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A Laugh Supreme

What would happen if Judge Judy became Justice Judy?

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Supreme Courtship

by Christopher Buckley

Twelve, 304 pp., $24.99

There sat Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, having commanded his staffers to find the worst on Judge Alito, reading from some objectionable article that Alito hadn't written but which had appeared in a magazine published by a society to which he had once belonged.

Wasn't this proof that Samuel Alito was little better than a Klansman? Alito's wife, seated just behind the nominee, began visibly weeping, so undone was she by the experience of seeing her husband slandered on television. It was left to the twangy Senator Graham of South Carolina (one of Washington's originals, God bless him) to apologize to Mrs. Alito for his colleague's sickening performance.

It takes a talented parodist to parody a parody like that, and Christopher Buckley does the job admirably. Supreme Courtship begins with President Donald Vanderdamp unable to get his Supreme Court nominees past the Judiciary Committee. One formidably qualified nominee is discovered to have written, at age 12, a review of To Kill a Mockingbird for his school paper in which he concluded, "Though the picture is overall OK, it's also kind of boring in other parts." His name forever associated with racism of the most diabolical kind, his nomination goes no further.

The committee chairman, and President Vanderdamp's most hated political enemy, is Senator Dexter Mitchell of Connecticut. Buckley is fortunate that he chose to base this character (if I'm right) not on Kennedy but on another prominent member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a man who may be the nation's next vice president. Well, you tell me.

Dexter Mitchell loved--loved--to talk. He uttered his first full sentence at age fourteen months and hadn't stopped since. .  .  . Once, famously, on his way into a state funeral at the National Cathedral, a reporter for one of the smaller cable TV news channels stepped forward to ask for a brief comment. One hour and fifteen minutes later, Senator Mitchell was still talking as the casket emerged .  .  . He was good-looking, in a shiny sort of way. He'd had his front teeth capped. They were now so blindingly white that when he bared them, you could almost hear a little tingg! And see a star of light reflect off the incisor. .  .  . Successive campaign advisors 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. .  .  . He had run for president three times.

One night, as Vanderdamp watches a reality TV court show called Courtroom Six, he gets the idea to nominate the show's sharp-tongued and sexy star, Judge Pepper Cartwright, to the High Court. Vanderdamp's advisers try to dissuade him, urging him instead to appoint an American Indian called Rainwater; but he insists, and soon Pepper, having agreed, begins her preparation by studying such monumental cases as Nguyen v. Rite-Aid and Gretchen's Frozen Pike v. Milwaukee Block Ice.

Once confirmed--Judge Cartwright, a Texan with a wicked sense of humor, upstages Senator Mitchell in the hearings--her no-nonsense approach to judging cases begins to "grow," as erstwhile conservative justices' views often do, and she very quickly finds herself ruling in favor of, inter alia, a bank robber who failed to murder a deputy because his gun jammed and who has therefore sued the gun manufacturer.

Meanwhile, Pepper's husband, and the producer of Courtroom Six, has lost his best show. Watching his wife's confirmation hearings has given him a new idea, however: He approaches the gregarious and ever-grinning Senator Biden--sorry, Mitchell--and asks him if he'd like to take the lead role in a new show called POTUS.

"Like The West Wing?" asks Senator Mitchell. Buckley's footnote: "Popular TV series about a hand-wringing liberal U.S. president and his hand-wringing liberal staff; based on the novel Let Freedom Wring."

Mitchell's acting is superb and his show's a hit, mainly because (as one suspects was the case with Martin Sheen) he stays mentally in the role of president: "His wife, Terry, didn't quite get it and seemed to resent it when he told her not to 'tie up the hotline,' but generally it worked." Naturally he uses the popularity thus gained to launch a fourth presidential campaign, and the ensuing contest between Mitchell and Vanderdamp winds up--where else?--in the Supreme Court.

Christopher Buckley has a talent for inventing stories that seem almost to write themselves. How could a novel about a president appointing a TV judge to serve on the Supreme Court not be funny? It brings to mind Dr. Johnson's remark about Gulliver's Travels: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest." That wasn't true in the case of Gulliver, and Supreme Courtship could easily have been a mediocre book. It isn't.

There are, of course, the hilarious explanatory paragraphs Buckley's fans relish--"Ishiguro 'Mike' Haro was the first Japanese-American Supreme Court justice. .  .  . He was not popular with the law clerks--even his own--who made puns on his surname's similarity to the Asian mispronunciation of 'hello'"--but Buckley also deserves credit for creating a well wrought urn. Supreme Courtship's plot is sophisticated, its style crisp and distinctive, and Buckley has mastered the difficult art of rendering conversations among six, seven, or eight people in a way that's easy to follow--and funny. The Senate confirmation and Court hearing scenes are the best.

One criticism, though. Buckley's portrayal of his Texan heroine approaches Hollywood predictability. Whether this will make a difference to those readers who aren't from the South, I don't know. But I can assure non-southern readers--and I say this as one of Lindsey Graham's constituents--that a sizable majority of southerners do not use nonsensical expressions like "pecking at each other like a couple of snake-bit hens." Many of them are not, and do not know, any TV evangelists, nor are most of them given to chewing tobacco and spitting, audibly, while on the telephone. And most educated southerners understand that there are certain social circumstances in which one should avoid the use of words like "cattywompus"--which, by the way, is an adjective, not a noun, as Buckley thinks.

Granted, this is a satirical novel, and existing social practices must be exaggerated for the purpose. But this is pretty well-worn territory, isn't it? Still, Supreme Courtship is a delight to read for many reasons, among them its splendid send-up of the senior senator from Delaware. Buy it while it's hot.

Barton Swaim is the author of a forthcoming book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.