A Book Worth Reading

I am sometimes asked to recommend books that provide useful insights into American politics. Over the years I’ve had my favorites. Some have been biographies like Robert Caro’s remarkable but still unfinished series on the extraordinary political life of Lyndon Johnson, or two moving and instructive books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement: Bearing the Cross, by David Garrow and Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch.

I also love to recommend Chris Matthew’s Hardball for its pithy lessons on how the game of politics is played in Washington, or William Greider’s Who Will Tell the People, an unsettling look at the role "special interests" play in shaping the Congressional and Executive branch policy-making. To understand the challenging dynamics of a presidential campaign, what the process does to those who run, and what is required of those who expose themselves to its rigors, there is no better treatment than Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, a fascinating and insightful chronicle of the 1988 presidential contest.

More recently, I’ve been suggesting John White’s The Values Divide. White not only demonstrates the deep partisan divisions that characterize today’s political debate, but notes how each side, whatever their views, claim to ground their politics in competing visions of their interpretation of "American values."

But if you want a different experience and have time to read only one book this summer, I would recommend The Balance of Power by Richard North Patterson. This is the third in a series of novels Patterson has written on different aspects of US Presidential politics, and it may be his best one to date.

In the first book of the series, No Safe Place, Patterson takes us through the presidential election campaign of his fictional candidate, Senator Kerry Kilcannon, a New Jersey Democrat. The second book, Protect and Defend, opens with Kilcannon being sworn in as President and immediately facing his first major challenge: the need to appoint a Supreme Court justice while addressing the deeply divisive issue of abortion. What makes Patterson’s treatment so significant is the balanced approach he takes while examining each issue his fictional president must confront. As Protect and Defend progresses, both sides of the abortion question are addressed with arguments so compelling that the reader must confront, with Kilcannon, the difficult choices a thoughtful president must make.

Balance of Power takes on an issue no less challenging and divisive: gun violence and the need to balance the regulation of guns with the constitutionally protected "right to bear arms."

In its fictional rendering of the congressional debates on this issue, Patterson provides extraordinary insights, not only into the arguments each side uses to make their case, but also into the machinations of the powerful gun lobby as it imposes itself on the political process. Patterson also examines how the White House and Senate interact in the legislative process and the trade-offs and compromises which are central to political decision-making.

Though it is a fictional treatment, Patterson, as always, has consulted with an impressive list of Washington legislators and political insiders in order to give the reader a real understanding of the inner workings of politics.

Arab world readers will want to pay special attention to Patterson’s treatment of the operations of the powerful gun lobby, and how it utilizes a combination of its organized membership and its ability to target significant amounts of campaign contributions to leverage both Republican and Democratic support for its political positions.

Those outside of the political process often fail to understand that many issues acted upon by Congress are not decided on merit or even consideration of national interests. Rather, they are shaped by the power politics of special interest lobbies.

In Balance of Power, President Kilcannon is deeply troubled by the fact that almost 400,000 Americans have been killed by guns in the past decade, and that, in some states, automatic weapons, more powerful than those used by any US police department, can be purchased without a security check by individuals who may have criminal records. Nevertheless, Kilcannon faces enormous obstacles in his effort to pass meaningful gun control legislation, and not because most Senators are "blind pro-gun ideologues."

The ideologues are the lobbyists who wield power. Their power is derived from their use of their members’ money and votes, and from their ability to exploit their members’ real and imagined fears. These lobbyists play politics as a "zero sum" game. For them, not only is losing anathema, compromise is as well.

And so as Patterson takes us through the Senate’s discussion of Kilcannon’s effort to pass gun control legislation, the speeches "pro" and "con" are incidental to the real action.

In one exchange between a political operative and a key Senator, the operative, in assessing how many votes the Senator can still move to oppose Kilcannon tells him to make a list of "who needs campaign money. . .who’s vulnerable. . .[because] survival," and not speeches, he notes, is a Senator’s most important consideration. Reelection is more important than any argument for or against an issue.

To make the point even more clearly, the head of the gun lobby tells the same Senator that the lobby views these votes as "the acid test of who our friends are and who wants to remain our friends." He then proceeds to detail for the Senator, which of the Senator’s colleagues will be targeted and what combination of pressure tactics will be used to sway their votes.

But the lobby can be beaten. President Kilcannon shows how strong and unbending leadership can mold public opinion, stiffen the resolve of members of Congress and win against difficult odds.

It’s not only Kilcannon’s stirring rhetoric that makes Patterson’s work worth reading, it’s also the insider’s look that it provides the of the legislative process. If you want a book that inspires and informs, The Balance of Power will satisfy.