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A debut novel straight out of the blue (state)

Sen. Barbara Boxer's 'A Time to Run' is about a politician who battles a controversial Supreme Court nominee.

October 26, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

It may come as a surprise to many of her constituents, but for seven years California Sen. Barbara Boxer has been moonlighting from what she calls her "day job" -- as an elected official from the state that boasts the free world's fifth or sixth largest economy -- to write a novel. "A Time to Run" is a for-whom-the-bell-tolls story of a liberal blue-state senator who braves the political mud wrestling in Washington for the sake of her ideals. It is, of course, co-written, with San Francisco author Mary-Rose Hayes.

In Boxer's fictional world, a liberal California senator with views very much like hers goes to bat to defeat the Supreme Court nomination of a woman whose most conspicuous qualification for the job seems to be her conservative credentials -- a plot twist Boxer said she added a year and a half ago.

"It's crazy, the parallels," the Democrat said on a recent day as she whizzed across Los Angeles in a chauffeured SUV to a Hollywood party honoring her book. "It's just remarkable that this all happened," she said, referring to the controversial Supreme Court nomination of conservative Harriet Miers. "My book seemed to be so prescient."

"It's practically psychic!" Peggy Northrop, the editor of More Magazine, told Boxer when the senator pulled up at a More party to unveil the book. "It's so ... prescient."

"Maybe if the whole political thing doesn't work out you could open a business, Barbara -- psychic extraordinaire," actress Mary Steenburgen, who hosted the party with her husband, former "Cheers" star Ted Danson, told a roomful of Hollywood backers whose fundraising has floated a succession of "blue state" candidates.

As Boxer says, "A Time to Run" is "written out of a blue mind." It comes off as an airplane read, aimed at liberals.

Some might even interpret it as a glimpse into the contemporary electoral frustrations of the Democratic Party. Former President Clinton was a master at the jigsaw puzzle of wedge votes that can turn a swing state red or blue. But no one Democrat since has been able to match the strategic acumen of President Bush's advisor Karl Rove.

In fact, the book could almost be read as a primer on a certain pessimistic view held by some coastal Democrats, who see a far-off middle America as a conservative backwater -- one that has wrested control of the national political culture.

In "A Time to Run," the main characters from the reigning "blue states" -- Josh from California and Ellen from equally reassuring New York -- are liberal, altruistic, sane. Their affluent families are caring and sharing.

Their red state-born buddy, Greg, is the son of an emotionally abusive Ohio hardware seller former Marine who lost his favorite son in Vietnam. The red states that Greg heads to after graduation are interchangeably dull Siberias where Greg hangs out with the menfolk, bonding over beer, football and hunting.

Josh and Ellen become Left Coast do-gooders. Greg becomes a sociopathic neoconservative journalist, the go-to guy for character assassinations conjured by a right-wing California senator. Boxer said that although she didn't intend for the characters to represent the American political equation, "I hope people will understand the issues I raise about why people are blue or red or purple."

Her literary intrigues are not all political: There's also some bodice-ripping, with a love triangle between Greg, Ellen and Josh, and physical congress, tastefully suggested by euphemisms in which bodies "mesh." There's a whiff of scandal, too, when a youthful indiscretion comes back to haunt Josh.

"I wanted to show how this character makes this mistake in his life and it's going to bring him down because a reporter wants to bring him down," Boxer said. "Bill Clinton survived his scandal, but there's a lot of people who don't."

Unlike Clinton -- who is the uncle of Boxer's grandson -- "Josh made his mistake long before he was in public life," she said. "It really raises the question: Do we want people who have never made a mistake and have lived in a bubble?"

Politics, Boxer said, "can be very uplifting or very difficult and very poisonous. There are terrible moments. You have a desire to pull the covers over your head and say, 'Why am I doing this?' "

She got no argument from Danson at the gathering of wealthy Hollywood liberals in honor of Boxer. The people at this party left their day jobs long ago. Here, Armani mingled with flips-flops, Manolo Blahniks and the kind of deep midday cleavage that would be glaringly out of place in Washington.

On a tented back patio of his home, Danson told Boxer how former Democratic presidential candidate retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark called him not long ago about an Arizona congressional seat opening up. "[Clark] said 'Do you have any interest?' I said, 'No, it would be my biggest nightmare," Danson said, with a look of sincere dread. "People are afraid to run because of the press -- you," Boxer said pointedly to the reporter at her side.

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