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How would Americans react if they found out their vice president was mentally ill? That is the question at the center of this political novel. There is suspense in this story, but it’s not the usual “president’s life in danger” that so many political thrillers present. The potential jeopardy comes from inside the administration and it’s actually more believable than any action movie stereotype.
President Charlotte Kramer has chosen an unconventional running mate for her second term, Tara Meyers, whose folksy personality connects with regular people. Once they are installed in Washington D.C., Vice President Meyers has increasing trouble meeting her responsibilities; cancelling trips and events, not attending meetings, becoming remote from her staff. What no one knows is that years earlier, while in law school, Meyers had to be hospitalized after a mental breakdown, vaguely diagnosed as severe depression, but never sought further help or medications afterwards, because of her political career. The stress of rising to the second highest office in the land has overwhelmed her and brought on a flare up of her illness.The author does not use this for drama, but makes the lethargy, the attempts to cope and other symptoms very relatable. Only her husband knows what’s going on and his protectiveness has driven him into emotional abuse of her, which just makes everything worse. As time goes on, Meyer’s staff, the President and others in the administration gradually understand something is wrong, though exactly what isn’t known.
After several disastrous television interviews and the handling of a terrorist threat, suspicions about the Vice President begin to leak to Congress and the media. How this all plays out and the repercussions it has on the administration makes up the major plot of the book.
The author, a communications director under Dubya and senior advisor of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign, brings an insider’s knowledge to the subject. The endless meetings, the brinkmanship and job paranoia all feel very authentic. There are a hundred little details that I doubt an outsider would even know about, but here they add to the atmosphere.
Wallace admitted that the story was inspired by working with Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. I’m guessing she took some of the erratic behavior displayed and said “What if…?”
Her attitude towards mental illness is also refreshing. Instead of using something potentially more hyperbolic such as schizophrenia, she opts for the far more common depression, but shows how devastating it can be when left untreated. The way her character deals with her illness is something the reader can understand and makes us empathetic.
Another remarkable component is the feminist make up of the administration, all of the main players are women:not only the top 2 positions, but the Secretary of Defense, Melanie Kingston, communications advisor, Dale Smith, and most of the various assistants. I was halfway through the book before I realized how drastically different this was from the usual male dominated staffing. Yet it is presented as normal in the novel, whereas, the actuality would be remarked upon and difficult to achieve amongst the old-boy network which controls American politics. Wallace’s first novel, Eighteen Acres, tells of President Kramer’s rise to power. I haven’t read it yet, so I can assure you that It’s Classified can stand alone, enough of the background is explained that the reader can follow the story.
I’ve seen Nicolle Wallace on many political interview shows, most notably The Rachel Maddow Show and have liked her, despite belonging to a different political party than I. She has a mature, open-minded attitude about her party and their actions that is much appreciated. That is why I was looking forward to reading her books and was very pleased that I wasn’t disappointed.
Atria Books 2011 326 pp. ISBN 970-1-4516-1096-3