Ralph Reed Writes a Novel?

Deal W. Hudson
June 23, 2008

When Ralph Reed told me he was writing a political novel, I had my doubts. That Reed is a multi-talented man is beyond doubt – he is in the top rank of political strategists. Furthermore, his work as executive director of the Christian Coalition between 1989 and 1997 changed American politics by bringing the voice of religious conservatives into the political mainstream.

But it’s one thing to plan and implement campaigns; it’s quite another to recreate an election in the imaginary world of fiction.

As I sat down to read the book, I wondered if I would want to go beyond the first few pages of Dark Horse: A Political Thriller, but knew I’d feel obligated to finish it because Reed is a friend. (For every book I complete, I probably put three or four aside because they fail to hold my interest.)

Dark Horse not only held my interest but also made me wonder if Reed should quit his day job. His novel is a fast-moving tale about modern politics, marketed as a page-turning thriller, but laced with the moral insight of a Tom Wolfe. In fact, allusions to Wolfe’s novel about Atlanta, A Man in Full, where Reed lives, are scattered throughout the book.

I know fairly quickly if a novel will appeal to me. The English novelist Wyndham Lewis recommended what he called the “taxi-cab driver test” for fiction. Lewis would ask taxi drivers, straightforward men with broad experience of human nature, to read the first page of a novel to decide whether it was worth continuing.

I started Dark Horse at the beach while on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, with my son – and from the very first page, I was hooked. It was not just well-written; it put me in the middle of intrigue at a national political convention in a way I found entirely believable, compelling, and very entertaining.

A taste:

Everyone in the room had earned their way here, fighting and clawing their way up the sheer, craggy rock of American politics, but all their years of plotting had not prepared them for this hysteria. Senior staff fought off the combined effects of caffeine, alcohol, and exhaustion. They screamed into walkie-talkies, while $500-an-hour lawyers gathered at a conference table, pouring over delegate lists and plotting strategy for the impending fight over the credential committee report.

Yes, Reed’s prose contains the occasion cliché (“fighting and clawing”), but the energy and authenticity of his storytelling kept me from dwelling on them.

Reed’s story begins with the Democrats turning down a Virginia delegation, taking the nomination away from Bob Long, governor of California, and handing it to Senate majority leader Salmon Stanley. The ensuing struggle between the moderate Long and the left-wing Stanley involves the entire gallery of characters from contemporary politics in a way that bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2008 political season: After nominating a moderate, Republicans struggle to keep the support of the Religious Right, which can’t go to the Democrats because their nominee is even further removed from their core issues, raising the possibility of a third-party candidacy.

After his defeat, Long is unexpectedly thrown back into the race when Stanley’s campaign is accused of buying off the Virginia delegation. Long decides to run as an independent and soon faces the unexpected opportunity of gaining the support of religious conservatives who are about to break loose from their 30-year embrace of the Republican Party.

As the California governor, Long had long been both pro-choice and pro-gay rights – but after a grandchild nearly dies due to complications at birth, he undergoes a conversion. In the hospital chapel, Long promises to amend his life in exchange for the life of his grandchild. Reed’s description is understated and plausible to anyone who’s been at such a spiritual crossroads.

Long keeps his promise, much to the consternation of his staff and the indignation of his wife Claire: “You sound like Cotton Mather. You’re a centrist, for crying out loud, not a right-wing nut.”

Reed’s evocation of the Religious Right is both authoritative and not entirely flattering. It’s to the author’s credit that he’s willing to pull back the curtain on the wheeling-and-dealing that occurs between religious and political leaders. Given the author’s 20 years of experience, there’s a certain authenticity to the scenes of political arm-twisting and not-so-veiled threats, made by people acting in the name of Jesus. The character of Dr. Andrew Staunton represents a combination of Reed’s old boss, Pat Robertson, and probably Reed himself. Staunton’s ego, a match for any politician, demands he be taken seriously at the cost of being labeled a hypocrite.

It won’t be the actual leaders of the Religious Right who are irritated by Dark Horse; it will be the newspaper reporters and television pundits. They are portrayed as uniformly hostile, dedicated to nothing more than destroying reputations and ruining careers. After Long, feeling over-confident tries to get chummy with reporters, his media consultant takes him aside:

“These reporters are not your friends,” she shouted in a loud whisper as she closed the door. “Now that you are leading the polls, and you’re on all fifty state ballots, they are going to turn on you like a pack of wolves. You are nothing but a piece of meat to them…. They are the enemy, Governor!”

I’m sure there is already a conversation going on at the Washington Post about who the reporter Dan Dorman represents. Reed, who has been in the media crosshairs many times, gets some payback here, but he would have been better served by inventing at least one “fair and balanced” journalist. The strength of Reed’s characters is that they all struggle to balance the demands of winning with matters of principle – all except the media, who come across as one-dimensional predators.

I strongly recommend Dark Horse to anyone who wants a good read, an inside look at how national campaigns actually work, and the dynamics presently at work between religious conservatives and the political parties.

Will Ralph Reed quit his day job? I doubt it. Regardless of the success of Dark Horse, Reed is far too energized by political combat to put his feet up and enjoy the detachment of a full-time storyteller.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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