Interview with D. W. Buffa on Breach of Trust

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Q. Breach of Trust involves a power struggle between the President, William Walker, and the Vice-President, Thomas Browning. People who read this book may think you are talking about the Bush administration. Is William Walker based on George Bush?

A. No, not directly; and Thomas Browning is certainly not based on Dick Cheney. What I was trying to do was draw a contrast between the kind of narrow-minded, ruthless moralism that believes that whatever it does is by definition right, and whoever opposes it is by definition not only wrong, but evil, on the one hand, and the kind of subtle intelligence that can anticipate events precisely because it understands the complexities of the world, on the other. In Thomas Browning, I hoped to create a character that might remind us that there is something more to being President than a fervent belief in your own rectitude.

Q. Browning has what I think anyone would regard as a prodigious memory. He memorized Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and he can apparently give long speeches without so much as a note. Why did you think it important that he have this ability?

A. Without giving away the plot, let us just say that Browning has to be able to keep track of a good many things at once. It is also what makes him such an attractive public figure to so many people, this sense that he is always talking about things he knows and has thought about, instead of simply stumbling through a few short forgettable phrases someone has written out for him in advance of a press conference.

Q: In your new novel, Breach of Trust, Thomas Browning, the vice-president of the United States, is accused of covering up a murder. Is it just a coincidence that this book is coming out in the middle of the American presidential campaign?

A: Breach of Trust is about a President, and an administration, willing to do anything to keep power, even if means accusing his own vice-president of involvement in a murder that may never have happened. And no, it is not a coincidence that it is coming out in the middle of the presidential campaign. I wanted to write a novel about politics and intrigue, and the best time to do that is in a presidential year.

Q: This is the sixth novel in which the defense attorney, Joseph Antonelli, is the central character. How does he become involved in a case in which much of what goes on takes place in Washington, D.C. and the trial takes place in New York? He started out in Portland, Oregon, but isn’t he practicing law in San Francisco.

A: Antonelli went to law school with Thomas Browning. They have not seen each other in years. Antonelli agrees to attend a law school reunion dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York where, years before, something happened that changed the lives of a great many people, including both Antonelli and Thomas Browning. When he finds out that another member of his law school class is about to be charged with murder, Antonelli knows he has to take the case.

Q: This is a novel, a work of fiction, but quite a lot of it reads as if it is true. What you said about the Roosevelt Room in the White House, for example. Is that really true – what Clinton did?

A: Yes, it is. There had been a tradition that Democratic presidents had a picture of one Roosevelt, Republicans a picture of the other one. Clinton….Well, I think I should let people find out for themselves what he did and why he did it.

Q: And that business about the drawer in the Vice-President’s desk. How did you happen to know about that?

A: When Al Gore was Vice-President, he showed it to someone I know. What is inside that drawer constitutes what is probably the longest running, least known tradition in Washington, D.C.

Q: And what about Phil Hart, the U.S. Senator from Michigan for whom the Senate Office Building is named? You have Thomas Browning describe him at some length.

A: In the novel, Browning was a U.S. Senator from Michigan, and before that the head of an automobile company, before he became Vice-President. I worked for Phil Hart, years ago, during the last three years of his life. Everything Browning says about him in the novel is true.

Q: Including the fact that he turned down the chance to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court?”

A: Yes. But it was not just that I wanted to rescue Hart from the undeserved obscurity into which his name has fallen. He provides an example, as Browning remarks, of what politics can be, an honorable service, rather than the harsh brutality so much of public life has now become.

Q: Browning becomes Vice-President after he has lost the Republican nomination to William Walker. One of the characters, a European reporter, makes the remark that Americans were given a choice between a man who represented the best of what they were and a man who represented the worst of what they were and they chose the latter. Do you think that is a fair characterization of what is going on in the United States now, and, if it is, was it your intention to emphasize this difference in the novel?

A: In a way, yes. Everything has started to move to extremes; there is no shared middle-ground anymore. We were attacked on September 11th by fanatics, and we have, in part as a result of that, become at times fanatical ourselves. Breach of Trustcenters on the conflict between people on the one hand who not only want power, but who think they have a God-given right to have it.

Q: So, then, who do you plan to vote for in the election: Bush or Kerry?

A: Don’t you think Thomas Browning would be better than either one of them?