Patriots Don’t Take the Fifth: LEGACY by James A. Michener<i> (Random House: $16.95; 177 pp.) </i>
I confess that I have always had a reader’s block about James Michener’s novels. I begin them with determination, but about 70% into them, they get laid aside and never picked up again. But this is one Michener novel I finished. It is surely Michener’s thinnest at a mere 149 pages (plus the text of the U. S. Constitution).
It is the contemporary story of an Army major who works for the President’s National Security Council. In fact, he works for Adm. John Poindexter.
This is meant to be a very popular little book; the publisher says the first printing will be 500,000 copies at $16.95 a copy. Evidently in early 1987, the author was inspired and even upset by the refusal of Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North to testify before the Intelligence Committee of the Senate. Beyond those motives, which apparently gave rise to “Legacy,” there is the obvious exploitation of the Constitution’s Bicentennial. The almost gratuitous appendage of the full text of the Constitution (the final 24 pages) allows the publisher to peddle any unsold remainders as high school texts.
And the references to North, Poindexter and the contras invite red-hot promotion that can trumpet: “As timely as this morning’s headlines, as timeless as the Constitution itself.” That aspect of “Legacy” puts it in competition with the hot-news books (“The Raid on Entebbe”), which are rushed through production and onto bus station racks in 100 hours or less. Perhaps there should be a Pulitzer for Fast Fiction. If there were, “Legacy” would be a contender.
Michener’s account of how a Senate witness and his lawyer prepare for the ordeal of a televised hearing in 1987 is both superficial and inaccurate. Nowadays (unlike, but thanks to, the nation’s Watergate experience), witness preparation is a sophisticated Washington art form, best exemplified by the skilled team that worked with North for many weeks. North’s lawyers doubtless rehearsed their witness before video cameras, in civilian clothes and in uniform, trying different answers to the oh-so-predictable questions. No one had to make a last-minute decision to pile the telegrams on North’s table. It is fair to assume that the camera angle had been calculated and the coercive symbolism debated in the days before North’s appearance. In “Legacy,” Zack McMaster, the Norman Starrs’ lawyer, can’t be much of a Washington lawyer; he doesn’t even put Maj. Starr’s wife into that chair where the cameras will show her supportively gazing at her husband.
The story is not unfamiliar: Maj. Norman Starr, U. S. Army, is in deep trouble because of his involvement with “the contra affair” and something secret that happened at someplace fictionally called Tres Toros. A Senate Committee (probably the Intelligence Committee) is holding hearings about Iran and Nicaragua. Starr’s boss, Adm. John Poindexter, has taken the Fifth Amendment and so has an NSC colleague, Col. Oliver North.
Starr’s old West Point “bunkmate,” Washington super-lawyer Zack McMaster, phones Starr one morning with the news that the Senate Committee wants to interrogate the major. Zack says: “Starr, old buddy, you’re in serious trouble . . . . The angle isn’t Iran. It’s the contras. " And the improbably bad news is that the Senate plans to haul Starr to the Hill the very next day.
The major reflects on his year with the contras. The things he did down in Nicaragua were so secret that he and Michener won’t spell out the gory details even in this little book of notes, he says. Admittedly he “did bump into” Oliver North a few times--strictly professional, strictly within the law. “I reported to him twice on the effectiveness of the contra effort. . . . Did I ever propose Central American actions to him? Never.”
Zack arrives at the Starrs’ home to quiz and counsel. He’ll do this job for nothing, he says, as bad as it looks. “The public smells blood on this contra affair and they’re hungry for victims,” he says melodramatically if not accurately. But Zack sees a way out. Maj. Starr has an unbroken chain of distinguished ancestors; Zack will invoke Starr’s heritage in mitigation of contra wrongs. And the major must wear his uniform and medals. Zack arranges and rearranges the rows of ribbons for maximum television effect (never mind military regulations!) and advises his client to get his dress blues dry-cleaned.
While Zack arranges a short postponement of Starr’s Senate appearance and holds lengthy meetings with the best legal minds in Washington, Starr and his wife remind each other of the Starr ancestors. Their reminiscence is a novelistic device that limps.
This little book is only seven short chapters about seven of Norman Starr’s forbears and two chapters about Starr and his inner conflict over what to do when he goes to testify. Will he travel the Oliver North path--uniform, ribbons and Fifth Amendment--or will his heritage take him a different way?
Simon Starr (1759-1804), a friend of Alexander Hamilton, is said to have been an influential if silent member of the Constitutional Convention. His chapter is a 34-page gloss on the convention’s debates, compromises and personalities, written for people who haven’t read much about the Constitutional Convention and who liked “Space,” “Poland” and “Tales of the South Pacific.” Most of the other ancestors’ chapters exemplify some familiar constitutional issue. One Starr was a Supreme Court justice who voted against slaves’ rights in the Dred Scott case. Another was a suffragette. Grandfather Richard Starr hated Franklin D. Roosevelt and fought his attempt to pack the Supreme Court.
In the crisis, however, Starr (1951- ) does not turn to his ancestors but to his immigrant father-in-law, who convinces him at breakfast one day that a man in uniform must follow a “higher law"--(“the rule of common sense”)--above and beyond written constitutions and statutes. In the father-in-law’s opinion (as in mine), one who has served on the White House staff ought not to avail himself of the Fifth Amendment concerning his performance of his duties.
Maj. Starr has an epiphany there at the breakfast table, all dressed up in his fancy uniform with the fruit salad of ribbons on his chest, ready to go to the hearing chamber. In a book ostensibly about the Constitution, his decision may seem a non sequitur , based as it is only on the father-in-law’s estimate of the societal demands of the times. But perhaps at that juncture, Michener was having a little trouble with the Fifth Amendment and North’s right to invoke it. Starr is given to understand what he must do (“the sense of propriety on which society must rely”) and marches off to the Senate. North invoked the Fifth Amendment. Starr will not.
A dramatic ending, but the brevity, research lapses and forced timeliness of this book tarnish Starr’s dramatic nobility and in some measure defeat the author’s original, worthy objectives.