'Gideon's Torch' -- A Moral Page-Turner

The time is the near future and the new Republican president is a Yankee blue blood who tilts way right, except on moral issues.

The "Christian Alliance" screamed when he won the GOP nomination, then fled to form a third party. Afterwards, some cursed politics. A few began planning rebellion.

The plot twists start early in "Gideon's Torch," the first novel by former Nixon White house counsel Charles Colson and Ellen Santilli Vaughn. A fake patient guns down a famous abortionist. The president responds with a get-tough legal crusade that intimidates pro-life moderates, but invigorates radicals. The government starts promoting late-term abortions, after researchers learn that fetal brain tissue is the key to curing AIDS. So anti-abortion activists cut into an ABC News satellite signal. Then things get complicated.

But there is more to this political thriller than blood, dirty tricks and movie-script editing. The cover needs a warning sticker: Warning -- contains disturbing moral issues. Consider this exchange between the central character, Attorney General Emily Gineen, and a powerful Christian politico.

The key, argues Senator Byron Langer, is that he believes in a "`point of ultimate reality, an absolute from which all truth as we know it flows. You don't, of course. I've read your articles.'

"`I believe in truth, Senator, but it is a truth we discover through debate and consensus. We find it in our collective wisdom.'

"`But truth is not subjective. It is not relative. It is truth. You see, I'm afraid this makes my point,' he said. `We use the same word and mean something totally different.'"

"Gideon's Torch" flows out of the clash between these two world views, said Vaughn, who has written seven other books with Colson and is now writing a novel of her own. It's natural that their fictional politicians, activists, journalists and other true believers get into heated debates, she said.

"All along, I've said that our goal was to write a book that was part Tom Clancy and part Dostoyevsky," said Vaughn, a Washington, D.C., native with English degrees from the University of Richmond and Georgetown University. "We wanted to write a page-turner, but we also wanted to be able to deal with some critical moral questions that we face as a nation."

It was early in the summer of 1993 that Colson asked Vaughn to work on the novel, continuing a 15-year partnership that began at a conference on the writings of C.S. Lewis. Colson already had the beginning, middle and end sketched in a stack of yellow note pads. The timing of that meeting was crucial, said Vaughn, because the outline already included the suicide of the president's chief counsel and closest friend. Weeks later, President Clinton's counselor, Vince Foster, was found dead. The outline also included a terrorist attack, in an exploding van, on a federal building.

"Obviously, you want this kind of book to have a realistic feel to it," said Vaughn. "But if parts of book seem a bit too close to real life, that's because real life is getting very strange these days."

Vaughn and Colson insist that all of this is fiction. Still, most readers will play name-that-cameo as characters who resemble New Ager Marianne Williamson, columnists Cal Thomas and Nat Hentoff, TV-talker Phil Donohue and others pop up. Watergate fans will recognize Colson's touch, as events veer into the Oval Office, Capitol Hill conferences and other arenas inside the Beltway. The paranoid president often sounds like Richard Nixon.

Behind-the-scenes debates about how to oppose abortion also influenced "Gideon's Torch." After all, the title refers to a biblical account of a battle that was won without violence.

"There are people who have very strong views about the sanctity of life who are so frustrated because they feel they've been marginalized in this society," said Vaughn. "Some of them are being tempted to commit the sin of despair, which could lead them to resort to violence. ... We hope this book shows why they must resist that temptation."