Governors Ungoverned

Too bad Fife Symington peaked early. He could have used State of Emergency, a political potboiler published in October by G.P. Putnam's Sons, as his own Mein Kampf.

The novel is right up Fife's alley, brimming with babes and bureaucrats and right-wing ideology all rendered in a florid style. Fed up with the feds, the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming secede from the Union. They order National Guard units to Page, Arizona, seize Glen Canyon Dam and open the floodgates to paralyze the entire Southwest (more on that later). The Arizona governor is the dumb one of this gang-of-four, but the book's author, Steve R. Pieczenik, swears that's just coincidence.

State of Emergency is Pieczenik's fifth novel, and he is the "co-creator" of the paperback and TV movie series Tom Clancy's Op Center, which means that he and Clancy, best known for his own political thrillers, including The Hunt for Red October, sit down and script out the plot and then hire a freelancer to actually write the book.

The Op Center books are allegedly based loosely on Pieczenik's own career in the U.S. State Department, where he served under secretaries Kissinger, Vance, Baker and Schultz and bore titles such as "crisis manager," "hostage negotiator" and "Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs." The man's got credentials: a medical degree from Cornell, a psychiatry residency at Harvard, a Ph.D. in International Affairs from MIT. The State Department tapped his expertise after the Aldo Moro kidnaping by terrorists in Italy and in the Iran hostage crisis, and occasionally he ventured out into the press as an official spokesman or a psychiatric expert--as in 1992, when he told a reporter at Newsday that President George Bush was at the end of his rope, ready to crack and send troops just about anywhere as a reelection campaign strategy.

That background, of course, turns up in the protagonist of State of Emergency, the gum-chewing, rock 'n' rollin' State Department physician, Alison Carter (his girl's name, like in Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue," has made him a man with grit and character).

"My protagonist is a cleansed version," Pieczenik says. "Alison Carter is a nicer form of what I had to do out in the field where you really have to create coalitions and do damage control and prevent people like Pol Pot from creating a second killing field."

All that Carter has to do is prevent a second civil war.
Pieczenik, incidentally, claims a literary prescience. His first novel, he brags, alerted the world to the abuse of political prisoners in Soviet mental hospitals.

And so in the introduction to State of Emergency, he writes, "More than anything else, I hope that my prediction of an imminent civil war within the United States is strictly a function of my imagination. I hope the novelist in me presides over the realist, lest I be identified as a cynic, or worse, a modern-day Cassandra."

The novel opens early in the 21st century, as Secretary of State Barbara Reynolds announces the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. This could have been another Pieczenik prediction, except that it already happened back in 1996. But never mind that. Reynolds, as Pieczenik puts it, "paused and waited for the applause from the environmentalists in the audience to subside."

The four soon-to-be rogue governors are sulking in the front row of the assembled crowd. The foreshadowing continues:

Their collective feelings could probably be summarized by the remark made by the governor of Utah to his executive assistant months before when he had first been informed that this federal landgrab was being orchestrated. "This is the most arrogant illegal presidential act I have ever witnessed in my lifetime."

It's a beginning fraught with . . . Republicanism.
Over the Fourth of July weekend, the governors secede, reuniting in Colorado as their troops descend on Glen Canyon Dam. France and Germany throw their support to the rebels.

The president and vice president are conveniently out of the country as the crisis unfolds. Reynolds, the "Sec State," sends her personal physician and sometime crisis manager, Dr. Carter, to manage the crisis.

Carter, as Pieczenik describes him, "had a twinkle in his hazy blue 'bedroom eyes' that made him extremely attractive to women. But beneath the sharp features of his Swedish-stock face, he had a certain coolness and reserve that on occasion could transform into a stern and authoritarian forcefulness. In his college days at Columbia University, he was captain of all three major varsity teams--football, baseball, and rugby."

In other words, picture Mark Harmon in the resulting movie.
And so it's a matter of pages before he seduces the lovely rebellious governor of Colorado, Cheri Black, "an unusual combination of toughness and feminine intuition woven in a filigree of Southern coquetry. Single, at the age of forty-five, she lived with her own code of morality, a combination of Catholic rigor and Baptist mischief with all its inherent contradictions."

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Michael Kiefer