Inteview: Tom Rosenstiel, Author Of 'Shining City' Tom Rosenstiel — head of the American Press Institute — has written a novel about a political fixer who gets the biggest job of his career: Sanitizing a controversial Supreme Court nominee.
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'Shining City' Is Packed With Timely Thrills

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'Shining City' Is Packed With Timely Thrills

'Shining City' Is Packed With Timely Thrills

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At a time when much of the country says that it hates Washington, D.C., politics, power brokers, spin doctors and compromise, not to mention the press, the executive director of the American Press Institute has written a novel that combines all of those elements into a thriller - a little bit of sex, too. "Shining City" is the first novel from Tom Rosenstiel. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: It's great to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: How did you arrange to have the new president appoint a new Supreme Court justice just in time for your novel that revolves around a Supreme Court justice being appointed to come out?

ROSENSTIEL: I really can't answer that question at this point.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ROSENSTIEL: It's classified. It'll be leaked to The New York Times, however, next week.

SIMON: Oh, all right, good. Now, your hero, and I'll call him that, is a spin doctor. Spin doctors are not lionized in our culture these days. Let's put it that way. His name is Peter Rena. He's a Republican enlisted by a Democratic president to scrub the nominee. What does that mean?

ROSENSTIEL: When someone is going to be appointed or nominated to the Supreme Court, they are vetted within an inch of their life. Even if you have been appointed to the federal bench before, if it's a Supreme Court nomination, you reset the clock and you scrub literally everything going back to high school. You look for almost innocuous things that could be depicted as draconian.

SIMON: The nominee is Judge Roland Madison, and he doesn't fit the mold of a lot of nominees.

ROSENSTIEL: If you go back to the Federalist Papers, Hamilton argues that you should pick people who are politically independent, not too close to one faction or another, because judges' only power is their judgment. The whole process of advise and consent was designed so that you would pick somebody that most of the Senate would approve of, which would pull you in a moderate direction. The president in the story, a guy named Jim Nash, believes that everything about the judiciary is off the rails and that the court has become politicized and that it's eroded faith in the country and the notion of a country of laws and not men.

And so he decides he's going to try and set the ball in the other direction by picking an iconoclast, someone who supports some conservative positions and someone who supports some liberal positions. He's not really beloved by any faction. This president thinks this is close to what the founders had in mind. But he also knows that a candidate or a nominee like that is going to have very soft support from anybody.

SIMON: They do come across a couple of things in his past, which, in deference to try and actually sell some copies of the book, I'm not going to give away here.

ROSENSTIEL: Thank you.

SIMON: But one of my favorite lines is when Peter Rena tells somebody, in my experience, ideology says nothing about character. Any moron can buy a team shirt.

ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. Peter and Randy choose their clients based on who they trust, you know, who's moral. And they, in their experience, find that that is - has little to do with which party you're in. Peter was a soldier, he went to West Point, was in Special Forces. He rose up to a point in military intelligence and in his training, your politics are irrelevant, and too much faith in any theory is irrelevant.

SIMON: How much did it hurt to make a political fixer the hero of this novel?

ROSENSTIEL: Oh, actually that was one of the first things that set in my mind. I thought the irony of having, you know, someone who is derided because they lack ideology as the hero - even before I realized that I wanted to tell a story about a Supreme Court nomination, I knew that the hero was going to be somebody who in the public eye is often viewed as amoral or immoral.

SIMON: One of the impressions I got when I finished the novel was that the author must think that - if I might put it this way - politics has become too politicized in the sense that compromise is just not brooked on either side.

ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, yeah. And I worry. You know, we're sort of headed toward oblivion if we can't come to some places where we can compromise on things. I mean, the country - the whole design of the American system was based on compromise, based on not letting any factions get too strong. And we have found ourselves on this dead-end road where not only are we not - unable to compromise, but we keep sort of circling like we're caught in a dead end, and we don't know how to get out. We can't find our way back.

SIMON: Is this not just a novel but some kind of warning call?

ROSENSTIEL: (Laughter) Well, I think - you know, Scott, you've written novels. You - if a journalist writes a novel, there's a couple of itches that you're trying to scratch. One of them, I think, is to try and tell the truth about things that's very hard to get at as a journalist. And as journalists, we live in the world of evidence and proof. You write what you can prove, but you can't write everything you believe. So the hidden motivations of people are very hard to get at. And if you're trying to tell the story of why does our politics not work, you need to be in the hearts of the people who are talented and make decisions that turn out badly.

These are not evil people who populate our city. They're people who have found themselves in a situation where doing what they think is right keeps ending up in the wrong place. I wanted to get at that. I think I also felt like there was a part of me that as journalism has changed and become disrupted you don't have the ability to go out and tell stories contemplatively with as much time as you need to get into character. Things move very swiftly. So I think the speed of journalism actually pushed me to a, shall we say, a much older medium.

SIMON: Tom Rosenstiel - his novel, "Shining City." Thanks so much for being with us.

ROSENSTIEL: Great pleasure.

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