High court, low humour
By Steven Martinovich
In a near, post-Bush future, Donald Vanderdamp -- an unpopular first term president -- has had his last two imminently qualified nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court destroyed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of them on the grounds that he didn't suitably appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird. He decides on a novel response: Nominate a fiery TV judge named Pepper Cartwright to the high court, one so popular with the American public that the Senate could only confirm her appointment.
Such is the premise of Christopher Buckley's latest satire Supreme Courtship, an unsatisfying effort which attempts to speak of our times but falls far short of his usual brilliance. It is a novel that has so much going on that its primary character, the aforementioned Cartwright, sometimes less than central to the plot.
Remarkably, Cartwright is in fact confirmed to the Supreme Court despite the secret hope of Sen. Dexter Mitchell – powerful member of the judiciary committee – to himself be named to the open slot. Meanwhile, Cartwright's soon to be ex-husband and her show's producer, Buddy Bixby, is angry that his meal ticket has left television and convinces Mitchell to retire from the Senate and play an American president on a new show entitled POTUS.
Where most writers would have been satisfied with this unconventional plot, Buckley takes it several steps further. Vanderdamp is so unpopular with the public and Congress that a constitutional amendment passes in record time limiting presidents to one term in office. He decides to run the most unconventional campaign in American history – he tells the American public he doesn't actually want the job, which earns him public approval – and his opponent is none other than Mitchell, so enamored with his turn as a fictional president that he believes he can do the job for real. Not surprisingly the Cartwright and the rest of the Supreme Court are eventually called in to decide a major issue relating to the election.
Supreme Courtship is, of course, satire but even with that in mind it seems too broad to make its points or the story believable in any sense. While Lyndon B. Johnson managed to resist the siren call of a second term, it's difficult to believe any president today would only run as a protest to a patently ridiculous and unlikely constitutional amendment. And given the savagery that Gov. Sarah Palin is enduring from a hostile press and opposition party, it's hard to believe that an American public – even in the age of reality television – would be accepting of a former family court judge with few credentials being named to the Supreme Court, let alone the Senate confirming her.
Supreme Courtship isn't without its merits. When Cartwright is faced with her first case at the Supreme Court, Buckley masterfully chronicles her difficulty dealing with the Latin terms the justices effortlessly toss out and her bewilderment at the precedents and arguments being utilized. He gleefully pokes holes in the human hot air balloons that are senators and it doesn't take too much imagination to match up his fictional justices with several of the personalities currently serving on the high court.
Unfortunately those moments are few and far between. Supreme Courtship juggles too many balls at the same time with the result that none of the concurrent plots are given enough time to be fleshed out – indeed, at least one of them didn't seem to serve any real purpose. Given that Americans are currently suffering through a presidential election and the Supreme Court, for good or bad, plays such a central role in American life, Supreme Courtship unhappily represents a lost opportunity for Buckley to have said something salient about our times.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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