When Ralph Reed told mehe was writing a political novel, I had my doubts. That Reed is a multi-talented man is beyond doubt — he is in the top rank of political strategists. Furthermore, his work as executive director of the Christian Coalition between 1989 and 1997 changed American politics by bringing the voice of religious conservatives into the political mainstream.
But it’s one thing to plan and implement campaigns; it’s quite another to recreate an election in the imaginary world of fiction.
As I sat down to read the book, I wondered if I would want to go beyond the first few pages of Dark Horse: A Political Thriller, but knew I’d feel obligated to finish it because Reed is a friend. (For every book I complete, I probably put three or four aside because they fail to hold my interest.)
Dark Horse not only held my interest, but also made me wonder if Reed should quit his day job. His novel is a fast-moving tale about modern politics, marketed as a page-turning thriller, but laced with the moral insight of a Tom Wolfe. In fact, allusions to Wolfe’s novel about Atlanta, A Man in Full, where Reed lives, are scattered throughout the book.
I know fairly quickly if a novel will appeal to me. The English novelist Wyndham Lewis recommended what he called the "taxi-cab driver test" for fiction. Lewis would ask taxi drivers, straightforward men with broad experience of human nature, to read the first page of a novel to decide whether it was worth continuing.
I started Dark Horse at the beach while on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, with my son — and from the very first page, I was hooked. It was not just well-written; it put me in the middle of intrigue at a national political convention in a way I found entirely believable, compelling, and very entertaining.
Everyone in the room had earned their way here, fighting and clawing their way up the sheer, craggy rock of American politics, but all their years of plotting had not prepared them for this hysteria. Senior staff fought off the combined effects of caffeine, alcohol, and exhaustion. They screamed into walkie-talkies, while $500-an-hour lawyers gathered at a conference table, pouring over delegate lists and plotting strategy for the impending fight over the credential committee report.
Yes, Reed’s prose contains the occasion cliché ("fighting and clawing"), but the energy and authenticity of his storytelling kept me from dwelling on them.
Reed’s story begins with the Democrats turning down a Virginia delegation, taking the nomination away from Bob Long, governor of California, and handing it to Senate majority leader Salmon Stanley. The ensuing struggle between the moderate Long and the left-wing Stanley involves the entire gallery of characters from contemporary politics in a way that bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2008 political season: After nominating a moderate, Republicans struggle to keep the support of the Religious Right, which can’t go to the Democrats because their nominee is even further removed from their core issues, raising the possibility of a third-party candidacy.
After his defeat, Long is unexpectedly thrown back into the race when Stanley’s campaign is accused of buying off the Virginia delegation. Long decides to run as an independent and soon faces the unexpected opportunity of gaining the support of religious conservatives who are about to break loose from their 30-year embrace of the Republican Party.
As the California governor, Long had long been both pro-choice and pro-gay rights — but after a grandchild nearly dies due to complications at birth, he undergoes a conversion. In the hospital chapel, Long promises to amend his life in exchange for the life of his grandchild. Reed’s description is understated and plausible to anyone who’s been at such a spiritual crossroads.
Long keeps his promise, much to the consternation of his staff and the indignation of his wife Claire: "You sound like Cotton Mather. You’re a centrist, for crying out loud, not a right-wing nut."
Reed’s evocation of the Religious Right is both authoritative and not entirely flattering. It’s to the author’s credit that he’s willing to pull back the curtain on the wheeling-and-dealing that occurs between religious and political leaders. Given the author’s 20 years of experience, there’s a certain authenticity to the scenes of political arm-twisting and not-so-veiled threats, made by people acting in the name of Jesus. The character of Dr. Andrew Staunton represents a combination of Reed’s old boss, Pat Robertson, and probably Reed himself. Staunton’s ego, a match for any politician, demands he be taken seriously at the cost of being labeled a hypocrite.
It won’t be the actual leaders of the Religious Right who are irritated by Dark Horse; it will be the newspaper reporters and television pundits. They are portrayed as uniformly hostile, dedicated to nothing more than destroying reputations and ruining careers. After Long, feeling over-confident, tries to get chummy with reporters, his media consultant takes him aside:
"These reporters are not your friends," she shouted in a loud whisper as she closed the door. "Now that you are leading the polls, and you’re on all fifty state ballots, they are going to turn on you like a pack of wolves. You are nothing but a piece of meat to them…. They are the enemy, Governor!"
I’m sure there is already a conversation going on at the Washington Post about who the reporter Dan Dorman represents. Reed, who has been in the media crosshairs many times, gets some payback here, but he would have been better served by inventing at least one "fair and balanced" journalist. The strength of Reed’s characters is that they all struggle to balance the demands of winning with matters of principle — all except the media, who come across as one-dimensional predators.
I strongly recommend Dark Horse to anyone who wants a good read, an inside look at how national campaigns actually work, and the dynamics presently at work between religious conservatives and the political parties.
Will Ralph Reed quit his day job? I doubt it. Regardless of the success of Dark Horse, Reed is far too energized by political combat to put his feet up and enjoy the detachment of a full-time storyteller.
Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author ofOnward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, March 2008).