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Plenty of Juicy Plot Twists in a Thriller of a Race—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was published in The Washington Post on May 4, 2008.

Plenty of Juicy Plot Twists in a Thriller of a Race
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

As a novelist, I am jealous of the present national moment. I'd love to have invented it -- what author of thrillers wouldn't? The fate of the nation is at stake. Powerful characters vie for the chance to save it, and each one's supporters contend, loudly, that the others are being manipulated by the malevolent forces that secretly run Washington. No albino monks or evil wizards -- not yet -- but the plot is still chock-full of unexpected twists and turns, cliffhangers, even car chases (well, chases by journalists, which can be equally harrowing).

We have war, we have religion, we have race, we have gender, we have class, and we have confusing subplots galore. What reader could resist?

Not many, evidently. Rasmussen Reports recently released a survey in which four out of five respondents said that they've been watching this year's presidential campaign "very closely" or "somewhat closely." Older people followed unfolding events more closely than younger ones did -- just as older people buy more books. And while those who read a novel only somewhat closely instead of very closely may miss some of the key clues, they can and often do develop a rooting interest. This year, almost everybody seems to have one.

And why not? Consider the lead characters. Will Hillary Clinton be the first president who's not a man? Will Barack Obama be the first who's not white? Will John McCain be the first to have suffered in a prisoner of war camp? We follow their adventures avidly, wondering which one might be the secret enemy of all that is just and which will turn out to represent the forces of good.

The bit characters, too, are fun to watch as we try to guess which one will play the biggest role in the ending. Might it be the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, last seen declaring that any criticism of his words represents an attack on the black church? What about former Georgia congressman Robert Barr, who, perhaps unsatisfied with the many signs pointing to the Republican Party's defeat in the fall, is considering adding to the mess by running himself? Or former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who evidently has similar feelings about the Democrats? (What is it about Georgia, anyway?)

And then there's Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is apparently in our thriller as a plot device, enabling the Democratic candidates to show their steel by promising to use force if he dares to do what he says he's going to.

But what readers really want to know -- the sooner the better -- is who the hero is. Every novel, especially every thriller, needs a hero. They take huge risks for the greater good -- including the risk of defeat. In the contemporary thriller, the plot comes down to a standard model (sometimes called the Ludlum Formula, in tribute to master thriller writer Robert Ludlum). In the Ludlum Formula, the hero alone knows the truth and spends several hundred pages fleeing the good guys, who think he is a bad guy, and the bad guys, who know he is a good guy out to expose their secrets. He is not popular. He has no cheering section. But he knows he's right, and he presses on.

Usually, the novelist tells us early on who the hero is. This is important. Once we know the hero, we know whom to root for. We also know who's likely to win in the end, unless of course the writer is someone like John le Carré or Graham Greene -- authors from the noir school, whose heroes often fail.

McCain, of course, is already a hero, with a war record and hard-earned medals to prove it. He has tried to be heroic in peacetime, too. In the Senate, he has been aggressively bipartisan, so often forsaking the GOP grass roots that many on the Christian right seem willing to sit the election out. Most of the country, however, seems to have forgotten that a Republican is even in the race; the only reminder comes when pundits opine about whether the fierce contest for the Democratic nomination will help the GOP in the fall.

Nevertheless, any candidate can be a hero. The question is whether his or her supporters will allow this to happen. Powerful forces restrain the would-be hero from taking chances. The media often make new ideas look scary. Interest groups demand obeisance. Now and then, one of the candidates looks ready to lead rather than follow. But each step forward is followed by a step back.

One way supporters keep their candidates from becoming heroic is by trying to shield them from adversity -- even when adversity only means tough questions from the media. If reporters challenge McCain, it's evidence of their left-wing bias. If they challenge Obama or Clinton, they are playing the Republicans' game. Forgotten is a crucial lesson from literature: Only by confronting adversity can the potential hero be tested.

But supporters try to keep adversity at bay. Thus it turns out that it's fair to criticize only the sermons of political pastors of the Christian right. On the left, well, we should try to understand the roots of the preacher's "controversial" comments. And you might remember the last time around, when each candidate's supporters said, in effect, "Checking on your guy's military record is important, but checking on my guy's military record is dirty politics."

