What if a president opts out and in?

October 17, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Most novels about Washington fall into one of two camps. One is the "corridors of power" approach, in which the writer depicts the nation's capital as the center of the free world, a place where politics makes one naked with ambition (or draws the nakedly ambitious). The scope is great, the themes are great and the characters are broadly drawn. Fletcher Knebel's "Seven Days in May" is the classic example.

The other kind of Washington novel looks at the city from the inside out. It often turns into a rumination on power -- why Washington is the way it is, why it attracts the people it does, and what happens to them when they move there. William Brammer's "The Gay Place" and several novels by Ward Just ("The Congressman Who Lived Flaubert" and "The American Ambassador" in particular) are examples.

The political thriller "Father's Day" falls squarely into the first group. Like most novels of that ilk, it takes a "what-if" approach. In this case, it's what if the president of the United States steps down because he is unable to do the job -- then comes back to reclaim it after the vice president has filled in for five months?

Theodore G. Jay was elected president in 2000. But two years later, as his popularity drops precipitously, he becomes severely depressed and incapable of performing the duties of his job. So in January 2003, he turns over the presidency to his vice president, T. E. Garland, whom he had defeated in the primaries in 2000. Transferral of power in case of presidential disability is a situation covered by the 25th Amendment.

What is not covered is the possibility that the president could change his mind. Garland, the former senator from Texas, happens to be the nephew of the most nakedly ambitious politician of them all, Lyndon B. Johnson. Garland likes being president. He doesn't want to give up the job, particularly to a guy who beat him in the primaries and who, until very recently, was falling apart before the nation's eyes.

But in June 2003, Jay announces he has reconsidered. In a nationally televised statement, he says somberly, "I must return to my duty."

That's the what-if. Having two guys who want to occupy the Oval Office can be a problem, after all. So one of them, Garland, decides he must take out the other (we told you he was ambitious). Along the way, friends are betrayed and people are killed as a battle for the highest stakes is joined.

Mr. Batchelor, the author of several other thrillers, has concocted an intricate plot that moves at a dizzying pace. It's not surprising that movie rights to "Father's Day" -- the code name for the planned coup -- have been sold. In the right hands, it could be a fine action film.

But unless you're a very forgiving reader, "Father's Day" doesn't deliver a lot. The scenario is intriguing, and it's fun to see Mr. Batchelor's imagination at work. But it's not fun to see his writing.

For some reason, most political novels are clumsily written, and this one is no exception. Perhaps it's because the cast of characters is so large -- senators, staffers, military men, the contending presidents, plus assorted spouses and lovers. People are introduced into the narrative on seemingly every page, with the result that we never get to know them well -- even the central characters.

Mostly they are described rather then portrayed. Mr. Batchelor's favored method is to dump in their credentials after their name, as if they were handing in a resume.

The dialogue is something else. Sonny Pickett, the Senate majority leader, is a gregarious good ol' boy from North Carolina. An old friend of Garland's, he tells the acting president about Jay: "He's aged somethin' ruinous. And thin as old Abe Lincoln -- I think the man's stopped eatin'. We're not up against a whole man. He's a stick. He's an old hickory stick." And Sonny is a character whose speech patterns are ridiculous.

Then there's Mr. Batchelor's awkward prose. My favorite sentence came in a sequence in which Jack Longfellow, the Republican governor of Maine who is married to the Senate minority leader, is told some bad news. Mr. Batchelor records the governor's reaction this way:

"Jack slumped his huge GOP shoulders."

What does that mean? Is it that after becoming a Republican, Jack developed an elephantine physique similar to the party's mascot? Or did he just start pumping iron? And don't Democrats have access to the House gym as well?

If you can get past the clunky writing, the shallow characters and the stiff, unconvincing dialogue, "Father's Day" can be entertaining reading. It all depends on how much absolution you're willing to dispense.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Monday in The Sun.


Title: "Father's Day"

Author: John Calvin Batchelor

Publisher: Henry Holt

Length, price: 528 pages, $23

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