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[whitespace] 'Protect and Defend' Courting Danger

Politics and law collide in 'Protect and Defend'

By Liesel Hofmann


LAWYERS are a dime a dozen. Ditto lawyers who write mediocre novels. But lawyers who write provocative, mesmermizing novels with a literary flourish are rare.

Richard North Patterson (a former trial lawyer, Ohio assistant attorney general, and the SEC's liaison to the Watergate special prosecutor) is one of those few. In his 11th novel, Protect and Defend (Knopf; $26.95), written just before the recent ignominious presidential election, he is eerily prescient, focusing on a political-legal quagmire that builds up into an intellectual and emotional page-turner.

The fate of 49-year-old Caroline Masters, the first female nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, coalesces with the fate of Mary Ann Tierney, a 15-year-old girl who seeks a late-term abortion against the wishes of her unbending pro-life parents--the hydrocephalic fetus is likely to be born without a brain and may endanger the girl's fertility.

Nimbly wielding his literary scalpel, Patterson dissects the motivations and machinations of the movers and shakers in Washington. As he steers us through the labyrinthine corridors of judicial and political power, Patterson intersperses the abortion trial, the appeal, and Masters' confirmation hearing with vignettes of the intrigues that are the lifeblood of Capitol Hill. The precedence of partisanship over principles is achingly familiar.

The major characters come vividly to life: Masters, whose keen ambitions are overshadowed by her compassion and integrity; politically brilliant President Kerry Kilcannon, a man of Clintonian intelligence and non-Clintonian principles, who whips up a "conspiracy of decency" and tries to put an end to the politics of scandal; Republican Sen. Chad Palmer (yes, Chad!), a John McCain-like politically independent military hero whose favorite maxim is "There are worse things in life than losing an election"; malevolent Majority Leader Macdonald Gage, who rules the Senate with "velvet tyranny" and, abetted by sleazy journalists, digs for dirt--any dirt--to bring Masters down; the unseasoned but gifted 29-year-old Sarah Dash, who represents Mary Ann and once clerked for Masters on a federal appeals court; Mary Ann and her father, Martin, torn with love for each other but each clinging to divergent beliefs.

And Patterson deftly limns the minor characters, often with a few choice words (a reactionary senator is "mean as a snake, with the sincere voice and constant eye contact of an evangelist or a stockbroker").

Private lives are laid bare by the nationally televised abortion lawsuit, and devastating secrets are turned into public fodder by politicos whose moral compasses are so skewed that they suggest never-married Masters is lesbian, or, if straight, is probably sleeping with the president.

The courtroom scenes are almost unbearably realistic, to the point that they go on and on, though they could have been carefully shortened without loss of comprehension. But throughout the novel, Patterson infuses spurts of wit (Masters on minimalist short fiction: "stories where some deracinated male crawls out of bed, brushes his teeth, spends five pages deciding whether to leave his apartment, then doesn't"); and so remarkably even-handed is Patterson's treatment of the abortion issue that we never know for sure what side he favors.

Protect and Defend is backed up by formidable research, including talks with Patterson's "old friend" former President George H. Bush and with President Clinton, who "shared his thoughts and opened doors."

Judge Learned Hand once wrote that "the only country which any man has a right to love is one where there is a balanced judgment, justice founded on wisdom, a free spirit and a temperate mind." Patterson confirms what a tall order that has increasingly proved to be.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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