I saw Rachel Maddow interview Nicolle Wallace a few days ago. They talked about It’s Classified, Wallace’s latest book which was, according to her, partially inspired by the events of the last presidential campaign. “Hey,” I thought. “I watched that campaign.” And so I picked up the book, expecting, I think, that I would see a thinly-veiled rehash of the campaign with a twist–McCain/Palin won.
I got more than I was bargaining for. Wallace’s book may have been inspired by the spectre of a Palin vice-presidency, but if so inspiration quickly gave way to invention. Vice-President Tara Meyers is a tragic figure, a woman who has survived not by brilliance but by outworking everyone else–and by allowing her husband to build a world around her that both conceals and compensates for her debilitating mental/emotional condition. Exactly what this is readers are left to guess, but what is crystal clear is that it’s triggered by stress–and that the stresses of Tara’s new role as Vice-President have triggered it, big time.
It’s Classified posits–somewhat improbably–a Washington in which a woman occupies the Oval Office, another is Secretary of Defense, a third–from the rival party–is Vice-President, and the President’s estranged husband’s mistress is the Vice-President’s communications director. In this story, men tend to be domineering brutes, absent, or gay. With such an overtly female leadership team I expected at least a little sexism among the “silver-back” congressmen, maybe a little bitterness, and certainly some gender-based spin contributing to Tara’s downfall–and it would have been so easy, given that her condition seems to turn her into a caricature of a Welfare Queen–lolling around eating junk food, reading romances, watching daytime TV, and throwing tantrums.
But the end, when it comes, is ironically triggered by a failed interview Tara gives, followed by what would seem to be an entirely appropriate response to a national threat she must give in the President’s absence. While the pretext for the investigation that seeks to determine if the national threat level was raised to deflect attention from the disastrous interview seems a bit thin, particularly in light of the fact that Tara seems to perform well under stress this time, things quickly spiral out of control.
Wallace’s book is clearly written by someone who has spent a lot of time in Washington. And, while the plot is intriguing, it rather steps on its own lines. Tara Meyers is given a free pass for behavior that arises from her mental condition, and is put under investigation for the one time she actually performs admirably in a non-media-related capacity. I have to bow to Wallace’s expertise in this area, but I would have found it more credible had she been given accolades for her performance, particularly in today’s “better-safe-than-sorry” environment.
All in all I found the characters a bit flat, when it would have taken very little to create a bit more complexity. For example, the President is an idealized figure of the “dress for success” woman, wise, strong, analytical, able to put aside all personal emotions for the good of the country, generous enough to wish her husband and his mistress well. Meyers, on the other hand, is a caricature of a “womanly” woman–driven by her emotions, not terribly bright, and dependent on her man to keep the big bad world at bay. In contrast to the President’s tall, lean body she is short, curvy, and prone to fat. Indeed, at more than one point Wallace has her characters refer to the President as the “head” of the administration, and Meyers as its “heart.” The third central figure, Dale, seems curiously ambiguous. Her inner landscape is virtually non-existent. She seems to feel no shame or guilt or even unease for having had an affair with the President’s husband, and indeed seems to take it for granted that the President will harbor no ill will against her for it. Wallace does a nice job of contrasting her inner view of herself with Meyers’ view of her–Dale sees herself as somewhat plain, and notes at one point that she needs to have her hair attended to, while Meyers sees her as everything she herself is not–tall, elegant, and perfectly groomed.
For a Washington insider, Dale seems curiously willing to accept people at face value–she becomes friends with a man she hardly knows, and immediately begins to spill the beans about her work worries. Likewise, while she says that she doesn’t trust Ralph, the President’s chief of staff, she meekly follows his directives without taking any real steps to protect herself. One of the most telling scenes in the book occurs when she is complaining to her new friend about the circumstances of her life. He notes that she refuses to accept responsibility for the results of her own actions, and tells her that though she portrays herself as a victim, in reality many of her problems arise as a natural result of her own actions. The scene is powerful, and it seems to hold an important key to understanding Dale’s character. Regrettably, Wallace doesn’t follow it up with any indication of growth. Dale cuts off contact with her friend, who later apologizes for having spoken out of line to her.
It’s Classified is an interesting book, partially because of its context, partially because it was written by a woman who, like the best writers do, writes what she knows. But I find myself wishing that there had been just a little growth, that the events of the book hadn’t fallen on such very barren soil. You can find It’s Classified on Amazon in hardcover, kindle, and audio versions.