The Mr. Stupid of the title, a rich Midwestern senator with a sweet, glassy expression, is married to a smart woman who manages to get him nominated for vice president. Fiction is less strange than truth.
The fictional Sen. Brent Bibby would rather be playing tennis than running for higher office, but at the right moment, the very gorgeous Lucinda Bibby told the Republican presidential candidate, "I want to feel your presidential scepter."
Moments later the candidate, a lonely widower, decided he wanted Lucinda, and, if absolutely necessary, the senator, in his life. To no avail, his campaign manager, a smart male counterweight to Lucinda Bibby, observed:
"Brent Bibby is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. If his father hadn't bought the damned election so the kid would have a job, he'd still be spending his days on a tennis court somewhere."
Stupidity notwithstanding, the ticket wins the election.
In "Mr. Stupid Goes to Washington," Jamie Malanowski, national editor of Spy magazine, had the makings of an "Advise and Consent"-"Animal House" combo, with a touch of "Bananas" thrown in when the action moves to Central America.
With a couple more months of attention, he could have written a satirical novel. But because the real-life counterpart of Sen. Bibby may soon be removed from center stage, Malanowski, feeling time pressure, has instead given us a farce that is occasionally funny but not really telling.
Satire is hyper-truth, sharp reporting with a twist. Satire stops being satire when it goes fuzzy and lazy. "The advisers," Malanowski writes in a fuzzy and lazy moment, "an amiable group of comfortably paunchy, baldish yes-men, murmured their approval."
You know the would-be satirist is in trouble when you see him falling back on funny names and bodily functions and obscenities and baby talk. The Central American country in "Mr. Stupid" is San Rico de Humidor. The vice president needs to tell us when he has to go to the bathroom.
During a cabinet meeting, the President can't stop thinking about sex. The President's inamorata calls him "Poopsie." And you know you're reading farce, not satire, when a jeep crashes into a topless bar.
Malanowski is at his best when he enters the mind of a character. The presidential candidate doesn't have any idea about what he'd actually like to achieve after he's elected; he sees himself as "a guy on top of things, a man in charge ."
Malanowski says something about not saying much when he gives us Brent Bibby's ad-libbed acceptance speech. "People say I'm not experienced. Well, that's true. But friends, when I look into the future of America, I see decades and decades comprised of experiences that no one has experienced yet. No one. So what good is experience? I would say that for inexperienced times, perhaps you need an inexperienced man, and I believe that I have that lack of experience. . . ."
Brent Bibby's transforming moment comes when he's shipped off to San Rico de Humidor to give the President more time alone with Mrs. Bibby. Guerrillas kidnap him in the middle of a night game on the tennis courts behind the cathedral of Our Lady of the Junta.
A little while camping in the mountains--a Central American version of Outward Bound--turns out to be just what he needs to become a real man, to become a little bit smarter than he was and to behave as if he were a lot smarter than he was. Given the right TV coverage, Mr. Stupid can fool all of the people all of the time. Except his wife.
Farce shows us that men and women have failings and vices and that these failings and vices get them into embarrassing situations in which they have to hide under beds or come up with really lame excuses. Successful satirists also ridicule people's foolishness or wickedness, but only because they have some sense of what's not foolish or wicked--a sense of how things ought to be.
There is hopelessness in Malanowski's tale of Mr. Stupid. "What could he do?" Malanowski's President thinks, "Walk the streets at night, and yell up to people to tell them to put on condoms, lock their doors, read to their kids more? Besides, he did a lot just by being presidential--looking concerned, looking optimistic, looking like he was in control."
Authors aren't supposed to be as hopeless as Presidents; they have more control over what they create.
MR. STUPID GOES TO WASHINGTON by Jamie Malanowski A Birch Lane Press Book Carol Publishing Group $16.95; 224 pages