I had my quarterly medical examination this past week. My doctor, a dour Scotsman who is an avid reader, wants me to lose weight, eat right, get more sleep, etc. My bad cholesterol number matches what Tori Wilson used to weigh, I never met a french fry I didn't like, and if I sleep for two hours straight it's by accident. That's why my M.D. is puzzled by the fact that my blood pressure and pulse are equal to that of someone who chases roundballs up and down a long room for a living. The answer is simple. I read books like THE FIRST COUNSEL. It's the equivalent of a week's worth of aerobic workouts compressed into the seven hour sitting in which you'll read this book.
I mean it. I'm still trying to get my heart out of my throat after this one. And I wasn't expecting much. Another lawyer-in-the-White-House book, I thought. Huh-uh. No way. This one does involve a lawyer, Michael Garrick, on the White House counsel staff. He is on a date with Nora Hartson when we first meet him. Oh, yeah, Nora is the daughter of the President of the United States. And she asked him out.
Nora is kind of a twisty. We learn that fairly early in the day. We learn why, too, but not until much, much later. Suffice to say that she is much more Monica Lewinsky than Chelsea Clinton. Garrick is, to say the least, intrigued. Things go downhill in Garrick's life, however, when he spots his boss, Edgar Simon, in a compromising situation. Actually, he catches Simon in a couple of them, and one of them involves dropping off what appears to be hush money. And Nora, whacky kid that she is, takes some of it. When the happy couple is stopped by the D.C. police, Garrick proves that Gloria Steinem and her ragtag group of harpies haven't yet won the day --- he does the chivalrous thing and takes the fall for Nora, telling the cops that the money is his.
Things would be bad enough, but the following day Garrick is confronted by Caroline Penzler, the ethics watchdog on the White House Counsel's staff. Caroline indicates that she has been told that Garrick is the one who was dropping off hush money --- and indicates that Simon is the source of the information! They argue about it, Garrick leaves her office for a few moments to cool off, and when he comes back...Caroline is dead. Her death appears to be the result of a heart attack, but there is doubt, and people heard her arguing with Garrick just before she was found dead --- by Garrick. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
THE FIRST COUNSEL has more twists and turns to it than an Iowa cornfield maze. The pacing is perfect, and Meltzer keeps the surprises coming so quickly that you'll feel like you're in one of those batting cages where the machine throws 700 miles per hour fastballs at you every five seconds. I actually became short of breath reading it, and it wasn't because reading it involved lifting a 500 page book. But this isn't just a thrill a minute page turner. Meltzer really makes the reader care about Garrick --- he may be innocent, but he does have his secrets. You won't believe it when you find out, either. The story is mildly shocking, but realistic and, ultimately, quite poignant without being cloying or sappy. And Meltzer's descriptions of the inner workings of the White House... I don't know how realistic it is, but he infuses it with the ring of truth. If he made it up on the spot, more power to him. Oh, one more thing --- Meltzer somehow has written a book set in the White House and involving the Presidency without taking the reader down a philosophical road. Incredible. If Meltzer isn't a household word by year's end on the strength of THE FIRST COUNSEL then there must be a conspiracy preventing it from happening. This may well be one of the best books you'll read this year.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 1, 2001