Kermit Roosevelt, Allegiance. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What led you to write this novel?
Kermit Roosevelt (KR): In 2007, two years after the publication of my first novel (In the Shadow of the Law), my editor said to me that he wanted my next one to be set in the Supreme Court. I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it. I would love to write about the Court, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was revealing secrets from my time working there. (I clerked for Justice David Souter in 1999-2000, and he is a very private person.) My editor said, “No problem! Set it ten years in the future when there are nine new Justices.”
That also seemed like an unpromising idea to me, because it would require me to invent nine new Justices and predict the pressing legal issues of a decade hence. I told my wife about the dilemma, and she had a simple answer: set it in the past.
And that seemed like a great idea. No one would think I was writing about the current Court, and instead of inventing nine new Justices I could just research them—something my day job as a law professor has made me quite familiar with. Also, of course, setting the novel in the past would let me scan the whole history of the Court for an era and a set of cases with relevance to the present day. So I started looking.
What I was thinking about in 2007 was the response to 9/11, and more particularly, the Guantanamo detentions. I had just recently received a call asking me to serve as a constitutional law consultant on a Guantanamo case, and I had accepted. So I wanted to write something about what we do in times of national insecurity.
The aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the treatment of Japanese-Americans was the obvious choice. There was a shocking attack, striking us in a way we didn’t think possible. There was a President expanding the power of the federal government, asserting he could do whatever was necessary to protect the nation. There were Supreme Court cases about the limits of governmental authority in wartime. So I started looking into that era and those cases, and I was very surprised at what I found.
J: Can you tell us a bit about the novel?
KR: It turns out that the parallels between the reaction to Pearl Harbor and the reaction to 9/11 are overwhelming—and almost uncannily precise. Why do we do similar things over and over again? That’s what I was trying to explore in the novel. I tried to get at those questions by telling the story of someone who starts out very trusting—an insider, someone who has nothing to fear from the government and can’t imagine it would do wrong—and comes to doubt everything he has assumed. My hero, my narrator, is a guy from Philadelphia named Cash Harrison. He’s in law school when Pearl Harbor is attacked; he wants to join up, but he fails the physical. Then he gets a chance to clerk for Justice Hugo Black on the Supreme Court, and he goes to Washington. He’s clerking during one of the Japanese American internment cases, and then when his clerkship ends he stays in DC and works for the Justice Department. That’s in order to unravel a mystery, which is my non-factual thriller plot. (My legal plot is on the whole scrupulously historically accurate.) He ends up representing the government and defending the detention program before the Supreme Court, and starts having doubts about what he’s doing.
The developmental process I was trying to show there was in part the process of disillusionment with the government, which is something I went through myself in the years after 9/11. But perhaps more importantly, it’s the growth of empathy: the expansion of the set of people who are considered worth caring about, the people who count. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle used the phrase “the compass of sympathy”—he said, “My mother raised me to be gallant, which to her meant protecting one’s people. I hope to have enlarged the compass of my sympathy.”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
KR: It connects to my previous work in that I have always been concerned with constitutional law, and with deep questions about what it means to be an American, what it means to be loyal. That has been a focus of my academic work. I have also been concerned with the ethical obligations of lawyers, and what their duties are in different situations. That’s a theme of my earlier novel, In the Shadow of the Law. So this book brings those two strands together. It’s a departure in that I had never tried to do historical fiction before, and it turned out to bring a whole new set of challenges.
J: Who do you hope will read this novel, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KR: I hope that people who care about America will read it, and I hope it will help them think about what it means to be American, what it means to be loyal to the country and to the Constitution. Also, anyone who likes a good story, and anyone who’d like to learn more about what our government has done in the past in the name of national security.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KR: I’m working on another novel. Historical fiction was difficult because I felt I had to do so much research to write every scene. So I’m trying to set this one in a world I know more intimately—the world of a law school.
