He who must be obeyed

As always, John Mortimer's timing is perfect. Sitting for tea in his room at the Ritz, he's delighted to talk about his latest political satire on the same day President Clinton is found not guilty.

"You couldn't make it up, could you!" he snorts.

Nowadays, Mr. Mortimer admits, a political comic risks being preempted by some late-breaking headline.

"I rather believe in these Greek gods. They must look down and say, 'Oh, it's boring. What shall we do? Oh, we'll send a new intern.' Isn't it all incredible?"

"I always found that the trouble with putting what happened in real courts into my stories is that no one would believe it. You have to tone it down in order to make it remotely credible."

Perhaps it was ever thus. Before he became a novelist, Mortimer was a barrister back in the days when British plaintiffs had to prove adultery in order to secure a divorce. His first case, he says, "was for a man who wanted a divorce very badly, but couldn't persuade anyone to commit adultery with his wife. Finally, he put on a false beard, a false mustache, and false glasses, and crept into his bungalow, pretending to be his wife's lover. But if you wrote that down, no one would believe a word of it!"

"The Sound of Trumpets" (reviewed at left) blasts a telegenic liberal, Terry Flitton, who climbs to power on slippery lies, half-truths, and expedient compromises. It's a portrait partially based on Prime Minister Tony Blair, but the relevance to America's president is striking.

"There are two themes in the book," Mortimer says while studying the elegant sandwiches that none of us dare eat. "One is that - as Clinton discovered - if you're a left-wing politician, you have to say right-wing things. But you're stuck with it once elected, and you've got to behave like that, and your own supporters get a bit browned off."

"But then, there's an argument at the back of the book that I'm actually very proud of. Terry says, 'It's all very well for you. You can kid yourself that you've got these high moral standards, you're so pure, and you're so much better than everybody else because there's no danger of you ever having to put them into practice. You can despise us who have to dirty our hands and win elections.' "

"I don't think there's any ready answer to those things," Mortimer chuckles. "I just wanted to make a comedy out of the conflict between them."

Who but a confirmed liberal could offer such a sendup of liberal politicians? In his numerous novels, plays, and television shows, Mortimer is a satirist whose critiques run toward mirth rather than outrage.

"You don't expect much from politicians, really, and you've got to be sorry for them, because nobody likes them very much. But they could just give us something, like nationalizing mustard, or something."

"Mind you, you Americans ought to be grateful, really."

For what?

"Well, for making politics slightly more entertaining."

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