“Her Supreme Sassiness,” The New York Observer, 30 September 2008.
Inspired by Harriet Miers, upstaged by Sarah Palin; Buckley’s hot chick falls flat.
By Christopher Buckley
Twelve, 285 pages, $24.99
In Supreme Courtship, Christopher Buckley’s most recent portrait of Washington through the looking glass, a massively unpopular president, clicking through the cable channels late at night at Camp David, comes across a rerun of a prime-time reality television show called Courtroom Six. By morning he’s made up his mind: He’s going to nominate “judge” Pepper Cartwright to the Supreme Court.
Charming, brash, Texan, Pepper Cartwright is not observably intelligent, yet prone to dishing out zingers in response to male plaintiffs on Courtroom Six. She packs a pistol, and “shimmies” into her jeans—and we know what it means for a woman to shimmy. As a nominee, she’s the embodiment of what Roger Ebert has called “the American Idol candidate,” a figure “so talented, why, they’re darned near the real thing.” At her Senate confirmation hearing, she drawls, “Why don’t we just get to the grilling. I see you’re all wearing your best barbecue mitts.” Barbecue mitts! The crowd goes wild. She becomes the Supreme Court’s newest junior justice.
Mr. Ebert, of course, was referring to the real-time media phenomenon known as Sarah Palin. And if the notion of a film critic weighing in on the subject of a vice presidential selection sounds absurd, excuse it. The trappings of celebrity in this election season—from throngs of Berliners hoisting the American flag, to ad cameos from lissome pop stars, and countless closed-door fund-raisers with the well-heeled—suggest our politics have invited this incursion. (As if on cue, the Lifetime television network is commissioning polls to determine female voter preference, and The View earns kudos for skewering John McCain as a liar.)
It’s not obvious that Sarah Palin will enjoy the same success as Pepper Cartwright. Her convention speech in St. Paul won her instant fame, but since then she’s been barricaded from public view, a Suri Cruise manqué. When she emerged for her interview with Katie Couric, she oozed mediocrity and contradiction, and, worse for her patrons, depleted her pinup power before millions.
WILL MRS. PALIN’S TUMBLING popularity (17 points in three weeks, according to one poll) spoil our pleasure in Christopher Buckley’s novel? Pepper—the “chick lawyer from Texas” who fights the odds to “make the whistle” (that’s rodeo-speak for survival), and unlike Harriet Miers, Buckley’s sure inspiration, provokes clumsy blushes among powerful men—was believable while Mrs. Palin was riding high. Now all three women look like fairy tales.
Mr. Buckley casts Pepper as a quick study, endearing in her pragmatism, and destined for photo spreads screaming “Justices: They’re Just Like Us!” She drives a red pickup to her meetings on the Hill. She has enjoyed her own thrashing moment of baptism amongst a born-again Christian sect in the South. She places incredibly authentic drink orders: “Tequila, straight up. Beer back. Bottle, lime.”
But unlike Sarah Palin, Pepper Cartwright knows what she’s stepped in. On her first day at the court, sensing hostility, her instinct is toward self-mockery: “She’d been tempted to bring along a thirty-six-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew and a bag of pork rinds,” we learn. And in a wry echo of America’s obsession with Mrs. Palin’s fertility, the childless Pepper’s “morning sickness” comes before her swearing-in. “Oh girl,” she asks herself, over the courthouse toilet, “What in hell have you got yourself into?”
Though Pepper is in fact hopelessly underqualified to be anything but eye candy at the Supreme Court, her self-awareness and overt feminism are a welcome departure from the Palin rollout. Through this lens, Mr. Buckley gamely narrates the development of an inter-justice romance (yawn), sundry leaks and conflicts of interest (snooze) that land the once-august court in tabloid territory. But given the cocaine-for-oil scandal that emerged from the (actual) U.S. Department of the Interior earlier this month, the invented tale of judicial hanky-panky seems anticlimactic.
Let’s face it: Christopher Buckley’s eerie prescience works against him; his Texan beauty queen has been upstaged by her real-life Alaskan counterpart. Even the satirists at “Saturday Night Live” chose to quote verbatim from Mrs. Palin’s blubbering interview on the economy. No one’s imagination, no matter how wacky or acerbic, can compete with the Palin circus. And why settle for fiction when Caribou Barbie—as some have unkindly taken to calling Mrs. Palin—can be seen live on television, Thursday at 8.