Informed by multiple in-depth interviews with insiders who have worked in the Oval Office, on national campaigns, on Capitol Hill, and for super PACS, Brunt offers an incisive, nuanced portrait of ambition, power, and what it takes to win in the ruthless world of politics today.
1. “The production reminds her of the image of a duck on water. On the surface, calm and beautiful, while beneath the surface the bony, orange legs are thrashing like mad” (12). Discuss this introduction to Samantha Davis and her new career as a high-profile news reporter. How would you characterize her? How does this image foreshadow events in the story? Do you think the duck working hard but retaining a certain kind of decorum is a metaphor for the job of the president of the United States?
2. On page 23, Samantha notes, “when meeting other female on-air talent, she always gets an up-and-down from them the way she would from a drunk guy in a bar.” Comment on the male/female dynamics in the novel, paying particular attention to Samantha’s interactions. Do the women treat Samantha more harshly than her male counterparts? Does her femininity inform her reporting style? Consider Samantha’s relationship with Connor Marks.
3. Discuss the ways in which conservative and liberal ideas are represented. Is Tom Pauley the archetype of a Republican? Is Mitchell Mason a typical Democrat?
4. On page 65, Pauley recounts a childhood memory of his Uncle Neil telling him from behind the glass partition in jail: “when each of us is born we’re all given a big shit pie. And every once in a while we have to cut off a slice and eat it.” Do you think Tom agrees with his uncle’s idea about life and fairness? Would you characterize Tom as a fair man? Why or why not?
5. Revisit the scene, beginning on page 107, when Samantha runs into the police officer who first introduced her to Connor Marks. What do you think he means when he says “it’s called journalism . . . with a big J” (108)? Does this scene act as a hinge for Samantha and her career? Is it because of this brief conversation that Samantha has a revelation about Connor Marks?
6. Mason is not portrayed as an upstanding citizen. How would you characterize him? Are his flaws a detriment to his presidency, or are they what make him human? Do you think that Mason’s character comments on our larger cultural obsession with the private affairs of heads of state? Ultimately, do you think questionable morals affect the ability of leaders to govern fairly and justly? Why or why not?
7. Do you agree that the pursuit of ambition is a theme of The Means? Is ambition the end goal for these characters? Consider Davis, Pauley, and Mason in your response.
8. On page 149, one of Mason’s staffers thinks to himself “things are changing here”—an echo of a sentiment uttered earlier by Pauley and his wife Allison after he wins the governor’s race in North Carolina. What sort of change do you detect in the novel? Which character changed the most? Is this change good, bad, or both?
9. At the beginning of Part Two there is an epigraph from Winston Churchill: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire” (163). Epigraphs and quotations play an interesting role in The Means. Not only do they provide a framework for the novel, they also suggest a larger conversation about politics in western culture. To which character(s) do you think this Churchill quotation is directed? Do you think this quotation also participates in a bigger discussion about how we view our politicians?
10. “Do you think humans are basically good or basically bad?” (231). Answer Reese Kinard’s question, using Davis, Pauley, Mason, Monica Morris, and Connor Marks as examples. What reasons do you think Reese had for believing human beings are inherently evil?
11. Is Monica Morris to blame for Mason losing the election? What did Samantha mean when she rhetorically asked Connor “Was Monica Morris real . . . Or was she just real enough?” (309). In what ways is Monica “real”? In what ways is she “real enough”?
12. Although to varying degrees, both Mason and Pauley are described as easily tempted by women who are not their wives. And even First Lady Evelyn Mason cheats on her husband, however discreetly. Are the characters in The Means especially flawed, or are they just human?
13. In what way(s) is this novel the story of Samantha Davis’s success? In what way(s) is it the story of Tom Pauley’s demise? Ultimately, whose story is this?
14. What is Samantha’s motivation for tricking Monica Morris into a confession? Do you think she righted her wrong? Is it possible to fix mistakes of this size? Why or why not?
15. What is the price that Pauley mentions on the last page of the book? Do you agree, “the price was too high” (332)? Did his means justify his end?