Right now, we are busily tracking down guilty associations, figuring out which candidates were in which rooms with which agents of evil. We need to know about these agents of evil because a thriller needs villains as well as heroes. You might think that finding the villains would be easy: There are people in the world who like to blow Americans up. But this is a political thriller, and the conventions of the genre require us to seek villains here at home.

To the Democrats, the unpopular incumbent president is Voldemort. The wicked spell that binds the country is NAFTA. Hedge-fund honchos were villains for a while, but they kicked up their contributions to Democrats and vanished from the story. The Republicans, alas, haven't found the right villain yet, but some of them seem to think that Jeremiah Wright's auditions for the part have been impressive.

Which brings us to what Alfred Hitchcock used to call the MacGuffin -- no decent thriller is complete without one. The MacGuffin is the thing everybody's looking for, the diary or computer chip whose whereabouts drive the plot. In an election, the MacGuffin takes the form of a scandal. The media will spend most of the novel mucking around in each candidate's past, searching for the MacGuffin that will blow the campaign wide open.

In a better novel, the media would be an admirable minor character, the aw-shucks, self-effacing narrator whose keen eye for detail would enable him to explain the candidates' positions on issues to the reader. In a better novel, the media might even decide to give more air time to the contenders' views than to the views of various talk show hosts and pundits. But this is not a better novel. This is a thriller, and in a thriller surprises, not explanations, are the order of the day. The plot twists can be contrived, implausible, even impossible, but they are also what keep us turning the pages.

Of course, no thriller would be complete without red herrings. The media have lately been taking seriously McCain's proposal, endorsed in part by Clinton, to lower the federal gas tax during the summer. (Obama has not signed on but has agreed that gas prices are too high.) Economists everywhere are fainting. Our problem is that we consume too much fossil fuel, not too little, and no one has ever found a way to make people use less of a resource by reducing its cost.

Another current fave, repeated endlessly on the talk shows, is that McCain has insisted that the Iraq war could go on for a century. No, he hasn't, and people saying he has know that he hasn't. Sooner or later, one of the potential Democratic heroes has to tell the surrogates to cut it out.

And there are the mysteries. Do Clinton and Obama really believe that they can pay for everything they've promised with the paltry $40 billion they'll raise by allowing President Bush's tax cuts on high earners to lapse? If not, where will they get the money? Does McCain really believe that the war in Iraq is still winnable? If so, how? And the biggest mystery of all, the one that makes baby boomers like my wife and me tremble in our boots: Just how solvent will Social Security and (especially) Medicare be when we retire? So far, alas, our would-be heroes have little to offer on that one.

Well, give them time. Maybe when we turn the page, we'll find the answer. They say that when you walk into the White House, everything you thought you knew changes. Samantha Power, late of the Obama campaign, tried to make this point in an interview with the British press; nobody can predict today, she argued, what the situation on the ground in Iraq will look like in January 2009, so every promise to withdraw the troops is necessarily contingent. Grownups already know this, of course. The children we tend to turn into at election time, however, would rather pretend that we can predict the future.

The truth is, we haven't found our hero yet. We've caught glimpses. Some think it's McCain, the gritty, straight-talking veteran. Others have been drawn to Obama's message of change and hope. (I have given Obama money myself.) Still others support Clinton, the policy wonk and comeback kid, a living link to an era many Americans look at with longing. Each, I suspect, would be a good president. But none will be heroic without stepping beyond the bounds of safety, embracing rather than evading tough questions, confounding and sometimes even angering the interest groups that laud them.

How, then, does the story end? When we reach the final chapter, which villain stands there confessing the whole nefarious scheme while our hero still has time to plan the clever switcheroo that will save the world?

Sorry. Can't spoil the story. Even in November, we'll know only who the winner is. Learning whether the winner is also a hero sometimes takes longer.

Stephen L. Carter is a professor at Yale Law School. His third novel, "Palace Council," will be published in July.