High-stakes presidential politics is the timely subject of this intriguing—but ultimately unsatisfying—suspense novel. Set in the mid-1990s, it tells the story of President Donald Kells, a well-meaning Democrat who hopes to get re-elected despite a flat economy and a falling approval rating. Kells soon discovers that the situation is worse than he thought. In an almost unprecedented move, the Vice President declares that he will challenge his boss for the party's nomination. The power-hungry Vice President claims he's doing it for the public good, but he's really in it for private gain—and for the benefit of his nefarious partners, the newly reconfigured Russian states.
Valenti, who served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and since 1966 has been president of the Motion Picture Association of America (the group that puts ratings on movies) effectively shows the lengths men are willing to go for power. He renders behind-the-scenes White House machinations with eerie believability, peppering his narrative with appearances by real-life journalists such as Sam Donaldson and George Will. The fictional characters, however, come off as dull as a political fund-raiser. The plot merely recycles the Evil Empire. In the end, Valenti can't Protect and Defend his readers from cliché. (Doubleday, $20)