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BOOK REVIEW

Satire targets highest court

Supreme Courtship A Novel; Christopher Buckley ; Twelve: 286 pp., $24.99

September 01, 2008|Patt Morrison | Times Staff Writer

The MOST exhausting part of a satirist's work has to be out-racing the truth. How can you be out-of-the-box outrageous about, say, a Supreme Court nomination, when reality has already outpaced you? When anybody can hunt through the C-SPAN archive and find the words "Coke can" and "pubic hair" uttered in a Senate confirmation hearing?

When the reason the United States has a Video Privacy Protection Act is because while Judge Robert Bork was being vetted for the U.S. Supreme Court, someone at Bork's local video rental store spilled the beans about what he liked to watch? ("A Day at the Races," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and the supremely forgettable "Ruthless People.")

Yes, sometimes reality is generous to the satirist, and sometimes it's cruel. When it's cruel, it can force him to labor so hard for something more comically implausible than reality that he overreaches into slapstick.

Satire requires the discipline to pull back from the temptation to deliver just one more bit. That's what Christopher Buckley needed to do more often in his book "Supreme Courtship."

The acidulous son of William F. Buckley Jr. has turned out some funny stuff -- "Thank You for Smoking" is textbook satire. So I picked up "Supreme Courtship" with first-date anticipation. The high court is a large and tempting target -- revered and reviled, opaque and near omnipotent. Why stop at a novel? Where's the HBO series?

"Courtship" is launched with that juiciest of presidential plums, a Supreme Court vacancy.

President Donald P. Vanderdamp wants nothing more than to lose his reelection so that he can take his bowling ball and go home.

Two of his court nominees get grilled to a turn, then turned out by the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of them because the movie review he wrote for his elementary school newspaper characterized "To Kill a Mockingbird" as somewhat "boring."

Enter Pepper Cartwright, a sashaying cliche, a sassy Texas gal who exudes hubba-hubba and courtroom common sense down to her Tony Lamas as presiding judge and star of the legal reality show "Courtroom Six." She's in fine form late one night as Vanderdamp watches her on TV and is inspired to give the process the middle finger by nominating her to the highest court in the land.

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Finding parallels

When a new book of Beltway nonfiction appears, everybody looks first to the index for his own name. Fiction has no index, so everybody looks instead for parallels. Buckley has mined the Supreme Court itself here: The Clarence Thomas role, for example, is played by Crispus Galavanter, an African American who once defended the KKK.

And in his presidential aspirations, his Judiciary Committee's gavel and his nightly train commute home, Sen. Dexter Mitchell resembles no one more than Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, vice presidential choice of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

There is, however, no one like our heroine in D.C., maybe because there's probably no one like her, period. Pepper's minister father is a televangelist who presides over a church ornamented with a cross made of the golf clubs that fused when her mother was struck dead by lightning on the fourth fairway -- which is why Pepper is an atheist.

Her father joins her grandpa, a Central Casting good ol' Texas sheriff, at her confirmation hearings, where she alternately charms and skewers the senators while acknowledging that she knows squat about constitutional law. Yet she takes the bench with the eight other justices just as her husband -- an on-the-make nothing-too-sleazy producer -- sues her for divorce and breach of contract for leaving the show.

Any of the tangled plot lines could work better if Buckley didn't hustle through them like an Olympic hurdler.

Pepper winds up in the sack with the chief justice, whose reward for legalizing same-sex marriage is that his wife leaves him for another woman. And Mitchell quits the Senate to star as President Mitchell Lovestorm in "POTUS." As he explains to his wife, "We're all television characters these days."

But I had a hard time believing a U.S. senator would leave a years-long sinecure of being treated as godlike in D.C. for a 13-week season of being treated as godlike on "Entertainment Tonight."

The climax comes as Buckley weaves these threads into his banner, a comic iteration of 2000's "Bush vs. Gore" case. And Pep holds the deciding vote.

Buckley is too witty not to give us some of those luscious moments that force us to laugh at something we know we shouldn't, like the chief justice of the United States arguing case law with Pepper as she discovers him trying to hang himself above the table in the justices' conference room.

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