New York Times Book Review Hails Christopher Buckley's Supreme Courtship

September 8th, 2008

Bowling for Justices

Think George W. Bush is unpopular? Pity Donald P. Vanderdamp, the blandly honest bowling enthusiast occupying the White House in �Supreme Courtship.� Congress, which has tagged him �Don Veto� for rejecting every spending bill that lands on his desk, hates him so much it�s trying to amend the Constitution to limit presidents to one term � beginning with him. And now a fresh collision awaits. President Vanderdamp has a Supreme Court seat to fill, and in a stroke of genius, he has nominated America�s most popular TV judge: Pepper Cartwright, star of �Courtroom Six.�

Beautiful and headstrong, Cartwright spews folksy Texas wisdom when not quoting Shakespeare, packs a LadySmith revolver and delivers judicial decisions from the hip. She was once a real judge � a good one � on the Los Angeles Superior Court before her husband-cum-producer, Buddy Bixby, plucked her from the bench and turned her into a star. �I doubt I�m qualified to be a clerk at the Supreme Court,� she admits in a news conference, though she�s better at the media rodeo than her adversaries on the Hill. They include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dexter Mitchell, a shiny, botoxed Amtrak supporter from Connecticut who bears a passing resemblance to Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. (�Mitchell loved � lived � to talk�) and who is determined to quash Cartwright�s appointment, not least because he lusts after a seat on the court himself.

This is Christopher Buckley�s Washington, peopled with imperious appointees and elected egos, as well as fixers like the octogenarian Graydon Clenndennynn, an insider�s insider and former secretary of just about everything, who steers Cartwright through her confirmation hearings. Not that Cartwright needs too much help. Going toe to toe with her foil Mitchell, she drops the bomb that really matters: her television show is No. 1 in America, while Congress has an 18 percent approval rating. �It�s my numbers up against your numbers, senator,� she says. She�s right, of course. Eventually Mitchell bows to political reality, and Cartwright heads to the court.

And this is the moment when �Supreme Courtship� really becomes a Supreme Court comedy, not a surprising feat from the author of improbably entertaining farces about the tobacco lobby (�Thank You for Smoking�), diplomatic misadventure (�Florence of Arabia�) and Social Security reform (�Boomsday�). Once again, Buckley returns to his pet theme: the vanity and perfidy of the capital�s ruling elite. And once again he delivers serious insights along with antics.

Legal humor has its standbys (Latin obfuscations) and it limits (footnotes). Buckley navigates those waters like the salty Potomac hand he is, sometimes cadging laughs and sometimes throwing up his palms and ah-shucksing his way through. There is more than one �oyez, oyez, oyez� joke � like the one that climaxes a hotel-room tryst between two justices, prosecuted by means of courtroom puns:

�. . . oh, yes . . . oh, yes . . . oyez. . . .�

�Did you just say oyez?�

�Oh, yes.�

You can almost hear the mute trumpet wah-wah in the background, and part of Buckley�s charm is that he seems to wink every time he sends off a groaner. But at his best he is very, very funny. The novel�s main courtroom set piece � Cartwright�s handling of her first oral argument � succeeds not only as comedy but also as an effective parody of a singular and sometimes bizarre ritual. Even the legal precedents cited tickle. Please allow me to adduce Persimmon v. Aberdeen Wheelchair and Mortimer v. Great Lakes Suction. The case in question is a suit brought by a convicted bank robber against the manufacturer of his pistol, which failed to fire during a showdown with the police � a �business transaction� � �causing him not only loss of income but also significant psychic and physical distress.� Caught up in legalisms (well, who wouldn�t be?) and voting against her gut, Cartwright finds for the plaintiff and writes the majority decision. Her approval rating plunges, and the narrative nears its manic peak, playing Cartwright�s trials on the court against a presidential race between a reluctant Vanderdamp (his slogan: �More of the same�) and Mitchell, reinvented as a television president in Bixby�s new hit series � all under the cloud of the term-limit amendment.

Buckley has fun with the court�s fractious politics and even more fun riffing on the strange creatures and customs of its marble halls. It�s hard to mistake Justice Silvio Santamaria (�Jesuit seminarian, father of 13 children, Knight of Malta, adviser to the Vatican�) for anyone but a sendup of Justice Antonin Scalia. But this court�s other jesters seem meant to spoof the vibe of the place as much as any actual jurist. There�s Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who starts taking daytime nips of Scotch after he casts the deciding vote to legalize gay marriage � and his wife leaves him for a woman; Paige Plymp�ton, a Maine Yankee and the court �den mother�; Ishiguro Haro, a dyspeptic boy-genius and Silicon Valley billionaire; and Crispus Galavanter, the humble inhabitant of the court�s �black seat,� given to mock-heroic diction, pursuer of the good life, a man so fond of his nickname,� �the Licorice Caesar,� he signs memos �LC.�

Buckley lampoons as an insider. A onetime speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, he knows the monograms on the linens and has supped with kings. But he�s more an anthropologist than a settler of scores. His own �libertarian-leaning politics shine through his narratives without weighing them down. And he�s admirably fair-minded, skewering politically correct crusaders on one page and holy-rolling bigots on the next. His villains are Washington�s ideologues, left and right, whose principles always boil down to self-regard. Buckley�s heart belongs to the outsiders, outcasts and mavericks who see through all the spin. Each of his novels may be as light as air, but bit by bit they�re building up into a significant social portrait, the beginnings of a vast Com�die-Washingtonienne.

At a time of high political absurdity, Buckley remains our sharpest guide to the capital, and a more serious one than we may suppose. In �Supreme Courtship� the moment comes when you realize Buckley�s wildly proliferating plotlines are starting to converge on a reprise of Bush v. Gore � a shimmer of realism behind all the mischief. And this subtext clarifies Buckley�s moral critique of Washington. Call it the banality of misrule. After all, what satirist could have dreamed we�d let five cranks in robes pick the leader of the free world?

Heady stuff. But as much as the swamp may stink, it�s still home. As President Vanderdamp reminds the nation when things reach their worst: �Whatever happens, don�t give up on America. It�s still a great country. It�s just a little confused at the moment.

�Good night. Sorry to interrupt your TV shows. God bless.