2012 September 21 • Friday
Whenever there's a big election coming up, I feel it's my duty to get informed. So this year I read Brian Garfield's Line of Succession.
It takes a little while to get to the first line. The book begins with a quote.
"The terms of the President and Vice-President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of the Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January...; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
"The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January...."
Constitution of the United States
Then there's "BOOK ONE: FIVE BOMBS".
The first chapter is headed SUNDAY, JANUARY 2 and begins "10:45 P.M. EST". After that you get the first actual sentence of the novel: "The girl's body was found by a man in a raincoat".
Since the book is about devastating acts of terrorism in the United States, I was curious to see how the author would make the government respond. In a phone conversation with President-elect Clifford Fairlie, sitting President Howard Brewster makes clear how he intends to respond to the bombing of Congress. It's very important to Brewster that Fairlie agrees to "step out and back me up. We need to have a pretty good show of solidarity on this thing".
|"We've just had an emergency meeting of the National Security Council together with various interested parties—the Speaker, some others. I'm declaring a state of national emergency, Cliff."
After a moment Fairlie said, "I thought you'd captured the bombers. ... You're declaring a national emergency mainly to hunt down a handful of co-conspirators?"
"Well, we don't know how many they are, but that's beside the point, Cliff. The thing is, we've been rocked by this. Washington's out of kilter. Now God knows how many other groups of vicious animals we've got out there in the woodwork—suppose they decide to jump on the bandwagon and whip up this big revolution they're always talking about? ... We've got to forestall that, Cliff, we've got to demonstrate that this government's still vigorous enough to react speedily and deficient. We've got to defuse the savages, we've got to show a little muscle."
"Mr. President," Fairlie said slowly, "I'm beginning to get the feeling you're talking about a wholesale nationwide roundup of suspicious characters. Is that what you mean when you talk about a national emergency? Emergency powers? ... I think a roundup at this point would have a terrible effect on the country. It could only be interpreted as the overreaction of a government in panic."
"Not at all. It would demonstrate our self-respect. To ourselves and to the rest of the world. That's damned important right now. How can any society expect to hold together without self-respect? It's a matter of showing muscle, Cliff, and that's something we've been too reluctant to do."
They decide not to do this. And they also decide to hunt the leader, the man who pulled the strings, but with due process. "I don't want him butchered. We've got to get the case packaged airtight and nail the son of a bitch and pin him up against it by the numbers. Arrest, trial, conviction, execution ... We can't ignore our own rules." Ah, fiction!
The President-elect is then kidnapped and held hostage for the release of the capture bombers of Congress. President Brewster wants to refuse to negotiate and to proceed with his roundup and arrest everybody who's suspected of maybe thinking bad thoughts about the government. This time he asks the Vice-President-elect. Dexter Ethridge, for support.
Ethridge sat stubbornly upright, his silence disagreeing. He squeezed his eyes with thumb and forefinger and when he opened them it seemed to take him a long time to bring them into focus. "I think we have to face the fact that whatever we do isn't going to please everybody. The theoretical arguments pretty well cancel each other out—look, I can give you a strong case against taking a tough stand. You can't simply refuse to turn the seven bombers loose, you'll have to follow up with a police operation against all the radical cells. You'll end up with a permanently enlarged security operation, and that means a permanent curtailment of citizens' rights. It's the only way to keep the lid on, and it seems to me that's exactly what the militants want of us—a tough repression that will feed their anti-Establishment arguments."
"Dex, are you going to make a public fight of this? A public break with me?"
Ethridge didn't answer directly. "Mr. President, the most important thing—more important than this entire tragedy—is to establish a long-term system of politics that will rebuild the self-confidence and security of the people. If the society hasn't got enormous discontents to fuel the militant extremists, then the whole terrorist movement will wither away for lack of nourishment."
Another point of interest is that Garfield slips in the names of some friends and colleagues during the procedure of electing the Speaker of the House. "There being no further nominations, the Clerk will appoint tellers. The Clerk appoints the gentleman from Ohio, Mr. Block, the gentleman from Illinois, Mr. Westlake, the gentlewoman from California, Mrs. Ludlum, and the gentlewoman from Vermont, Mrs. Morrison." I recognized Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake and Robert Ludlum but what would Toni Morrison be doing there? A little research revealed that the Morrison mentioned must be Henry Morrison, who was Robert Ludlum's agent. Garfield and these other people used to play poker together.
Later the "resident White House intellectual" remarks that one of the villains is "Balkan and obscure. That's all rather Eric Ambler".