'Capitol Offense' -- Pauline's senatorial perils

September 01, 1996|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | Elsbeth L. Bothe,special to the sun

"Capitol Offense," by Barbara Mikulski and Marylouise Oates. Dutton. 313 pages. $23.99.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is a remarkable woman whose "vertically challenged" figure and articulate voice have placed her in the forefront of the national scene. Now, along with writer Marylouise Oates, she has expanded into fiction. "Capitol Offense" is unabashedly autobiographical.

There are novelists whose writings contain unflattering caricatures of other people. Mikulski is known to be a good sport, but just why would she want to author a book which portrays her own character like the heroine in "The Perils of Pauline"?

The protagonist, Norie Gorzack, like Barbara, is of Polish extraction educated to a graduate degree in parochial schools. Like Barbara, Norie has humanitarian orientation - she's a nurse, Barbara was a teacher. Unlike Barbara, on reaching middle age Norie looks like a senator but has political experience confined to attaining Cabinet rank in her state.

The book gets Norie into the Senate through the dubious device of having her appointed to warm the seat of a senator (who died dancing the polka) until a member of the old boy network can win election.

In Congress, Norie's femininity works overtime. From prospects of election, to being poisoned by a jealous congressional wife who practices reverse sexism, to takeover attempts by a bossy male assistant, to being courted by a conniving lobbyist, nearly everything that moves the plot comes from the woman's angle. There are some good scenes and well-drawn characters but telling the story in the first person spoils their impact. We can't go anywhere without Norie.

Norie's raison d'etre is MIAs. Jack, Norie's spouse of 30 years, has been MIA for most of them. By 1995, the fate of MIAs is a territory largely occupied by frustrated veterans, "nutcakes," and desperate survivors ripe for plucking. It is never clear where Norie's adventures into MIAland are focused or why they would lead her into danger.

Which may explain why Norie doesn't connect when a Vietnam veteran shouting "Norie, Norie!" drops dead from an insulin dart on the Senate subway platform, or when her young researcher turns up strangled on the verge of revealing a MIA report prepared with the assistance of a veteran who can't talk due to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Like Mikulski, Gorzack gets to go to Vietnam as a member of a select Senate committee. Her descriptions of the work of Vietnamese and American MIA missions there rings well, but credulity strains again when a Vietnamese doctor fortuitously decides to be forthcoming and bring out for her the remains of Jack and 15 other MIAs.

In the end, we are treated to a wrap-up scene that puts Pauline to shame: Norie in her Washington pad, gagged and tied to a chair as the villain, brandishing an injection device, is making a convoluted confession when the vet jumps through a skylight, is thought by two arriving senators to be the guilty party until the stress miraculously revives the vet's voice screaming "traitor, traitor!" Whew!

Finally, we are told that the bad guy will be given immunity and escape prosecution to testify against more significant culprits, whoever they are. Thus, the mystery needs a sequel. The suspense is not killing us.

Elsbeth L. Bothe is a retired judge of the Circuit Court fo Baltimore City and a former criminal defense lawyer who has been involved in scores of murder cases.

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