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FACE-TIME by Erik Tarloff Crown Publishers, $23.

WHEN I WAS INVITED TO review this book, I was already so predisposed to like Face-Time that I had mentally packed it as beach reading for my upcoming post-impeachment vacation. My advance enthusiasm for this comic novel had been whetted by a combination of affectionate reviews, and the droll pedigree of author Erik Tarloff, a Hollywood screenwriter who had been treated to a spouse-of-an-insider (his wife is Laura Tyson, the former head of the Council of Economic Advisors) view of Clinton's first term. Adding to my anticipation were the broad outlines of a plot that seemed an over-the-top summation of all White House sex scandals: What is it like when it is your own live-in girlfriend who is the one having the affair with the president?

Maybe my high expectations for Face-Time were unfair to Tarloff, who by all accounts is a nice guy. But his novel on the printed page never came close to matching the one that I had been savoring in my imagination. Unlike, say, Christopher Buckley's laugh-out-loud classic, Thank You For Smoking, Tarloff's novel barely triggers a wry smile, let alone uncontrollable giggles.

Of course, humor isn't everything to Monthly readers, especially if a novel limns a deft portrait of life along the corridors of power. Here again Face Time falls exasperatingly short, despite the clever wordplay of its title. (In Washington lingo, "face time" normally refers to the ultimate coin of the realm --direct face-to-face access to the president). But while Tarloff does have some interesting insights about the sexual allure inherent in modern presidential power, he repeats them every 20 pages or so without ever moving on to another level of truth.

The story line is tersely established in the five-page opening chapter. Ben and Gretchen are 30-ish political operatives who met and fell in love while working on the winning presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Charles Sheffield, a married politician who, aside from one glaring weakness, boasts no discernible similarities to Bill Clinton. Now Ben and Gretchen have been rewarded with White House jobs (he's a presidential speech-writer and she works in the social office), share an apartment near Dupont Circle and boast "an ideal Washington life." That is, aside from what Ben, the novel's narrator, describes as "one awkward fact: Gretchen is fucking the president of the United States. And I don't know what the hell to do about it"

Nearly 200 pages later, Ben still doesn't know what to do about it. And that is the awkward fact about Face-Time: After this bang-up beginning, it doesn't go anywhere. Instead of comic hijinks, we get the White House version of "Friends." Ben belatedly discovers the affair; he and Gretchen have long soulful talks about their relationship; Ben tries to live with his girlfriend's dual loyalties; his White House career prospers; and finally there is the bittersweet resolution. There is a creepy claustrophobia to the novel, since this is a story with only three real characters--the doomed lovers and the lustful president. Ben's rivalry with his one-time friend, Randy, the chief speechwriter, has the makings of a promising subplot, but this secondary story line peters out halfway through the movie ... whoops! ... novel.

Nearly 30 years ago, George Reedy, a disgruntled former LBJ press secretary, depicted the monarchical trappings of the modem White House in The Twilight of the Presidency. As Reedy wrote with rare prescience, "The life of a White House is the life of a court. It is a structure designed for one purpose and one purpose only--to serve the material needs and the desires of a single man" Tarloff, I suspect, never read Reedy's trenchant diatribe. But the sole virtue of Face-Time is that it reworks Reedy's analysis in a fictional format. In one of Ben's interior monologues, which comprise the bulk of the novel, he muses, "The president is an interesting and able man, undoubtedly, but does he really merit the deferential kowtowing that is shown him as a matter of course? If he didn't have the mantle of the presidency about him, would any of us think of him as anything special?"

Most of Face-Time can be seen as foreplay leading up to the inevitable confrontation between Ben and the president that he (and especially Gretchen) so loyally serve. Fiction allows Tarloff to imagine what might have been Clinton's self-justifying response had a White House aide (certainly not the gullible Sidney Blumenthal) ever had the moxie to challenge the president on his heedless sexual conduct. "Certain types of people gain the presidency," President Sheffield tells Ben. "And once they get it, whatever qualities they had in the first place are considerably enhanced. There's a sexual component to leadership. Some modicum of sexual appeal comes with the territory, and a sexual aura surrounds it. Engulfs it. You want to fight that? Why not command the tides while you're at it?"

On second thought, Clinton lacks the ironic detachment to ever make this every-president-does-it counter-argument. But Monica Lewinsky, of all people, pinpointed the sense of sexual entitlement that comes with being president. In one of her marathon conversations with wired-world Linda Tripp, Monica declared, "Every president, every (REDACTED) president we have ever had has always had lovers because the pressure of the job is too much. Too much. Too much to always rely on your wife, with whom you have too much baggage, which you inevitably will if you got to that point. And I think it's bad for the country"

What's bad for the country isn't an over-stressed president cruelly deprived of extra-marital sexual outlets by a puritanical press corps. The problem is an Imperial Presidency that seduces our elected leaders into believing that they are Nietzschean supermen immune to the constraints on ordinary mortals. For all his populist pretensions, Clinton loves the puffed-up pomp of the presidency as much as Ronald Reagan did. To his credit, Tarloff in Face-Time shrewdly understands that something has gone terribly wrong with our democracy--and that the moral failings of Bill Clinton are a symptom of this malady, not its cause. That's why I find it so exasperating that Face-Time isn't a better novel.

WALTER SHAPIRO, a contributing editor for The Washington Monthly, is a political columnist for USA Today.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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