Christopher Buckley’s political satire can sometimes seem too timely. Pepper Cartwright was never Sarah Palin. (More)
Pepper Cartwright – the centerpiece of Buckley’s 2008 comic romp Supreme Courtship – was a Texas-born, Ivy League-educated, California-settled, and finally New York-living star of a reality TV show titled Courtroom Six. But when the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected President Donald Vanderdamp’s first two Supreme Court nominees – the first because in elementary school he wrote a less-than-glowing review of To Kill a Mockingbird, the second because he thought a college girlfriend was pregnant and offered to marry her, which the committee chair presented as opposing her right to an abortion – the president went to Camp David to escape the humiliation. There, unable to find a bowling tournament on TV, President Vanderdamp stumbled onto Courtroom Six … and thereby hangs a tale.
The Court vacancy is created in Buckley’s delicious opening sentence:
Supreme Court Associate Justice J. Mortimer Brinnin’s deteriorating mental condition had been the subject of talk for some months now, but when he showed up for oral argument with his ears wrapped in aluminum foil, the consensus was that the time had finally come for him to retire.
Sadly, Justice Brinin was convinced that the august ghost of Oliver Wendell Holmes was whispering in his ears. His retirement cleared the way for President Vanderdamp – whose approval ratings, his press secretary always emphasized, were in “the high twenties” – to burnish his image. The president, like many before, campaigned on a promise to change how Washington did business. Unlike many before, President Vanderdamp was serious, and quickly acquired the nickname “Don Veto” for his refusal to sign any spending bills. This made him, as Buckley writes:
… the sworn enemy of the majority of the United States Congress, whose members understand that their main job, their highest calling, their truest democratic function, is to take money from other states and funnel it to their own. What greater homage to the Founding Fathers and the men who froze at Valley Forge could there be than a civic center in Tulsa paid for by the taxpayers of Massachusetts?
Chief among the president’s enemies is Senate Judiciary Chair Dexter Mitchell of Connecticut. Based loosely on now-Vice President Biden, Mitchell once missed a funeral because a TV crew asked him for a comment as he walked up the steps of the church, and he was still talking when the funeral ended. (Touché.) Having failed in several presidential runs, Mitchell has only one nominee in mind for the Supreme Court vacancy: himself. In fact he went to the White House to request the job, having prepared a speech with “at least six reasons” why he would be the ideal nominee. (Buckley reports the president’s sighs are audible on the White House tape.)
Unable to find a bowling tournament and stuck watching a reality courtroom TV show, Vanderdamp is captivated by “the charm and sassy style – to say nothing of the good looks” of Judge Pepper Cartwright. More’s the point, he learns that her approval ratings are far higher than Congress’ (or his own). Chief of Staff Haydon Cork has a list of seven names: “two (venerable) state Supreme Court justices, a (more or less venerable) senator, three appellate judges (pretty venerable), a state attorney general (venerable enough), and the dean of the Yale Law School (predictably but by no means excitingly venerable).” Or as Cork sees them “two women, one African-American, two Jews, one Hispanic, and – Hayden smiled. His inner chief of staff let out a little war whoop of joy – an Indian.” But the president will not be denied. He wants Pepper Cartwright as his nominee.
Although reviewers in 2008 mistook Cartwright as an analog for Sarah Palin, the book was written long before John McCain chose Palin as his running mate. Moreover, Cartwright has an endearing quality not even remotely apparent in Palin: an awareness of her own limitations.
She readily admits that she is not qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, and in fact turns down the nomination in her first interview with Vanderdamp. She understands that he wants to make a point to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has no desire to become the picked-over carcass through whom that point is made. But when her husband-and-producer Buddy Bixby laughs at the notion that she even would be considered for the Supreme Court – and insists she remain as his star on Courtroom Six – she accepts.
Cartwright is shepherded through the nomination process by Graydon Clenndennynn:
… wisest of the Washington wise men, grayest of its eminences, adviser to seven – or was it eight? – presidents. Former Attorney General. Former Secretary of State. Former Secretary of the Exterior. Former Ambassador to France. Former everything. First among equals in the Vanderdamp kitchen cabinet. The man, it was rumored, with more n‘s in his name than anyone else in Washington.
They steer her through the Senate minefield, including the issues of her father (who mistakenly let Jack Ruby into the Dallas Police Department basement on that fateful 1963 morning, then went on to become a TV evangelist), her atheism (which was triggered when her mother was struck by lightning while golfing on Sunday), and her less-than-venerable legal history (she memorizes reams of non-responses to the expected questions, and delivers them with snappy aplomb). While she insists she is not qualified, the viewing public see that as yet another reason to like her. Even Mitchell realizes he has been outmaneuvered, especially when Cartwright reminds him “I never asked for this job” (subtext: “unlike you”).
Cartwright is confirmed, temporarily boosting Vanderdamp’s approval ratings into the thirties. Once on the Court, she meets Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, who cast the deciding vote in favor of gay marriage and whose wife promptly left him to marry a woman. Predictably, and hilariously, they fall in love.
While many characters are obvious spoofs – Justice Silvio Santamaria (“Jesuit seminarian, father of 13 children, Knight of Malta, adviser to the Vatican”) openly mocks Antonin Scalia – Buckley gives his main characters the space to develop their own unique personalities. Senator Mitchell may have been inspired by then-Senator Biden, but his behavior in the book is anything but Biden-esque. He resigns from the Senate to become the star of Bixby’s new prime-time series POTUS, then runs for the presidency with his steamy First Lady co-star filling the vacancy in his campaign (and his bed) left by his wife, who is outraged that Mitchell spent the money she pegged for a Park Avenue condo to seed his campaign.
Meanwhile, Congress has passed and the states are busy ratifying a constitutional amendment to limit the presidency to a single four-year term. Although Vanderdamp had never intended to run for a second term, he recognizes a Congressional slap in the face for what it is. He runs – hoping to lose – on the less-than-inspiring campaign theme “More Of The Same.”
Again, voters find his genuine disinterest in winning endearing, and Vanderdamp’s poll numbers climb even as he dreams of being back in Ohio, bowling. Meanwhile, the states ratify the amendment, setting up a comic homage to Bush v. Gore – with Justice Cartwright sure to cast the deciding vote – that is as heartwarming as it is side-splitting.
Buckley’s humor tweaks fairly across the ideological aisle. Because the book was released in the fall of 2008, it was widely – and unfairly – read through the lens of that campaign. It may have seemed timely then, but Supreme Courtship is instead a timeless blend of political satire, legal jargon, puns, footnotes, and a cast both snarikly venal and adorably human.