Patterson Tackles Big Issues in New Political Thriller
Richard North Patterson's Protect and Defend is many things at once: a courtroom drama, a work of social criticism, an examination of the harsh realities of public life, and an evenhanded analysis of the controversial, interconnected issues of late-term abortion and parental consent. The result of all this is a compelling, hugely ambitious narrative that successfully illuminates the predatory nature of life in the corridors of power.
Protect and Defend begins, portentously, with an inauguration and a death. Kerry Kilcannon, last seen in No Safe Place, has just been elected President by the narrowest of margins. In the aftermath of his inaugural address, Roger Bannon, Chief Justice of a bitterly divided Supreme Court, suffers a fatal stroke, providing the administration with its first major challenge: finding a suitable replacement. Willfully courting controversy, Kilcannon nominates Caroline Masters -- a recurring Patterson heroine -- as the
first female Chief Justice in the history of the Court.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a potentially life-altering event gathers momentum. Mary Ann Tierney, the pregnant, 15-year-old daughter of devoutly pro-life parents, learns that her fetus, which is over five months old and legally viable, is hydrocephalic and is likely to be born without a cerebral cortex. When she also learns that the cesarean section required for the child's delivery carries a measurable risk of future infertility, she requests an abortion. Her parents, backed by a recent piece of legislation called the Protection of Life Act, predictably withhold their consent. All this sets the stage for the dramatic centerpiece of the book, as Mary Ann, aided by a gifted young lawyer named Sarah Dash, takes her case to the courts, challenging both her parents' most deep-seated beliefs and the constitutionality of the Protection of Life Act.
What follows is a rigorously constructed debate on late-term abortion that rapidly becomes a national cause celebre. As the case proceeds through the various levels of the judicial system, it begins to exert a gravitational pull that affects both the Caroline Masters confirmation hearings and the professional -- and sometimes personal -- lives of almost every major character. Many of these characters have complex personal histories, and -- in some cases -- carefully concealed secrets. Most of these secrets will be dragged into the light before the narrative ends.
Protect and Defend cogently addresses a number of troubling issues: abortion, the right to privacy, the politics of scandal, the Faustian compact between elected officials and special interest lobbies, the difficulty of making honorable choices in a world ruled by political expediency. It is, to my mind, Richard North Patterson's best, most provocative novel to date, a closely observed, brilliantly detailed portrait of the best and worst aspects of the democratic process.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
Read an Excerpt
"I, Kerry Francis Kilcannon . . ."
In a high clear voice, carrying a trace of Irish lilt, Kerry Kilcannon repeated the historic phrases intoned by Chief Justice Roger Bannon.
The two men faced each other on the patio which fronted the west side of the Capitol, surrounded by guests and officeholders and watched from greater distances by thousands of well-wishers who covered the grounds below. The noonday was bright but chill; a heavy snow had fallen overnight, and the mist of Bannon's words hung in the air between them. Though Kerry wore the traditional morning coat, those around him huddled with their collars up and hands shoved in the pockets of much heavier coats. Protected only by his traditional robe, the Chief Justice looked bloodless, an old man who shivered in the cold, heightening the contrast with Kerry Kilcannon.
Kerry was forty-two, and his slight frame and thatch of chestnut hair made him seem startlingly young for the office. At his moment of accession, both humbling and exalting, the three people he loved most stood near: his mother, Mary Kilcannon; Clayton Slade, his closest friend and the new Chief of Staff; and his fiancée, Lara Costello, a broadcast journalist who enhanced the aura of youth and vitality which was central to Kerry's appeal. "When Kerry Kilcannon enters a room," a commentator had observed, "he's in Technicolor, and everyone else is in black-and-white."
Despite that, Kerry knew with regret, he came to the presidency a divisive figure. His election last November had been bitter and close: only at dawn of the next morning, when the final count in California went narrowly to Kerry, had Americans known who would lead them. Few, Kerry supposed, were more appalled than Chief Justice Roger Bannon.
