When a Politician Becomes Fair Game

"SHORT List," the fifth One-Eyed Mack novel by MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour co-anchor Jim Lehrer, can make you laugh out loud. But if you are a member of the press, a politician, political adviser, or any of the number of minions making a living off the political process, your laughter might just be a little nervous. Lehrer's humor can cut pretty close to the bone.

One-Eyed Mack - as in "truck," he says - is the lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. Minutes before Buffalo Joe Hayman, the governor of Oklahoma, is to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, he suffers a mild stroke. It turns out at first to be a stroke of luck for One-Eyed Mack, who is quickly enlisted to give the speech in the governor's stead. He gives the speech of a lifetime.

"I cited Genesis and Ecclesiastes, Ernest Hemingway ... and Will Rogers ... I looked to the heavens, I scowled, I smiled, I pointed, I flung my fists, I pounded, I wiped my forehead with a handkerchief." The speech is so raucously well-received that Mack instantly becomes a member of the short list for vice president.

And that's when his troubles begin. His life and past become fair game for the press. Everything he's ever done or said or even thought is avariciously dissected by reporters and also by aides of the presidential nominee assigned to examine him for electability. As you might expect, whatever can go wrong, in terms of fact and interpretation, goes spectacularly and humorously wrong.

"Making up stories about my lost eye for strangers was one of my minor and harmless pleasures," Mack says. Not so harmless once the press gets hold of the different versions. He becomes a liar. He's accused of plagiarism and charged with graft. As one television commentator puts it, "Then along come the termites out from under the boards of his life." A sex scandal crops up, although no reasonable human being, looking at the facts, could call it a scandal. As this book makes perfectly clear, political c ampaigns don't tend to bring out human reason. The term political animal is often not a misnomer.

John Adams once called the office of the vice president the "most insignificant office that ever the invention of men contrived or his imagination conceived... ."

Others have been even less charitable. Given what Mack has to go through to even get on the ballot, one wonders why anyone would consider for even a split second launching a political career.

You can read "Short List" in an hour or two and have a great time. But the message is sharper now that the primaries have begun, especially given a few of the problems some of the candidates are coping with. Lehrer almost seems prescient.

Jonathan Swift once said that "satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's fact but their own." Lehrer doesn't let anybody off the hook in "Short List." New York City even takes it on the chin.

And having been a member of the press for many years, Lehrer knows what he's talking about. If you are a member of the press, it's pretty hard not to see yourself somewhere in the book. And if you're just a voter, you'll want to go back and read all the previous One-Eyed Mack novels and will look forward to the next one.

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