- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2003


By William F. Gavin

Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95, 306 pages


On a grim December day, Republican Rep. T. Claude “Buzzer” LeBrand wakes with a severe hangover, not an uncommon reveille for him these days. This dawn, however, he ruefully reflects that his wife, Georgie, had stormed out of the apartment last night and left town for home, taking Buzzer Jr. with her.

A TV crew, as it happened, had caught the congressman cavorting on a Caribbean beach with two bikini-clad babes while on a junket. He’d just barely squeezed into a fourth term, but the beach romp was the final indignity for a wife who’s put up with his philandering as she’s increasingly treated her emotional wounds with merlot.

A politically inconvenient end to his marriage is complicated by the large fact that Georgie’s father, Bo Beaumont, is very rich and a power in the Sixth District (in an unnamed state that’s fairly generic, neither Northern nor Southern and with qualities of “Flyover” America). That’s not the only dispiriting item on Buzzer’s agenda. He’s having an affair with the wife of his “best friend” and chief fund- raiser, and she is letting him know insistently that she has in mind replacing Georgie as a congressional wife — even as Buzzer is tiring of her.

Ah, one of those squalidly irresistible tales that are fodder for the wall-to-wall news media, which has become increasingly tabloidish, from network TV to supermarket rag. William F. Gavin, an old Washington hand, has an imaginative touch, however, that transforms the dross of scandalous actuality into caricatured wit in “One Hell of a Candidate” — a novel with the saving grace of the occasional dignity that still surfaces in our raucous democratic politics.

Novels about politics and about Washington more often than not topple into implausibility because the writers simply do not know the territory, as exotic in its way as the upper Amazon is to the culturally “creative.” Mr. Gavin (a frequent reviewer on these pages) knows the neighborhood: He was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Reagan and spent years working on Capitol Hill, where odd scripts often unscroll, and where the halls are populated by both the admirable and the bizarre.

Buzzer, on this bleak winter day with snow falling, is bored and feeling lousy. He goes to his congressional office, harasses his staff as ishiswont when feeling prickly (which is most of the time), signs letters and watches television, the while communing with the Scotch bottle. In late afternoon with the storm worsening, he decides to take the subway home rather than drive. At the entrance (the Capitol South stop for those who know Metro and the Hill), he trips and falls in his wobbly condition, lands heavily on his head, and is bumped unconsciously down the escalator.

As a result the congressman is taken back to the Sixth District to lie in a coma in the hospital, beyond recovery in medical opinion. Buzzer’s seat is declared open and the candidates mobilize.

The Republican leaders in the House are concerned only that they not lose a GOP seat from their slender majority. Bo Beaumont, autocratic, crude and caring only for power, does not intend that the seat pass from his influence. His scheme is to run his daughter as “the widow.” Georgie wants nothing more to do with politics and seeks only the comfort of her wine. But Bo cynically manipulates her into agreeing.

Attractive and well known in the district, she’ll make one hell of a candidate with hard work, Bo is convinced — as long as he calls the shots. After initial reluctance and filing divorce papers, Georgie comes round to the idea that here’s an avenue she can navigate herself. She pushes the wine bottle away and begins to learn how to campaign.

The other Republican power in the Sixth District is Herman Throe, an evangelist of soulful integrity with a statewide reputation. But the candidate he is backing, “Holy Joe” Wholey, has but a single issue — to have the Ten Commandments added to the Constitution.

On the Democratic side, Bobby Ricky Diddie, a local athlete who became an all-pro running back and a hero in the district, nearly beat Buzzer in the last election. He’s eager to try again (his legal name is Robert Richard Diddier, but a high school coach mangled it to Bobby Ricky Diddie and thus he’s been known). He’s black, bright, quick and attractive — rather too attractive, and his wife as a result is now living in New York.

His competition in the Democratic primary of the special House election is Susan Weinstein. She calls herself “a tough, pushy, Marxist New York lesbo babe … grim, implacable, one with Che … ” Her campaign cadre is a handful of community college students who aren’t sure what planet they’re on and who are a sterling argument for narrowing the opportunities for higher education and the vote.

Thus is the stage set for a frenzied election campaign that may have its equal in some forgotten pages of history but does not in political fiction.

As these four candidates and their political aides and adjutants lurch toward election day, Buzzer LeBrand lies in his hospital bed not aware of anything, presumably. His nurse, a religious young woman fromthehill country, decides that, doctorsaside, Buzzer might benefit from having tapes of evangel-istHerman Throe’s sermons play on the VCR in his room.

One morning, as she straightens Buzzer’s hospital room, the nurse thinks she hear a sound, very brief, as if someone is clearing his throat. But Buzzer’s eyes are shut. She goes to his bedside and suddenly she feels his hand grip her forearm.

” ‘The hell time is it?’ Buzzer LeBrand asked. His eyes were squinting against the morning light. ‘The hell’s going on?’

“Nurse Patsy screamed and jumped back, staring at him … ‘It’s a miracle, praise the Lord, a miracle. He’s alive.’ ”

Out of it as he certifiably seemed, Buzzer is back, and his quick mind, deviously appraising the situation, squeezes every atom of political advantage from it: He declares as an independent for the open congressional seat, proclaiming himself born again, and courts the vote of the believers with a piety as convincing as it is hypocritical. Being Buzzer, he covertly resumes the sexual liaison with the wife of his old political fund-raiser.

This dramatically diverse political cast appears at a Sixth District candidates’ forum that erupts into a vision of democracy of a sort that gave the Founders bad dreams in Philadelphia.

And the new member of Congress from the Sixth District? Well, that would be telling.

In Mr. Gavin’s wild denouement, though, the good guys win. That is to say, in the midst of the grubby self-seeking and the self-delusion that invariably infests a public stage, there are also honest players without utopian expectations who are aware that that there’s more at stake in the political arena than ego. Always, too, there are laughs — from snickers to guffaws. Mr. Gavin’s novel delivers.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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