Christopher Buckley is the nation’s best humor novelist. His newest work, Supreme Courtship, is both better than and not as good as his previous works. It is more silly than sleek satire, more sophomoric than sophisticated, late-night stand-up jokes.
As a result, some reviewers have greeted “Supreme Courtship” with faint praise. But I grew up on Marx Brothers movies and Thorne Smith novels and I loved it.
Here’s the story line: A Supreme Court justice who has lost his marbles is forced to retire. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dexter Mitchell, a three-time loser as a presidential candidate, now hopes to be appointed to the court.
He manages to get two very respected nominees defeated in a row. (One is brought down on the grounds that he didn’t sufficiently praise the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a review for his elementary school newspaper.)
President Donald P. Vaderdamp decides to teach the senators a lesson, to embarrass them, especially Mitchell. At the same time, he has just started watching a television show called “Courtroom Six,” built around Pepper Cartwright, a former California state judge.
Cartwright and her program quickly become extremely popular. She is sexy, sassy, plain talking (she even says “you betcha”), and the show makes her and her husband Buddy Bixby, the show’s creator and producer, multimillionaires.
The president is so unpopular that he has decided not to seek a second term. So what the heck! He nominates Cartwright for the Supreme Court vacancy.
She doesn’t want to accept the president’s offer because she doesn’t feel worthy. Her husband doesn’t want her to accept either, because of the lost income. In the hearing, she agrees with the senators on the Judiciary Committee who find her unsuited, but her popularity puts pressure on them – to the point that they’re getting death threats.
So she aces the committee vote 18-0, and goes on to win by 91-7 in the full Senate.
Her husband sues for breach of contract and divorce. He decides to create a rival TV show to replace her, dreaming up a “West Wing”-style program titled “POTUS” (D.C. talk for “President of the United States.”)
He even talks Mitchell into quitting the Senate and taking the starring role, promising him he will get very rich and popular enough to win the real White House. He immediately starts moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, Cartwright gets her first work as a justice. She is brought to tears by being reprimanded for speaking when she isn’t supposed to. T
hen as junior justice she has the last vote on a 4-4 decision. She favors those who say a bank robber had a right to sue the company that manufactured his pistol because it didn’t work and thus he couldn’t shoot his way out and was arrested. She begins to lose some of her public appeal.
Previously, a (relatively) youthful Chief Justice Declan Hardwether, had cast the vote legalizing gay marriage – after which his wife immediately left him for a woman. He becomes so down in the dumps that he prepares to hang himself, seemingly with Cartwright’s help. Buckley here is as funny as the “you haven’t got that book” scene with Groucho and Chico in “A Day at the Races.”
Leaks from the court to the press lead to the FBI’s being called in to investigate. That and the fact that Hardwether and Pepper have become an item causes one justice to urge the chief justice to resign.
Pepper becomes the 5-4 decider more often. The newspapers love it.
Then things get really strange. A proposed amendment to the Constitution limiting the president to one term makes its way onto the November ballot. Vanderdamp doesn’t want to be president for any more, but neither does he want to see ex-Senator Mitchell – who is leading him in polls – be elected.
So he runs and wins. But so does the amendment. The amendment is challenged in the Supreme Court, and....
But enough. Read it for yourself and enjoy.
Theo Lippman Jr. wrote an occasional humor column for the Baltimore Sun editorial page for 20 years.