‘Visionary’ is not a word commonly associated with literary drama…it’s better suited to science fiction. Something about William Gibson’s work sets it apart from Michael Connely’s, no matter how good both are at writing fiction. There was something about Jim Lehrer’s The Last Debate that read like a forecast when I found it on a shelf at the local library. This 20-year-old Novel of Politics and Journalism sounds fairly routine from the start, and quite familiar. Americans are looking forward to a presidential debate where they are left with an “impossible choice” between a charismatic Republican and a colorless Democrat. The panelists include two rookies: Barbara Manning, an African-American writer for a weekly magazine, and Henry Ramirez, Latino child of illegal immigrants and radio news correspondent with “fantasies of political grandeur.” Also on board are veterans Joan Naylor, a television news anchor upset over losing the moderator’s job to Michael Howley, once an aspiring William Faulkner, now a newspaper writer.
These candidates for president are a study in contrasts; Democrat Paul Greene is a wallflower with terrible poll ratings who is mostly ignored in the early going. Described at one point as the “worst campaigner of all time” Greene cannot match the bluster or appeal of his Republican rival David Meredith, a former radio talker and chief of the Take It Back Foundation. The GOP nominee is unpopular in his party and regularly described as a racist demagogue in favor of building a wall at the southern border, but remains favored to win. This possibility is a source of friction among the panelists. Manning and Ramirez would enter the debate as “journalist-advocates” intent on Meredith’s downfall; Howley and Naylor are determined to be tough, but remain professionally objective. Sparks fly during a surprisingly rough round of questioning that reveals Meredith’s volatile temper and eventually sets off an unexpected chain of events.
The Last Debate was published after the 1992 election, yet the novel’s GOP nominee bears an uncanny resemblance to the party’s current standard bearer. I can’t help but be curious what Lehrer’s inspiration was — Pat Buchanan would be a good bet. He stood against George HW Bush in that primary; the former CNN co-host could be Donald Trump’s ideological godfather with his focus on immigration and affinity for populist rhetoric. Another thread running through the story is an almost cynical view of the news media. Some are fairly courteous, like the reference to crossover between commentators and comedians that could have been written today. At times they visit a dark side where press people are described as “new arrogants” who have sold out to “our own glory, our own lecture fees, (and) our own faces.” The former Newshour host must have seen his share of snooty, agenda-driven reporters to deliver a jab like this one.
In the aftermath of the debate Lehrer’s focus shifts to another reporter, newsletter writer Tom Chapman. He’s been shadowing events as something of a narrator before being sent in pursuit of the rest of the story. By this point the major players have gone their separate ways: some to glory, others to infamy. Chapman’s effort triggers an evolution from drama to mystery that leads to a bit of and Watergate-style skullduggery. Eventually the newly-branded “Famous, Fabulous Williamsburgh Four” meet, but the expected happy reunion turns into a confrontation driven by one angry member and accusations of betrayal. The rest of this novel reads like an epilogue, a way to wrap up Chapman’s feud with one of the panelists. It’s hard to feel anything but let down by Lehrer’s tome, but that says more about my expectations than it does about the story. I picked up what looked like a bang-up tale of politics and journalism. It’s not. The echoes of this year’s campaign disappear from the second half, but there is enough drama sprinkled in to reward the persistent.
cartoon provided by fineartamerica.com