The Wanting of Levine
Berkley Books 
Synopsis: it’s 1988, the decline of the US has proceeded ever further, and the popular President1 Bigelow has declined to stand for re-election. Senator Rackey looks likely to get the Democratic Party nomination until he murders his wife. This is eventually seen as an unsurmountable barrier to election and so his supporters must look around for someone else to run. A.L. Levine, who has worked for the Democratic Party for years, accidentally has his name added to a list of possibles the party wants to test for political viability. He tests very strongly and eventually gets the green light to vie for the position of Democratic candidate for the President and subsequently, if he wins, to run for President against the Republican candidate.
The rest of the book documents Levine’s path to the White House in 1988 and his path through life up to 1988 in a series of flash backs. It also documents the campaign of Levine’s main opponent, Willard Rose, although in much less detail. Eventually, three crises occur in short succession, to hamper Levine:
1: Despite being married, short and fairly ugly, Levine had remarkable success with women when he was a travelling salesman. Since he was generally a decent fellow, the women remember him fondly. Some of them write fan letters, and the issue of his fidelity to his wife, or lack there-of, eventually becomes a serious issue. He confronts it by confessing to his wife and later the nation. Surprisingly, after the press conference, his numbers improve [In 1978, that was the stuff of science fiction. Now, the fact that he didn’t try to weasel out of confessing or hit behind lawyer tricks is]. Eventually, he has a crisis and although he is by no means an observant Jew, he sees a rabbi for advice.
2: His son, Eli, an odious little bigot, runs off and joins a group of morality terrorists named the Caputos, after the founder. Caputo and Eli take a bus loads of Patrolmen hostage, the idea being to trade the Patrolmen for Caputo prisoners. While the decision whether or not to turn Caputo and Eli into pink aerosol ultimately is one President Bigelow will have to take, Bigelow is a friend of the Levines and asks Levine for permission to take whatever steps are necessary.
3: The Mexicans see the crisis with Levine’s son as a handy opportunity to announce that they are nationalising most of the US’s assets in Mexico.
Levine consents to any level of force necessary to free the hostages and both Eli and the Mexican ambassador are informed. Eventually, Eli turns on Caputo and having subdued him, surrenders.
The President then informs the ambassador that He, Bigelow, has just ordered the death of his best friend’s son and that killing a few million Mexicans is by comparison no big deal. He also points out that the next President will either be Levine, who gave permission to kill his son, who is obviously also a hard man or Rose, who might well bomb Mexico City for the amusement of it all, Rose being that kind of Republican candidate. In light of that, he suggests the Mexicans back down and the Mexicans, convinced the US is being run by a bunch of bloodthirsty maniacs, back down. Levine then goes on to defeat Rose and the US has its first Jewish President.
There’s no mystery to why Michael Halberstam never wrote much more: he died in 1980, two years after this book was published.
In fact, if memory of an old Time Magazine article is correct and he is the right Halberstam, he was shot after he surprised a burglar. I don’t think he intended this to be SF, except that it is set in what was then the future, and it wasn’t marketed that way. I came across it because Spider Robinson recommended it in his column of the day [Which is me avoiding admitting I have no idea whether it was in Galaxy or Destinies and I am not going to run upstairs and check].
Aside from the ending, which doesn’t thrill me, this is still pretty solid. Halberstam got the future of the US wrong, but he seems to have expected everyone to decline after the 1970s: the Russians are in trouble as well and so are the Arabs. Typical 1970s thinking, I guess.
Levine’s path to the Presidency seems too easy. There are crises but he overcomes them easily. What it seems to come down to is Levine being basically decent, Halberstam obviously felt most people were basically decent and given the choice between two more or less equal candidates, one of whom is obviously decent and honest and other of which is surly and prone to bombing foreign cities at a whim, [and who has a real estate scandal lurking in his background] the public would choose the decent man. One doesn’t think of the 1970s as a naive era but there’s the proof.
Most of the folks in this book, even the bigots, are decent folk. The exceptions generally have the route by which they arrived at their fallen state explained, which is a pleasant change from books when the antagonists are just plain bad without reason.
I imagine Halberstam might have been surprised at the parallels between events in Clinton’s career and Levine’s [Although Clinton managed to fit in Rose’s real estate scandal and a surprising amount of weaseliness for a politician]. I was a bit surprised at parts of the text: Carter kept coming up as an archetypical loser and this book was written before 1978. I hadn’t realised how quickly Carter’s ship sank.
This isn’t a brilliant book, but I don’t begrudge the hours sent rereading it. Halberstam seems in retrospect a bit unimaginative about the future and a little naive about people, but in a tolerable way. There are certainly worse faults and I would rather read a book where the majority of people have some central kernel of decency, whatever their flaws, than one where everyone and everything is despicable.
Next: We All Died at Breakaway Station , Richard C. Meredith
1: How President Bigelow could be popular under these circumstances escapes me. As someone says in the book, the US doesn’t like losers and a President who has been in office while the US fell into third-rate status would be seen as a loser. Plus, the economy sucks and poor economic numbers kills re-election hopes.