It was an open secret that, at seventy-nine, Bannon had long wished to retire: for eight years under Kerry's Democratic predecessor, the Chief Justice had presided grimly over a sharply divided Court, growing so pale and desiccated that he came, in Kerry's mind, to resemble parchment. Seemingly all that had sustained him was the wish for a Republican president to appoint his successor, helping maintain Bannon's conservative legacy; in a rare moment of incaution, conveyed to the press, Bannon had opined at a dinner party that Kerry was "ruthless, intemperate, and qualified only to ruin the Court." The inaugural's crowning irony was that the Chief Justice was here, obliged by office to effect the transfer of power to another Democrat, this one the embodiment of all Bannon loathed. Whoever imagined that ours was a government of laws and not men, Kerry thought wryly, could not see Bannon's face. Yet he was here to do his job, trembling with cold, and Kerry could not help but feel sympathy and a measure of admiration.
". . . do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States . . ."
The outgoing president watched from Kerry's left, gray and worn, a cautionary portrait of the burdens awaiting him. Yet there were at least two others nearby who already hoped to take Kerry's place: his old antagonist from the Senate, Republican Majority Leader Macdonald Gage; and Senator Chad Palmer, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a second Republican whose rivalry with Gage and friendship with Kerry did not disguise his cheerful conviction that he would be a far better president than either. Kerry wondered which man the Chief Justice was hoping would depose him four years hence, and whether Bannon would live that long.
". . . and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Firmly, as though to override the old man's hesitance, Kerry completed the oath.
At that wondrous instant, the summit of two years of striving and resolve, Kerry Francis Kilcannon became President of the United States.
A rough celebratory chorus rose from below. Mustering a faint smile, Bannon shook his hand.
"Congratulations," the Chief Justice murmured and then, after a moment's pause, he added the words "Mr. President."
At 12:31, both sobered and elated by the challenge awaiting him, President Kerry Kilcannon concluded his inaugural address.
There was a deep momentary quiet and then a rising swell of applause, long and sustained and, to Kerry, reassuring. Turning to those nearest, he looked first toward Lara Costello. Instead, he found himself staring at Chief Justice Bannon.
Bannon raised his hand, seeming to reach out to him, a red flush staining his cheeks. One side of his face twitched, and then his eyes rolled back into his head. Knees buckling, the Chief Justice slowly collapsed.
Before Kerry could react, three Secret Service agents surrounded the new President, uncertain of what they had seen. The crowd below stilled; from those closer at hand came cries of shock and confusion.
"He's had a stroke," Kerry said quickly. "I'm fine."
After a moment, they released his arms, clearing the small crush of onlookers surrounding the fallen Chief Justice. Senator Chad Palmer had already turned Bannon over and begun mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Kneeling beside them, Kerry watched Palmer's white-blond head press against the Chief Justice's ashen face. Chad's cheeks trembled with the effort to force air down a dead man's throat.
Turning at last, Palmer murmured to Kerry, "I think he's gone."
As ever in the presence of death, Kerry experienced a frisson of horror and pity. Chad touched his arm. "They'll need to see you, Mr. President. To know that you're all right."
Belatedly, Kerry nodded. He stood, turning, and saw his mother and Lara, their stunned expressions mirroring his own. Only then did he register what Chad Palmer, whose former appellation for Kerry was "pal," had called him.
At once, Kerry felt the weight of his new responsibilities, both substantive and symbolic. He had asked the country to look to him, and this was no time to falter.
Kerry stepped back to the podium, glancing back as paramedics bore the Chief Justice to an ambulance. The crowd below milled in confusion.
Gazing out, Kerry paused, restoring his own equanimity. Time seemed to stop for him. It was a trick he had learned before addressing a jury and, even now, it served.
Above the confusion, Kerry's voice rang out. "The Chief Justice," he announced, "has collapsed, and is on his way to the hospital."
His words carried through the wintry air to the far edge of the crowd. "I ask for a moment of quiet," he continued, "and for your prayers for Chief Justice Bannon."
Stillness fell, a respectful silence.
But there would be little time, Kerry realized, to reflect on Roger Bannon's passing. The first days of his administration had changed abruptly, and their defining moment was already ordained: his submission to the Senate of a new Chief Justice who, if confirmed, might transform the Court. The ways in which this would change his own life--and that of others here, and elsewhere--was not yet within his contemplation.
From the Hardcover edition.