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Madame President

She’s a centrist Republican in danger of defeat.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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Eighteen Acres

Madame President

A Novel

by Nicolle Wallace

Atria, 336 pp., $25

When you cross-pollinate chick lit with politics, there is always the risk that the author (or reputed author) will transport her narcissism to places where it ought not be seen. Take the two novels cowritten by—you still have to call her senator—Barbara Boxer. In A Time to Run, Boxer introduces innocent readers to her alter ego, California Democrat Ellen Fischer, a perky Bay Area children’s advocate who doesn’t want to run for the Senate after her congressman-husband dies in a car accident, but reluctantly becomes a candidate after a party bigfoot presses her to run, saying, “You’re respected and loved. Most important of all, when it comes to mudslinging, you’re bulletproof.”

Oh yeah. And Boxer’s villain—a conservative writer for the, ahem, San Francisco Chronicle—warns her, “Politics is not for the likes of you. It’s dirty.” In the next book, Fischer’s new husband calls her a “cunning little vixen.” The Senate Democratic leader tells Fischer that she has “personally raised the integrity bar. People are asking themselves, if they can’t trust you, then who can they trust?” The novel ends with Fischer’s name being floated for the vice presidency.

I didn’t want to know that Boxer actually thinks such things, or that she doesn’t have anyone on her staff who could tell her the books were a bad idea.

Political chick lit, however, can be done right. In her roman à clef Dog Days, Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette, serves up Melanie Thorton, a 28-year-old Democratic political operative messed up with ghost-blogging, her BlackBerry, and someone else’s husband. For political junkies, Cox put her satirical spin on choice low moments from the 2004 presidential campaign. Dog Days also hits the usual modern chick-lit buttons: It’s a breezy read, there are cool shoes, the heroine drinks too much, the love interest is a heel; but then, there
is redemption.

Some might have expected former Bush/McCain handler Nicolle Wallace to follow in Cox’s footsteps by using her debut novel to lampoon career nemeses. Some might expect Wallace to show no mercy for Sarah Palin: After all, in Going Rogue, Palin skewers Wallace, who set up the Alaska governor’s pivotal (in a bad way) interview with Katie Couric. According to Palin, Wallace pitched the Couric sit-down, telling Palin, “Katie really likes you. She’s a working mom and admires you as a working mom.” Palin also floats Wallace’s name as the possible leaker who told CNN that John McCain’s running mate was “going rogue.”

Forget personal payback: A catfight with Palin would sell books. But Eighteen Acres is not a dirty-politics exposé; if anything, it’s about teamwork, imperfect people trying to do the right thing, and an acknowledgment that working on the White House’s 18-acre grounds is the privilege of a lifetime. Here you see the White House that George W. Bush would want to project. Sure, there’s some backbiting, but all of the players have some integrity. There is no in-house villain—but there are to-die-for accessories, starting with a $2,000 Dior purse.

Wallace presents a uniquely feminine look at the White House through the lenses of three characters. Charlotte Kramer is America’s first female president. Kramer is a Republican, but an understated Republican. Melanie Kingston, Kramer’s chief of staff, is Wallace’s doppelgänger. Attractive, petite, always well turned out and calm, Kingston introduces the reader to the daily juggling and panic that fill long days that turn into nights in America’s hub of political power. Date much? No, but there is a new reporter who seems interesting and interested. TV correspondent Dale Smith is having an affair with the president’s husband. Talk about sitting on a hot story.

The plot twists around Kramer’s reelection campaign at a time when pundits have written off her presidency as “squandered .  .  . swallowed by scandal [and] finished.” In one of the plot-driven departures from reality, the media don’t pay much attention to the Kramers’ disintegrating marriage, so the question as to when news of the affair will break hovers. The secretary of defense has his own baggage. A certain document remains unopened at the end of the book. (I’m thinking sequel.) And there is danger in Afghanistan, where the distaff president has turned things around. Charlotte Kramer is a gifted commander in chief, who earned “great respect up and down the military’s chain of command” while rallying public support for the war by uttering difficult truths but also displaying “confidence about the prospects for victory.” This truly is the White House the way you want it to be.

The real do-over element of the novel comes in a certain presidential running mate, Tara Meyers. As Wallace writes, “Melanie disliked everything about Tara. She was loud, tacky, and rude. She seemed to calculate the least presidential approach to every situation and pursue it with vigor.” And unlike the tasteful Melanie, Tara always picks the wrong outfit.

Later, Melanie acknowledges that, in many ways, Tara is “a natural fit”—like Kramer, a centrist: “And they saw eye-to-eye on the issues Charlotte was most passionate about.” Sarah Palin? Actually, Tara Meyers is a New York Democrat whom Kramer picks to energize her chances and appeal to a wider swath of voters. She’s half-Palin, half-Joe Lieberman (whom McCain wanted to name as his running mate). Just how did delegates at the Republican National Convention react to this unconventional surprise choice? “Tara’s speech had electrified the Republican convention.” Fact and fiction meet.

Debra J. Saunders writes a syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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