The Rake. William F. Buckley. HarperCollins, 2007. 278 pages, $24.95.
For those of us who wish the outcome of the 1992 presidential election had been different, there is the fictional fulfillment of William F. Buckley's latest novel, The Rake. Best known for his political writings, Buckley has long dabbled in fiction, with his subjects ranging from Joe McCarthy to Elvis Presley. Here he takes on a more modern but equally controversial figure: Bill Clinton.
The Rake is the story of Democratic presidential hopeful Reuben Castle (read: Bill Clinton) as he makes a bid for the White House against George Bush Sr. In common with his real-life counterpart, Castle's presidential ambitions are long in the making. Even as an antiwar protester in the radical 60s, he had his eye on the oval office. "Might be good to be a lawyer," he says, pondering his career choices. "Might be good for politics." One can't miss the echoes of our 42 nd president, who wrote his draft board officer about being willing to serve in Vietnam to keep himself "politically viable." Even in his crisis moment, at the end of the novel, Castle speculates on the fate of a tobacco bill. Advancing his political plans is, as always, his top priority.
In other ways, as well, Castle recalls Clinton. Like Bill Clinton, Castle has skeletons in his closet that still rattle. There is his academic record (he never finished law school and his academic records are sealed), his Vietnam war service (he was the only one in his unit who avoided combat duty), and the matter of his illegitimate child (he impregnated a girl in the sixties, then abandoned her). Castle is also a charismatic philanderer, having carried on anonymous affairs with a variety of women since the 1960s.
Above all, Castle is a smooth political operator. President Clinton had a unique ability to anticipate his opponents, whether it was Jerry Brown on his Left or Newt Gingrich on his Right, and thus to checkmate their moves before they made them. Buckley’s Castle boasts a similar talent. Scheduled to debate General Westmoreland on the Vietnam war, Castle takes on both roles when Westmoreland cannot attend. Despite a less-than-distinguished service record, Castle brilliantly assumes the role of a hawkish general. Thanks to this creative schizophrenia, he gets a bump in the polls.
Where the personalities of Clinton and Castle diverge is in their political fortunes. Because this is a novel, Buckley can engage in some intriguing speculation. For instance, Castle marries the kind of Southern beauty queen that Clinton has always coveted, leaving us to wonder what the former president would have been like had he married his sexual type instead of his political soul mate. Buckley also sketches the delicious possibility of what Clinton's fate might have been had the nominally objective mainstream media actually done its job and covered him critically. In real life, of course, the Clinton machine still rolls on, with the couple's past zealously protected by their sympathizers.
A careful student of American politics, Buckley has grafted other political figures onto Castle's character. Unlike Bill Clinton, but like John Kennedy, Castle leaves a paper trail of positions as a campus radical reporter. Like JFK, too, he has to pass a litmus test with the liberal wing of his party. Like the young Richard Nixon, Castle engages in burglaries while in college, and directs them when in power.
For such a controversial subject, Buckley's writing style is detached, even neutral, like a third party member surveying the foibles and virtues of both Democrats and Republicans. And while this detachment makes The Rake satisfying as a work of fiction, it is ultimately more than just a political novel. It is also a timely reminder of who the country elected in 1992 and what may be coming in 2008.