ON retiring from the White House, Harry Truman was asked if he had any regrets about his presidency. As legend has it, he replied laconically, ‘‘ Yes. And both of them are on the Supreme Court.’’ This represents every US president’s nightmare: appointing an associate justice for life to the nation’s highest court on the basis of reputation and an assumed judicial philosophy, to see both discarded during ensuing decades. Think of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice by way of illustration.
The tensions and frustrations that occupy the space between the White House and the court form the core of Christopher Buckley’s satirical novel, Supreme Courtship . Buckley displays that sense of the absurd and a Beltway wit that turned his novel on Washington lobbyists, Thank You for Smoking , into a minor cult classic of corruption and deceit.
The US Supreme Court has been a thorn in the side of American presidents since Marbury v Madison established the terms of the court’s power of judicial review in 1803. The court was, of course, originally designed by the constitutional drafters to be the third tier of US federal government. But it is doubtful the founders foresaw the court’s evolution into the powerful tribunal it has become.
Certainly, Thomas Jefferson was infuriated by the court’s oversight. Abraham Lincoln, during the crisis of the Civil War, simply ignored rulings that did not fit with his war strategy, including some on habeas corpus. Franklin Roosevelt was so determined to curb the court’s obstructive intrusions into his New Deal legislative program during the 1930s that he endeavoured to expand the body and stack it with loyalists. FDR’s ‘‘ court packing’’ plan of 1937 failed the test of constitutionality in the Senate but, remarkably, the court was far more co-operative after the threat from the White House had receded.
At the heart of Supreme Courtship is the attempt by the amiable president Donald Vanderdamp, lagging badly in the polls, to fill a Supreme Court vacancy occasioned by an incumbent justice losing touch with reality. Vanderdamp fails spectacularly on two occasions, courtesy of the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, senator Dexter Mitchell.
For readers attracted to the idea of identifying real characters with fictional creations, Mitchell may bear a passing resemblance to American vice-president-elect Joe Biden.
Although Buckley clearly sympathises with his president, he thinks Mitchell quite ridiculous. If a computer were programmed to design a president of the United States, it might very well generate Dexter Mitchell. Everything about him seemed, indeed, calculated. And yet for all his qualifications, Dexter somehow added up to less than the sum of his considerable parts. His epic loquacity was not an asset. Successive campaign advisers had tried without success to get him to give briefer answers, but nothing had stemmed the logorrheic tide, the tsunami of subordinate clauses and parenthetical asides, the inexorable mudslide of anecdotage. His campaign ‘‘ listening tours’’ were occasions of mirth among political reporters, since it was the people he met who did the listening. Dexter Mitchell would happily express himself on any issue, at any time, at any place. Scathing enough, but Buckley excels himself when it comes to the characterisations of his justices of the Supreme Court.
The chief justice, Declan Hardwether, has a drinking problem, which he endeavours to disguise through copious consumption of mouthwash. In his darker periods, he is suicidal.
The court’s intellectual powerhouse, the acerbic Silvio Santamaria, an adviser to the Vatican on international law, a Knight of Malta and a former Jesuit seminarian, perhaps may be likened to Justice Antonin Scalia of the Roberts Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth ‘‘ Ruthless’’ Richter, a court liberal, is Buckley’s bleeding heart. Justice Haro, of Japanese-American ethnicity, has an intellect and competitiveness that underpins an aggressively blunt manner. Ishiguro ‘‘ Mike’’ Haro was the first Japanese-American Supreme Court justice, and persuasive evidence that Asians really are intellectually superior to the other races. His hobby was doing The Times of London crossword while blindfolded. He was not shy of expressing deeply held opinions, such as that president Truman was — as he put it, perhaps unwisely, within range of someone’s cellphone video camera — a runty genocidal haberdasher for having dropped the A-bomb on some of his relatives. But Buckley’s most engaging justice is the African-American Crispus Galavanter ( not Clarence Thomas, surely!), who made his reputation representing the Ku Klux Klan before the Idaho Supreme Court, managing to lose the case and bankrupt the racist order in the process.
As with his earlier satirical efforts, Buckley takes reality and gives it a half turn. Frustrated by the Senate, president Vanderdamp decides on a radical solution. Two outstanding jurists have been rejected on specious grounds, including one involving a school film review of the movie To Kill a Mockingbird . So Vanderdamp looks beyond the normal judicial pool.
He decides to select judge ‘‘ Pepper’’ Cartwright from the television courtroom reality series Courtroom Six. Pepper has extraordinarily high ratings and Vanderdamp confronts his nemesis, Mitchell, with a nominee whose undeniable appeal and folksy charm leave him in exquisite political difficulty.
Buckley, like his father, William F. Buckley, is a Washington insider and a noted conservative, of considerable intellectual influence.
But where his father deployed polemics to good effect, the son relies on a wonderful sense of humour. Buckley fell out with conservative Republicans, when he endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. It cost him his back page column on the National Review .
His new novel succeeds on several levels. True, there are flaws, such as a romance that seems improbable and characters who are sometimes a little too predictable. But he is entertaining and funny, and some of the novel’s best moments, as when the court hears an appeal from a convicted felon suing a firearms manufacturer for his weapon failing him during a robbery and thus preventing him from shooting a police officer, are not too distant from US case law.
Unlike those two nominations of Truman’s to the US Supreme Court, Buckley does not disappoint, and no one is likely to regret reading this book. Stephen Loosley is a former ALP national president and senator and serves on the board of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue.
Thorn in the side: The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, provides the stimulus for another satirical outing from Christopher Buckley