The third Rena & Brooks Washington, D.C., thriller
The story of a senator who is offered the vice presidential slot by both parties’ presidential nominees and then gets ominous threats
It’s presidential primary season in Washington, DC, and both parties are on edge. At campaign rallies for all the candidates around the country, there are disturbing incidents of violence and protest and shocking acts of civil disobedience. Rena and Brooks are happy to sit it out.
Against this backdrop, Wendy Upton, the highly respected centrist senator, must make a choice: she’s been offered the VP slot by both parties’ leading candidates. When she receives an anonymous, unnerving threat that could destroy her promising career, she hires Peter Rena to investigate her past and figure out which side is threatening her and what they are threatening her with.
As Rena digs through the senator’s seemingly squeaky-clean past, he must walk the tightrope between two parties at war with each other and with themselves, an electorate that is as restive as it has ever been, and a political culture that is as much driven by money as it is by ideology.
In this third outing for Rosenstiel’s political fixers Peter Rena and Brooks, the fixers are hired to investigate a threat made against a centrist Republican senator who has been approached by frontrunners in both parties offering her the VP slot on their respective tickets. An examination of the devolution of American (presidential) politics, and the dark forces that manipulate the electorate and process, I enjoyed this novel.
The presidential campaign is in full swing. A Super Tuesday is coming up fast, and frontrunners are starting the process of vice president selection. The field is broad, with the Republicans veering more extreme — a Trump-like and a Cruz-like candidate are in the lead and clearly have each other in their sights as their greatest threat. On the Democrats’ side, it’s a bit more of mixed bag — a tech billionaire centrist is in the lead (a strange thing to consider, given the real-life primary currently happening). Both sides are starting to make the calculations of how best to blunt the impact of their main opponents in their own parties and looking ahead to the general election.
As with any election, there is a need for opposition research, or “oppo”. Here is where Rena, Brooks and their crew of investigators come in. In past novels in the series, they’ve worked to clear a potential Supreme Court appointee, and get to the bottom of an overseas military/diplomatic scandal. In Oppo, his characters navigate the dark money areas of American politics, untangling the money trails that will allow them to uncover the identify of Senator Upton’s blackmailer.
The premise of a centrist Republican senator selected to join a Democratic presidential ticket at first seemed ridiculous. Can anyone imagine either party reaching across the aisle for their support pick? But, Rosenstiel is offering more than just an elegy to “traditional Republicanism” in this novel (although there is some of that), and I enjoyed instead the examination of American politics today. (Albeit, with none of the contemporary politicians we know: there are analogs, but no “Trump”, “Pelosi”, or “Clinton”, etc.) Over the course of the novel, he touches upon many of my own frustrations with the changing nature of politics, so it would be easy for me to just walk through them all and agree with most of them. However, that would be a terribly dull review to read… I have managed to resist, I think.
It’s probably obvious that if you are exhausted by contemporary politics, then this novel probably won’t be for you. However, if you do find yourself looking for a novel set in Washington, D.C., then this is a very good one.
Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is very well versed in American politics, its processes and the media. As a result, he offers a great many observations about how various interest groups and politicians can and do manipulate voters and elections to their own ends. It’s an interesting lesson in some of the murkier areas of politics, complete with some measured, but also passionate criticism of the corruption of politics in America. The author has his sights particularly aimed at the “grotesque and outsized” role that money now plays in American politics. And also how “The system had become, in every sense of the term, pay to play — but it was the payers who controlled it.”
Even the characters operating within Washington, D.C., are frustrated by the new normal in American politics, and the emptiness and permanent-campaign of so-called governing:
“That was governing now in the Senate of the United States. Or at least a large part of it. Engineering meaningless votes designed to create fodder for campaign attack ads…”
“We don’t make many laws anymore, remember? … We do symbols.”
Of course, none of the characters are really motivated enough to do much to break out of this system, and while not explicit I think maybe the author wanted to show this as well. Some of the politics discussed is a little difficult to go into in a review, without spoiling the ending. However, I enjoyed Rosenstiel’s criticisms of tech billionaires and their new, outsized role in politics. As Rena says at one point, about a billionaire’s bizarre, libertarian views: “Without your money, your ideas would be laughed at.”
It would have been amusing (maybe just to me) if Rosenstiel had mentioned John C. Calhoun somewhere in this novel: in 1824, he ran for vice president for both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson’s tickets — true, it was different back then (you picked your own ticket to run on for vice president, and there weren’t really parties in the same way).
Overall, then, I enjoyed this novel. An enjoyable, intelligent examination of contemporary American politics and elections; in particular, the murkier aspects of dark money, special interests, and the corruption of the process and practitioners.
If you enjoyed the first two novels in the series — Shining City and The Good Lie — then I have no doubt you’ll enjoy this one as well. If you’re looking for a political thriller grounded in contemporary politics, then I certainly think you will find much to like in this series. Recommended.
Tom Rosenstiel’s Oppo is due to be published by Ecco in North America, on December 3rd, 2020.