WHEN A POLARIZING Supreme Court justice dies unexpectedly, a political battle erupts over the enigmatic president’s nominee to fill the vacancy. No, this isn’t a headline from today’s Washington Post. It’s Shining City, the prescient first novel of Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran political journalist and director of the American Press Institute.
Peter Rena is a Washington “fixer.” There’s no problem or scandal Rena and his partner Randi Brooks haven’t seen before. But when the White House asks the duo to vet the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, something doesn’t smell right. Soon, Rena and Brooks become the Sherpas for Edmund Madison, a brilliant judge, but an unusual choice to be the nominee — a centrist in a time of extremes. Madison has the judicial chops and credentials for the job. But he’s also a man with a secret.
Shining City follows Rena, Brooks, and a cast of Washington players from Madison’s initial vetting to the Senate confirmation hearing, and all the political maneuvering and Washington shenanigans in between. The story takes readers behind the scenes in power Washington, from the Residence at the White House to the Blue Course at Congressional Country Club to the “murder board” prep sessions of a nominee.
With all this inside baseball, it is no surprise that the author is a longtime political observer. Rosenstiel’s insights on DC are spot on, told with a reporter’s sparing prose. And Peter Rena is an intriguing character, an idealist whose job requires anything but noble ideals. One feels the weariness when Rena laments: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never quite enough.”
I talked to Tom Rosenstiel over email about the Supreme Court, modern politics and journalism, and his gripping debut novel.
ANTHONY FRANZE: One senses a deep, though unstated, melancholy in Peter Rena about the changes the country has seen in journalism and political discourse. One also senses he may share this with his creator. Any truth to that?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes, Peter Rena is melancholy, I think. He is an outsider, by birth and temperament, who came to the United States from Italy when he was two and was raised by an immigrant father who didn’t really understand the country. Peter, in effect, taught himself how to be an American, and he has a deeply idealistic and “learned” sense of what that means. He also is a West Point graduate, a former Eagle Scout, which is true of a lot of successful Washington people. And he finds politics, which is an accidental career for him, vaguely depressing, even though he is scarily good at it. He is an avid reader of history, and he often can see how political people will act before they do themselves. But he is disappointed by the selfishness and self-destructiveness he sees there. There is a point in the book when he muses that in the military, you live and die by facts, not by theory. Too much belief in ideology can get you killed. Peter thinks it is better to judge people by their character. And he thinks people of character build a political center that holds the country together. He sees that vanishing.
Peter Rena is a far more talented person than I am. (You get to do that in fiction.) But I do share with him the sense that we are losing the political center where people of character work together for mutual good.
Would you say that the virtues of that “political center” is one of the core themes of the novel? I mean, you make Rena an idealist, yet he’s a fixer; Rena is a Republican, yet his partner Randi Brooks is an establishment Democrat. And Rena and Brooks are the Sherpas for a Supreme Court nominee who “has staked out positions that annoy both sides.” Was this push-pull by design?
Yes, I think that notion of the center is one of the major themes of the book. Along with truth, and what it means, the relationship between truthfulness and character. Whether it is think tanks or interest groups, law firms, Congress or agencies, Washington in the main attracts enormously talented and publicly spirited people. People who want to make a difference and care about public life. For the most part, they arrive as idealists and not haters. But they don’t know much about power. And then they learn how hard it is to match their idealism to the reality of getting things done. It may take years, 10 or 20 sometimes, to get a law passed you care about. But when it does, it can change tens of millions of people’s lives for the better. I think that kind of accomplishment requires finding common ground. And we have lost that awareness at the moment.
Rena and Brooks have made a decision to advance that idea by using their investigative and strategic skills for people in both parties, people whom they trust. That makes them controversial. Some people consider them whores for doing that. But covertly, there are a core of people in power, in the Senate, in the House and elsewhere, who use them to get things done. In that sense, this political center has gone underground. And they are part of that covert network of moderation. All that is very different than the city I came to 30 years ago, the city of Ted Kennedy or Bob Dole and certainly of the different sides coming together during Watergate.
You’re an accomplished journalist and nonfiction writer. What inspired the move to fiction? And did the medium free you up to explore Washington in ways that nonfiction wouldn’t allow?
That is such an interesting question. I started the book because I was dissatisfied at work, and a little bored. Before long, I realized that something else was driving me. As a journalist, you can — or you should — only tell the stories you can prove. That means — if you are a good journalist — that it is hard to get at some of the internalities of stories, the motivations behind actions, and particularly the larger truth about people, institutions, about politics in general. Reality is messy. And often contradictory. Why is Washington broken? Why do sincere and talented people keep making the same mistakes? But you can get at these kinds of questions, these kinds of internalities, by creating characters, being inside their hearts, placing them in situations and seeing why they do what they do. And if those characters are true, if they have enough of the qualities of the people you met in real life, I think those insights can be true.
