Modern Political Parable

IT'S hard to imagine a book more appropriate for this political year than Tom Wicker's latest novel. "Donovan's Wife" is a biting, behind-the-scenes tale of how Americans elect their representatives. The picture painted by Wicker, a retired New York Times columnist, isn't pretty - but it has a ring of truth about it.

"Donovan's Wife" focuses on a United States Senate race in an unnamed Western state. The incumbent is O. Mack Bender, a globe-trotting statesman who is "too interested in famine relief for Ethiopia and separatism in Estonia to keep his eye peeled on his home state." Although he harbors presidential ambitions, Bender is ripe for defeat.

The man who unexpectedly rises to the challenge is Victor T. Donovan, a hitherto obscure congressman who has never before manifested an iota of ambition. Despite his bland persona (and the potentially explosive fact that his wife, Josie, is having an affair with Washington columnist Milo Speed), Donovan quickly becomes an electrifying candidate.

The Svengali behind this seemingly miraculous transformation is Rafael Ames, a young hotshot media consultant determined to move into the political big leagues. Driven by Ames, Donovan is determined to do whatever it takes to unseat Bender. Ames bombards the airwaves with a host of tricky, but effective, negative advertisements distorting the senator's record. He even leaks to the news media unsubstantiated allegations that the married Bender spent a weekend alone with a beautiful female lobbyist.

Although at first Bender is caught off-guard, the veteran politician soon retaliates in kind by hiring his own media-meister, named Bucky Overholt. While ostensibly pitting Bender against Donovan, the campaign quickly degenerates into a mud-slinging match between Overholt and Ames. Which man can smear the other's candidate more effectively? That becomes the defining issue of the race (and Wicker provides some hilarious examples of true-to-life political commercials run by each side).

Naturally enough, the race is won by the candidate who possesses less moral integrity than his opponent - but if you want to find out who that is, you'll just have to read the book.

This is, clearly, a parable about modern politics. The parallels between Wicker's fiction and the reality he reported on for 30 years as a New York Times columnist are almost too obvious to need stating. Bender resembles many other senators who become too ensconced on Capitol Hill; and Donovan is the familiar figure of the impudent upstart who runs a more adept campaign than the longtime incumbent. In fact, the race described in the book bears some resemblance to Rep. Dan Quayle's stunning upset of veter an Sen. Birch Bayh in Indiana's 1980 election.

Milo Speed, the protagonist of "Donovan's Wife," is also fairly familiar: a famous Washington columnist who is increasingly troubled by the superficial and manipulative campaigns of the day. Wicker is not the first writer who's succumbed to the temptation of making himself the hero of his novel. But at least he doesn't overdo it. Speed is a flawed human being, not an infallible Ubermensch.

Perhaps the weakest part of this book is the relationship between Josie Donovan and Speed. Although Wicker tries hard, it is clear that his real interest lies in politics, not romance. As a result, much of the love story rings a trifle hollow.

The pungent descriptions of politics more than make up for this deficiency, however. Wicker seems genuinely outraged by the low state of campaigning today; and he is merciless in skewering everyone he deems responsible - from the amoral media managers to the gullible reporters who allow themselves to be manipulated all too easily.

Wicker evinces a great deal of nostalgia for the "good ol' days" when candidates stumped from town square to town square, and "paid media" meant a radio advertisement or two - not the kind of massive television blitz required to win today.

Whether or not one agrees that old-style campaigns were more honorable than today's variety, there is no disputing that "Donovan's Wife" is a highly readable, sometimes savage, satire on today's "sleaze" politics.

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