First Novel, Last President: Richard Engle’s themes and insights yield a worthy debut

Disclosure: Richard Engle and I have been cordial for the last two decades. A slowly evolving friendship has been rewarding. To be clear, however: We have at times backed different “horses” in political races of the Oklahoma Right, a rowdy and often unruly bunch consisting mostly, but not entirely, of Republicans.
Our shared history may even be part of the reason for our relaxed exchanges of recent years. From our conversations it is clear he is intelligent and serious. Still, I didn’t know what to expect from his novel.

When ‘The Last American President’ (Bethany, Oklahoma: The Book About Us: A Division of BellWest America LLC, 2015, $14.95, 253 pages, trade paperback) first appeared in early 2015, some reviewers thought its title – which telegraphs without artifice the essential story-line – was too outlandish, especially given that it is set in a not-too-distant future.
Fifteen months after its release, of course, serious pundits wonder if the Republican Party can survive the present election cycle. The immediate-past nominee of the Grand Old Party is opposing the presumptive standard-bearer. And, reality TV behavior standards threaten to become a fundamental necessity for future presidential campaigns. 
On the other side of the partisan fence, the presumptive nominee is under a serious cloud of suspicion for shockingly bad judgment in handling sensitive national secrets. An avowed Socialist has run a competitive race for one of the major party’s presidential nomination. 
But wait, that’s not all: a libertarian candidate may run the strongest national independent/third party campaign since H. Ross Perot.

This is not a normal political novel, but these are unusual times.

As in some of Tom Clancy’s early novels, characters in ‘The Last American President’ may seem a bit too efficiently crafted as they carry out an assigned role in the story. But make no mistake – they appear in a tale that has meaning, heft and dignity.
I wish that somehow a high quality made-for-television program in the 90-120 minute range could be made from this story between now and October. It would certainly be a conversation starter.
A local official in Kansas from humble origins, Alan Cassel, rises with astonishing rapidity to the governor’s post in the Sunflower State, his beautiful young bride (Kate, who happens to be Miss Kansas) at his side. He does well in both of his early political postings, and comes to the attention of power brokers at the national level. Those power brokers believe Alan and Kate have the right mix of charisma and conservative idealism to regain the presidency for Republicans – while staying controllable in certain matters of national and international policy.
Kate charms a left-of-center billionaire named Keoki, who becomes an important ally and utterly indispensible player (imagine a mix of George Soros and a Koch Brother) in Cassel’s rise to the Oval Office.  
Alan assumes the presidency of a nation weakened by unsustainable debt and deepening social and moral conflict. Alan acts as if he is in charge, but in his America powerful international interests have displaced the corporate titans of old whose primary allegiance was to the United States.
Alan is eventually undermined by his national political mentor, John Halprin. An ardent liberal, Gene Whitaker, takes advantage of the split between Cassell and Halprin to forge a strong coalition based in the northeast U.S., evocative of the Clinton and Obama years. Hawaii wants to restore its monarchy while remaining tied, in certain essentials, to the mainland. Then, legislative battles in Oklahoma and a direct democracy fight in California feed a tide of disunion.
All this is prelude to a plausible series of events that bring to fruition the novel’s title.
Alan plays a gracious, pivotal role in our continent’s transition to a future that is neither dystopian nor utopian.  

A cast of supporting characters recognizable to old political hands are sprinkled across the pages of this narrative, which from a slow start (with the advantage that the central characters are actually fleshed out and believable) takes on powerful momentum as the stakes for America grow higher. Some live by the credo that politics isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
The book has themes that might seem awkward in a political thriller, but are entirely appropriate to today’s America.
* Substantive political messaging is, in terms of reaching millions of Americans, no longer required.
* In the long run, personal integrity is central to political trust.
* Success in elected office can be rewarding, but it will never take the place of a heart at peace.
* The world will become more dangerous, but even without America in its present form, the future can be brighter.
* Finally, forgiving those who trespass against us is both healthy and healing.

You’ll have to read the book to glean your own additional themes. 
Richard Engle developed his understanding of political maneuvers and inside-baseball honestly. He is a past president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies and a veteran of Republican conventions – local, state and national — over several decades.
Some might deem him a “Tea Party” kind of guy, but after reading this novel he seems more like “middle Reagan” (after the Democratic years, but before the presidency) in his essential moorings. Like most serious human beings, there is more to Richard Engle than rhetorical tags. 
This is an excellent debut novel by a gifted writer, a conservative patriot who can see the merit in opposing views. ‘The Last American President’ is highly recommended. 
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Note: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is, thus far at least, a non-fiction writer. He is the author of three books, including ‘The Politics of Direct Democracy: Case Studies in Popular Decision Making’, and (with Dawn M. Weyrich) ‘Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork.’ Pat is also the co-editor of seven books on legal policy, including ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America’  (1986).