Dallas Morning News

May 11, 2012

Who says conservatives don’t have a sense of humor? For years, conservative patron saint William F. Buckley Jr. regaled audiences with both his humor and his books, including several works of fiction. Now, a former Buckley research assistant, Bob Smiley, has delivered his debut novel just in time for election season. Don’t Mess With Travis provides readers with a funny look at politics that is made all the more humorous because of its thinly veiled similarities to today’s politics.

The story centers around a simpleton Texas state senator named Ben Travis. When he unexpectedly becomes governor of Texas, Travis represents the everyman that pundits often extol but who seldom exists. He speaks and acts plainly and simply. When asked when he knew he had become governor, he quips: “Right after I took the oath.”

Travis’ innocence stands in contrast to the shrewd political maneuverings of a progressive president in the Oval Office. President Michael Leary had little experience before being elected. “He would have been hard-pressed to land a job running his local Outback Steakhouse,” Smiley jokes. But what he lacked in experience, he made up for with ambition. “He met with foreign leaders. He wrote books about himself …. He painted a picture of an America that was devoid of pain and suffering.”

Leary believes he is better than anyone and he knows best for everyone. He exhibits no lack of faith in his own wisdom. When the governor discovers a secret federal pipeline running through Texas, an inevitable showdown ensues.

Travis shows up at the White House to confront the president and is diverted to a low-level staffer who is well-versed in Washington-speak. Asked whether the president knew about the pipeline, the aide provides an adamant nonreply: “I can’t speak for the president, but for what it’s worth, this is all news to me.”

Meanwhile, President Leary appears on national television to declare an energy crisis and to use the crisis to transfer “full authority and control over our fragile natural resources into the stability of government hands.” Characteristically, he leaves the explanation to others. “I know you have a lot of questions,” he announces to reporters, “but I won’t be answering any questions at this time.” His staff is assigned that task.

Enraged, simpleton Gov. Travis decides little recourse exists other than to pursue secession for Texas based on an agreement signed by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

This is a political novel, but the laughter should cut across party lines. Like all great humor, Don’t Mess With Travis points to some basic truths — and the targets among contemporary politicians are ample. An overly ambitious president who doesn’t suffer from humility? A bumbling Texas governor who flirts publicly with seceding from the Union?

With this lively and charming debut, readers on both sides of the aisle will hope that Smiley’s novel won’t be his last.

Kasey S. Pipes serves as the Norris Senior Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College and wrote “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”