To get at those “internalities,” you used multiple points of view, taking readers inside the heads of not only Rena and Brooks, but also an enigmatic president, the leaders of two opposing interest groups, a dogged reporter, and a young senator on the judiciary committee, to name a few. Did you face any challenges to keep the story Rena-centric?
I did face challenges keeping the story Rena-centric. I could have simplified the cast of characters. But then a story of a high court nomination would be kind of a lie — not just fiction. These sorts of large national dramas aren’t driven by two or three characters the way a police procedural might be. And Rena is a quiet watchful character, so it was interesting to see how other people saw him. I also felt it was important to tell the story of these competing interests by understanding their different points of view. The leader of the staunchly conservative group sees the world so at odds with the leader of the archly liberal group, but they both think they are doing the right thing.
When I was a very young journalist someone told me, “beware of the fallacy of evil men.” What that meant was beware of making things too simple by thinking someone acted a certain way because they are a bad person. They usually had reasons they thought were good at the time, even if the consequences turned out badly. In the end, I think it is more interesting to see people struggle with good and evil than to watch villains who are bad all the time. By the way, there is a character who is basically acting out evil throughout the book. But when telling the story from a character’s point of view, I think it is very hard to do unless you have some empathy — but not sympathy — for him.
The timing couldn’t be better for a story about an unconventional president nominating an unconventional jurist to the Supreme Court. Why did you decide to center the story around the politics of the high court?
The Founders really did intend the Supreme Court to be above politics. The president and the Senate are expected to seek out justices for their wisdom not their ideology. The Founders believed this was possible because justices would have no power to propose or make laws. Their only power would their judgment. “Merely judgment” is the phrase in the Federalist Papers. But today, we see something very different. Nothing is more politicized than the battle for the high court. The spectacle of a seat being left unfilled for a year is an illustration of this. Regardless of what party you belong to, that was a purely political act. The political and personal vetting we do of Supreme Courts justices is the most intense of any nominees. The hearings we have are the most theatrical and ritualistic. Court nominees go through the most intense preparation for hearings of any nominees, so-called murder boards, to train them not to say the wrong thing, and in some cases not to say what they really mean. The irony of all this is terrible. We are as far away from the original intent here, to borrow a phrase, as we could ever be. Nothing illustrates where Washington has gone awry more dramatically than the politicization of our Supreme Court nominating process. And we are seeing that again play out in real life today.
In your research on the Supreme Court what was the most interesting tidbit you found?
One dynamic that I found intriguing is that until the advent of television, nominees for the Supreme Court had rarely ever testified before the Senate. Before the 1950s, only two had done so — and in almost every case it was because Southern Senators were suspicious that those judges might undo segregation laws. All that changed starting in the 1950s with the television. And it simply has escalated from there, in particular with liberals trying to stop Robert Bork in the 1980s. I’ve asked judicial vetters what was the biggest mistake you ever saw or ever personally made. The answer: Bork deciding he didn’t need to do murder board training to prepare for his hearings. No one has made that mistake since.
This book didn’t have as much of Rena’s partner, Randi Brooks, an interesting figure in her own right. Will we be seeing more of her?
Yes, you will see more of Rena and Brooks. Without saying too much, they and their team of digital sleuths, investigators, and communications strategists can be called on to get to the bottom of all sorts of problems. Including international incidents. And you will see more of Randi. She is a more purely political person than Peter, and a louder and more emotional personality. I think we might see a book down the road that is told largely from Randi’s point of view. I think that will be a lot of fun.
Last, as the story closes Rena looks out the window and watches the latest crop of Washingtonians pouring out of the subway, young and idealistic, not aware of what awaits them, a scene he’s witnessed over and over that he now views as tragic. As a veteran observer of the shining city, what’s the best piece of advice you would give one of these young people today?
I think my answer to young people is absolutely get involved — now more than ever. Our politics can’t heal unless you do. And it has to heal in Washington as well as locally — and come together somewhere in between. If you are inspired and hopeful about the changes of the last election, get involved. If you are alarmed and depressed by the results of the last election, get involved. The only way we can work ourselves out of the political paralysis and dysfunction we have now is for our best young people to feel that public service matters. If all the intellectual and moral talent in the country goes into other fields, that will be another kind of national crisis.
Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a major Washington, DC law firm, and author of thrillers set in the nation’s highest court, including his latest novel, The Outsider (St. Martin’s Press, Mar. 21, 2017).