Books: A book in the hand for George Bush

Cole Moreton meets David Baldacci, a thriller writer feted by two US presidents
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The Independent Culture
A ccused of lying on oath, the President of the United States sought distraction from his impeachment trial in a Washington bookstore. His critics could not contain their sniggers in January when Bill Clinton emerged clutching the latest blockbuster by David Baldacci - The Simple Truth.

"People thought that was ironic," says Baldacci with a wholesome smile. "I guess he's a fan of thrillers and suspense."

A lot of Americans are. Since he gave up life as a corporate lawyer to write full time, Baldacci has sold 15 million books worldwide. His first was Absolute Power, about an adulterous president who turns violent. Clint Eastwood bought the film rights and changed the hero from a young lawyer to a pensionable burglar with a heart of gold. Director and star, Eastwood also decreed that his character should not die as in the book. Baldacci's pain was eased by $1m.

These days, $1m is small change for the man they used to call the new John Grisham. The follow-up, Total Control, was another best-seller, and last year it was impossible to travel anywhere by train without seeing the distinctive spider's web cover of The Winner. British readers now have the chance to judge Bill Clinton's literary taste, because The Simple Truth went on sale here last week.

Like its predecessors, the book has a plot strong enough to make the bath go cold around you. There is a dash of political correctness - the central character Rufus Harms is an underprivileged black lifer victimised by the army during Vietnam - and a good splash of morality, since Harms has nothing but faith in God to strengthen his fight against corruption.

"It is a remarkable thing for belief to carry a man through the most horrendous existence possible," says Baldacci, a 38-year-old former southern Baptist who now goes to Catholic Mass with his family. While the current President is a fan of the author, the reverse is evidently not true. "Some days I think he's the biggest loser I have ever seen. Other days I have a lot of sympathy or pity for him."

It would be a mistake to write off the square-jawed, youthful millionaire as a member of the moral majority, even if he is on first-name terms with that arch conservative George Bush. Mrs Bush wrote him a fan letter, and now David and his wife Michelle, their six-year-old daughter Spencer and three-year-old son Collin visit the Bush family ranch when they go on holiday to Maine each summer. He is an active supporter of a literacy campaign run by the former First Lady, and gives workshops on books and reading for pupils at inner-city schools.

Baldacci also spends a lot of time and money on the MS Society, because of his admiration for a sister who has lived with the disease for 17 years. Charity begins at home in every way. "For my parents, in-laws, cousins, nephews, and friends of family, bills aren't a worry any more."

There is more to him than a patrician's compassion for the disadvantaged, however. The gang members in The Simple Truth are crudely drawn but Rufus Harms and his brother Josh are plausible, complex black characters. He may be a favourite of the American Establishment with a six-bedroom home in one of Virginia's loveliest spots, but Baldacci is keen to stress that he knows what he is writing about. "I grew up in Richmond, one of the most racially divided towns in the United States, and my class was the first to have forced integration. Every day was a physical fight - the teachers would leave the classroom, we'd pull our chairs back and two kids would beat the shit out of each other. Usually black on white. So I got a very up-close and personal look at racial divisiveness."

His father was a mechanic. "The only vacations we took were on the back of a station wagon, to the beach for the day. If you saw the house where I grew up you'd think it was a slum. My dad was the first at this big truck company to demand that black and white guys could use the same washroom. The management almost fired him over it. I thought he was a hero because of that. So I don't write about this stuff lightly."

The real hero of The Simple Truth is John Fiske, a cop turned lawyer who has chosen to defend the poor instead of chasing money and success like his brother at the Supreme Court. Baldacci would clearly like to have been Fiske, but instead he was saved from corporate law by the nocturnal writing habit that became a money-spinner. His research includes hanging out with FBI agents over coffee at the Hoover building. "I could spot one in the street - they tend to look and sound and act the same. The posture is incredibly precise. They never slouch, they sit like they will jump up and chase somebody at any moment. They usually have close-cropped hair, pinstriped suits with a bit of white cuff, black shiny shoes, and an attitude of face that is very calm and alert at the same time."

Having looked hard at the great American legal institutions, does Baldacci have any faith at all in their ability to produce justice? "It could be that public sentiment is so strong on an issue that justice does prevail, but otherwise? No, not really."

'The Simple Truth' is published by Simon and Schuster at pounds 16.99