Excerpt from Allegiance
From Chapter One
Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was in New York, the Beta house at Columbia, with constitutional law books on my desk and last night’s drinks in my head. Law school final exams fought with the debutante season for my attention. A doomed struggle; even without the pounding hangover, which pushed academic thought past bearing, Herbert Wechsler’s views on the Supreme Court could not stand against the white shoulders of Suzanne Skinner. They tanned honey gold in the summer, with freckles like snowflakes of the sun. But as fall grew cold they paled to alabaster and in two weeks at the Assembly they would be white, as white as her dress, and you would barely see where the straps lay. And my hands by contrast would seem dark and rough as I steered her around the floor. And all about us the air would fill with…silence.
That wasn’t the right thought. The air would fill with waltzes and songs plucked from strings. But in the room now there was silence. It had stopped the clack of ping-pong balls from below and crept up the stairs; it had stilled the traffic on the street and slipped in through the window. Now it surrounded me, as though the whole world was a movie stuck between frames.
And then there were new noises. Outside horns sounded and raised voices called, shrill and indistinct. Inside there was a clatter of shoe leather through the halls. Excited Beta brothers hurtled into the room. “Turn on the radio, Cash.” Exams and debutantes vanished; yes, and even Suzanne. The announcer’s words bred different images in my mind. Planes out of the blue Pacific sky, too fast, too low, too many. The sparkle of cannon fire from their wings, the smoke of ships afire at anchor, the red disc of the rising sun.
“The rats,” said one of the brothers, stubbing out a cigarette.
“Well, damn it, I’m joining up,” said another. Three of them dashed out, the echoes of their feet fading down the stairs.
For a blank second I sat there, watching the space where they’d been. Then everything came into focus in an instant, like putting on glasses for the first time, seeing suddenly all the sharp edges of the world, the crisp clear lines of truth. “Wait for me!”
I dashed down the hall and took the steps four at a time, jumping off the top without thinking about where to land, launching myself again as soon as my feet touched down. We must have made quite a noise, but I heard nothing, saw only the boys ahead of me flying through the air. I burst out the front door onto the street. One of them—Jack Hamill, I remember the puzzled look on his face—was standing still on the sidewalk, head cocked as though an important thought had just occurred to him. The other two were rounding the corner onto 114th Street. I sprinted after them, threading through the pedestrians, darting past cars.
It took me only half a block to catch up. I was making good time, even in the crowd, and they were slowing down, turning their heads to exchange words, coming finally to a complete halt, faces as puzzled as Jack’s. I pulled up, panting slightly. “Why’d you stop?”
Pete Metcalfe turned to me. “Oh, Cash.” He sounded relieved and just a bit hopeful.
“You don’t know where a recruiting station is, do you?”
“No.” I thought for a moment. “No, I don’t.”
Pete bit his lip. “Neither do we.” For a moment he looked as if he might cry.
We stood like sleepwalkers, woken in an unfamiliar place, impelled by a vanished dream. The urgency of the sprint was fading, the cloud of certainty, the single purpose. I could think of other things now, other people; I could imagine Suzanne’s reaction, and my mother’s. Running off without a thought for anyone else. I looked down at the sidewalk. By my feet lay a silver gum wrapper, a cockroach mashed flat. “I can’t do this.”
“No,” said Pete. “I guess not.”
Our walk back to the Beta house was slower. The radio was still on in my room, the brothers still clustered round. The ones who’d stayed barely looked up as we entered. Jack Hamill had taken my desk chair, and I found a space on the bed. And we sat there in silence, not meeting each other’s eyes, listening to the voices over the air and the metallic clanking of the radiators as the heat came on.
We sat there for hours, almost the rest of the day. But it wasn’t that long shared vigil that stuck with me in the weeks that followed. I never told Suzanne about how I’d run out; I never told my parents, or anyone else at home. The reaction came to seem absurd, almost shameful. So thoughtless, so irresponsible. But that was what returned to me in those later days, the feeling I had at the top of the stairs, before we went down to the snarl of traffic and the realization we had no idea where we were running. It came back as something I missed, something I longed for. I wanted the purity of that moment when I ran out into space, trusting my feet to find their way, when we soared above the jagged steps, coattails flapping like ailerons, arms outspread to grasp the empty air.
[Excerpted from Allegiance, by Kermit Roosevelt, by permission of the author. © 2015 Kermit Roosevelt. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]