The President's Brain is Missing
New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 30, 1994

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by John Calvin Batchelor.
528 pp. New York: Henry Holt & Company. $23.

JOHN CALVIN BATCHELOR'S seventh novel is in many ways a goofy book, ghastly in spots, good in others. The genre, of course, is subliterary -- spellbinding political thriller hoping to hatch into major motion picture. Mr. Batchelor's writings have often been marked by comedy, learning and high imagination. So the suspicion here is that he got hold of a great gimmick -- the potential for political mischief in the 25th Amendment -- and wrote "Father's Day" with tongue in cheek, then was taken seriously by his publisher.

Max Shulman began his spoof of the hard-boiled detective story with comic eclat: "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life." Mr. Batchelor can match that. In Chapter 1, a United States Army combat team terrorizes a whole Arkansas airport just as the President's plane is landing. With high-tech equipment and split-second timing, elite troops overcome the crew and, on direct command from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shoot the President dead.

You guessed it: the whole thing was just a dress rehearsal. When the camera stops running, everybody gets up figuratively straightening his tie -- or hers. For this is the future and, along with political corruption, political correctness has become rampant. Also world-class disorder. It is the year 2003. Overseas, famine and earthquakes and the bloodletting furies of ethnic enmity prevail. Back home, military forces have been cruelly cut back by bad Democratic Administrations. Meanwhile, American soldiers are spread thin as Somalia-style "peacekeepers" as far away as the banks of the Dniester, in dozens of trouble spots with datelines like Occupied Kurdistan and Occupied Moldova.

In the United States, wall-to-wall videophones and instant round robin teleconferences have made manipulation of news breaks and the spreading of rumors even easier. The big news involves the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Under its terms the elected President, Theodore G. Jay (D., Mich.), has been on leave for months, incapacitated by "a major depressive episode." As required by the 25th Amendment, he transferred his power to the Vice President, Thomas Edison (Shy) Garland (D., Tex.), who became Acting President. Now Jay wants the job back, but Garland legally challenges his claim on the grounds that Jay is still too ill to take over. Under Section 4 of the amendment, if the Acting President can get a majority of the Cabinet and two-thirds of both houses of Congress to agree, he stays in power. This is the constitutional gimmick that drives Mr. Batchelor's book.

TODAY, we haggle about the powers of the Presidency and promote interpretations of what the First Amendment would have said if the Founding Fathers had understood human nature as well as we do. But the 25th Amendment is not much on America's mind. It was worked up in the 1960's, notably by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, to create a procedure for naming Vice Presidents. It also allows for the transfer of power from an incapacitated President to the Vice President and back again -- or not back again.

Constitutional scholars have long mulled over Section 4's potential to create mischief in an age much afflicted by the murkiness of psychiatric assessments, as well as the tricky effects of Alzheimer's disease. A recent report by the Miller Center Commission on the 25th Amendment at the University of Virginia notes that Section 4 "opens all sorts of possibilities." But anyone wanting seriously to explore its political possibilities would first be obliged to deal in detail with what is essentially a doctor's dilemma before moving on to the political arm-twisting that would most likely result. A fair test of the amendment would require that the ailing President seeking reinstatement be at least healthy and strong enough to offer a viable, common-sense option as Chief of State.

"FATHER'S DAY" mostly misses out on these medical possibilities. At the start of the power struggle, Teddy Jay, though a wishy-washy shell of a man, seems at least capable of being President, and therefore a fitting figure to be supported by the defenders of constitutional government. But as the book proceeds he is revealed as a physical and emotional basket case, not up to the demanding duties of the Presidency. Any reasonable application of Section 4 would swiftly and without much fuss eliminate his return to office.

But where would that leave the book's archvillain, Shy Garland? Nowhere, that's where. And this would be a pity because he's the only compelling caricature in the book. A steamrolling, womanizing Lyndon Johnson double, Garland is a natural leader who lives by baseball maxims and is thrilled by politics, crooked or otherwise. His hammerlock on his Cabinet and half the Congress, coupled with his appetite for power, makes bulldozing his way through this crisis a pure joy. "He was hungry," Mr. Batchelor writes. "The Constitution made him peckish. Jumbo shrimp tonight?"

To keep the plot boiling, Garland's high-minded adversaries, mostly Republicans, soon discover that he is up to a great deal more than trying to rig a Section 4 hearing that he could easily have won honestly.

Most of Mr. Batchelor's male characters are bad, dumb or henpecked. In the fight against Garland, "Father's Day" turns a good deal of national politics into something like feminist soap opera, featuring Senator Sue (R., Fla.), Senator Nan (R., Ind.) and Senator Jean (R., Me.), the minority leader in a Democratic Senate. These tough and brainy ladies, who tend to have good legs and impeccable accessories, have slept around some but are now virtuous. When horse-trading with old male pols, they give as good as they get. Their leader, Senator Jean, becomes the book's major player in the Congressional wheeling and dealing to undo Garland's plot. They may represent Mr. Batchelor's hope for the future, but it's hard to tell. At one point in the proceedings Senator Jean snaps, "I can't talk any more about it until I wash my hair."

It would be unfair to tell how "Father's Day" disposes of Garland and saves the Republic. Suffice it to say that it maligns the United States Army in a dastardly way and generally fails to keep incredulity at bay. Which sounds like a major motion picture to me.