When it comes to politicos abandoning policy proposals for the art of fiction, Ralph Nader's puzzlingly bad new novel is hardly alone in coming up short. Other boldface Beltway names and Manhattan bloviators have face-planted their entrances to the literary world, too. While these efforts usually don't snag rave reviews, some have won a little respect from critics. Here's a sampling of the highs, lows, and mehs:
In 2004 Kirkus chastised Bill O'Reilly for his entry into the thriller genre, Those Who Trespass. After recapping some of the major players and plot elements, the publication wrote: "The stage is set for a smorgasbord of clichés ... none of [them], thanks to O'Reilly's wooden writing and lack of originality, surprising or believable for a minute." Ouch. Booklist was a touch kinder, noting that despite "stereotypical secondary characters," the novel was "nicely paced." Sensing a partisan moment, the liberal online magazine Salon, er, mounted a bad-sex-writing contest in honor of this doozy from Trespass: "Ashley was now wearing only brief white panties. She had signaled her desire by removing her shirt and skirt, and by leaning back on the couch. She closed her eyes, concentrating on nothing but Shannon's tongue and lips. He gently teased her by licking the areas around her most sensitive erogenous zone. Then he slipped her panties down her legs and, within seconds, his tongue was inside her, moving rapidly." Noted aesthete (and former NYPD commissioner) William Bratton advanced the most positive view, however, blurbing that the book was "as real and exciting as the streets of New York City."
Also on the clunky-erotic tip, onetime Hill staffer (and future Cheney right-hand man) Scooter Libby raised a few eyebrows (eventually) with his 1996 opus, The Apprentice. When considering the book in 2005—amid the fallout of the Valerie Plame scandal, and after Libby's conviction for obstruction of justice—The New Yorkerdeclared that "when it comes to depicting scenes of romance, however, Libby can evoke a sort of musty sweetness; while one critic deemed The Apprentice 'reminiscent of Rembrandt,' certain passages can better be described as reminiscent of PenthouseForum." And that's not even taking into consideration the book's strange fascination with bestiality.
Faring perhaps the best of any moonlighting politico novelist this decade was the late William F. Buckley Jr., father of the modern conservative movement (and of noted satirist Christopher), whose series of 11 spy novels was deemed by The New York Times to have concluded with "a modest triumph" in 2005. Quoth the Gray Lady: "Last Call for Blackford Oakes ... again validates Buckley's considerable fiction skills, as distinct from the lapidary nonfiction he has produced over the years, most of it as standard bearer for conservative America. There may indeed be too many historical and fictional characters blurring in and out of this novel, but mark that up to the forgivable offense of everyone trying to climb onstage for the finale."
But the most savage review we came across was Janet Maslin's disemboweling of one of Newt Gingrich's "alternate history" novels, which he co-writes with William R. Forstchen. Her review of their 2007 tome Pearl Harboris headlined "An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too," and only gets more sharply negative from there. "Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol," Maslin said. "This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book's war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. 'One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,' the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, 'not to realize they were sallying forth to war.' Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot's intelligence—or, presumably, the reader's." Maslin laments these lapses, if only because, she concedes, Pearl Harbor "really does have serious intentions. However ham-handed their people skills, the authors know their military minutiae and are happy to differentiate a B5N1 from a B5N2."
Former president, and farmer, Jimmy Carter has also spent some time toiling in the detail-rich fields of historical fiction, to some elaborately mixed reviews. His 2003 novel The Hornet's Nest dealt with the lesser-known Southern battlefronts of the Revolutionary War. Again, Booklist was the most cautiously kind, writing: "What Carter lacks in narrative style and characterization, he more than makes up for in the breadth of historical fact and detail interwoven into this obvious labor of love." To sharper-tongued critics, though, the book read hopelessly flat. In The Christian Science Monitor, Ron Charles wrote that "this isn't really a work of fiction, or if it is, it just barely is. Any number of history textbooks could benefit from the president's congenial storytelling style, but his narrative—so measured, so detailed, so utterly free of psychological insight or wit—wears its cardigan sweater through all 450 pages." The New York Timesconcurred, saying that "the author seems determined to put down on paper every single fact he has gathered in his seven years of preparation."
Perhaps the most curious entry in the annals of political prose, however, would have to be the 1981 novel Sisters, penned by the future second lady of the United States, Lynne Cheney. It remains decisively out of print—with rare used copies priced as high as $295 on Amazon.com. Why all the fuss? The novel is reputed to feature strong lesbian overtones, and Mrs. Cheney herself moved to block a reprinting in 2004, calling it not her "best work."