreme Court as divided as the country, President Donald Vanderdamp finds his first two nominees to fill a crucial vacancy rejected on the shakiest of grounds (one wrote a grade-school review of To Kill a Mockingbird and found parts of the movie “kind of boring”). With his popularity at an all-time low and with no intention of running for a second term, the president then dares the Senate to reject his third nominee, America’s most popular jurist, Pepper Cartwright of television’s highly rated Courtroom Six. After she sails through the confirmation process, both the new justice and the novel seem to lose their way. Instead of relying on the common sense and colloquial language that have made her such a hit as a TV personality, she tries her best to apply legal precedent befitting the Supreme Court, thus alienating many of her fellow justices and most of the public. She also becomes estranged from her husband, a reality-show producer, and involved with the chief justice, whose wife left him for a woman immediately after the court sanctioned gay marriage. After a politician-turned-TV-actor challenges for the presidency, the novel inevitably reaches its climax as the contested race is left to the court to decide. Yet questions remain: Why is the president so unpopular? (He vetoes every spending bill, which would surely enrage Congress, but shouldn’t upset the public.) Why does Pepper take all the heat for every split decision? (Four other justices vote with her, and the court had a history of 5-4 decisions before her arrival.) Why does Buckley think it’s enough to give his characters funny names (Blyster Forkmorgan, Esquire, et al.) rather than develop them?
Even Buckley fans might suspect that he’s begun to crank them out a little too quickly.