The title of Tom Rosenstiel’s latest thriller, “Oppo,” is a euphemism for digging up unseemly information about a political opponent. Set during presidential primary season, the book offers a vivid - if sometimes inartful - portrait of an American political landscape in ugly disarray. Sound familiar?
When the book opens, both Republican and Democratic aspirants have privately asked popular centrist Wendy Upton, a Republican senator from Arizona, if she might consider being a running mate. Enter consultants Randi Brooks and Peter Rena (who also appeared in Rosenstiel’s novels “Shining City”and “The Good Lie”). Upton gives them a crucial assignment: to anticipate what other oppo specialists might come up with to smear her.
On top of that tricky situation, a campaign donor back in Tucson has alerted Upton that somebody has sent word that a spectacular revelation will “destroy” her life if she enters the national race at all. So Brooks and Rena have to track down that ticking political bomb and defuse it.
Upton insists she has no guilty secrets. Never having married, she says that “love eluded me” and that she never had a serious boyfriend for long. The array of snoopers Brooks and Rena set loose soon discover - surprise, surprise - that Upton’s personal life has not been (and isn’t currently) all that simple. And then there’s Upton’s younger sister, Emily, whom Upton raised when their parents died in a car crash and who’s had some serious run-ins with the law in Tucson. Is she connected to the current threats? Maybe.
An accomplished reporter and now executive director of the American Press Institute, Rosenstiel reimagines our headlines in newly nightmarish ways: Campaign rallies are occasions for sabotage and disruption. Something called the Shut It Down Movement has millions of followers clamoring to toss out the Constitution and pretty much get rid of the federal government. Social media is a fever swamp of fearmongering and lies.
If all that feels unpleasantly real, the main characters in “Oppo” often talk like fundraising letters, too. Here is Brooks, declaiming about what followed the failure of U.S. campaign finance reform. “So the Web made oppo easier. The culture got meaner. And the courts opened the money gates. ... In 1990 there were maybe a dozen firms doing opposition research in the whole country. By 2000, there were about fifty. Today, there are hundreds - probably 150 in D.C. alone.” (While I was often impatient with the novel’s not-how-real-people-talk palaver, I did think about sending some of Rosenstiel’s characters $25.)
Rosenstiel effectively renders wild political times but, unfortunately, his characters don’t come to life in an engaging way, nor do the meant-to-be-sinister figures who eavesdrop electronically or park down on the street menacingly cause much more than mild curiosity. It’s too bad, as the good guys in “Oppo” do manage to provide a satisfying denouement for Upton’s story - if not, alas, for the country’s.