Outside of presidential elections, the most intense zero-sum partisan rock fight in American politics is the occasional anointing of a new Supreme Court justice.
With his smart new political thriller, “Shining City,’’ journalist, media critic, and first-time novelist Tom Rosenstiel shows great timing. His murder mystery, set against the backdrop of the vetting, nomination, and delicate political sales job for a new Supreme Court justice, is launching just as America is about to endure the real thing.
In picking federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, President Donald J. Trump played to his base and played it safe, selecting a nominee considered a reliable conservative.
In Rosenstiel’s Washington, the president, a nominal Democrat whose actual leanings are “harder to define,’’ aims for something bigger. He wants to restore the court’s independence by picking a nominee that defies political ideology, someone “of independent judgement and moderate pragmatism,” as Rosenstiel writes, the kind of judge that partisans on both sides can hate equally.
Meanwhile, there’s an apparent serial killer running around smashing people with rocks.
Rosenstiel, a former correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, is the executive director of the American Press Institute. He has consulted for The Boston Globe and other newspapers on initiatives to rethink how papers cover the news.
“Shining City’’ ’s protagonist, Peter Rena, is a military special-forces veteran who has become a Washington political fixer. (In fiction, special forces guys never retire to go into woodworking or accounting.) Rena helps powerful clients get rid of problems, such as a scandal-tainted Republican congresswoman who needs to be eased into retirement to limit the electoral damage to the caucus. Rena’s firm, one of the few of its kind that takes work from both parties, is hired by President Nash to discreetly scrub the background of a potential nominee and manage the administration’s effort to get the judge confirmed by the US Senate.
Though he can’t seem to stop looking over his shoulder for a double-cross, Rena puts his firm’s prestige on the line and throws himself into the job.
In 2010, as part of the Washington press corps, I witnessed the Supreme Court confirmation process first hand, while covering the battle over Elena Kagan’s nomination. I can attest that Rosenstiel nails the tense atmosphere of DC during a “scotus’’ battle — the desperation of warring partisans with so much at stake amid competing pressures exerted by factions within their parties. Most of all, he captures the cynical sense that the parts of the ritual the public gets to see are just shadows in Plato’s cave, with the real confirmation taking place behind ornate oak doors.
Yet “Shining City’’ is not an ideological book. The reader sees the players through shifting points-of-view, so we see them as they see themselves, in their best light.
We likewise get inside the murderer, for a killer’s-eye view of the crimes that keeps the identity of the perpetrator properly hidden.
Rosenstiel writes well, sometimes even beautifully, and his sketches of scenes and characters are thoughtful and vivid. But at times it feels as if he gives too much — every bit character has a first name, a last name, and a smidge of history or defining detail. Crime fiction fans trained to suss out clues in this kind of information may wonder as I did: Am I supposed to keep track of all these people? It also takes some time for the court confirmation storyline to intersect with the murder mystery, but the reader is in good hands, and Rosenstiel delivers a satisfying wrap-up.
Rena, the fixer, operates in the world of politics, but his creator is a journalist, and it is easy to see where Rena gets his ethics.
“Above all Rena believed in facts,” Rosenstiel writes. “Facts were real and had a habit of sticking around. And when there were a sufficient number of them, you could know the truth about something. Maybe not all of it, but enough.”
It is a world view that has always been true, but in an era of alternative facts, when notions of verifiable truth are under assault, it reads like something that should be chipped into stone somewhere in Washington.