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Leading the free world, and looking for love

Point of Entry, By Peter Schechter, Rayo, 336 pp, $24.95

In Peter Schechter's political thriller ''Point of Entry," the plot turns on the miraculous transformation of a fictional American president. Well known for his unwillingness to cooperate with foreigners and his ''shoot first" diplomatic style, President John Stockman actually learns to listen to the opinions of others and choose collaboration over conflict. In today's political climate, Schechter's evolved commander in chief qualifies as a fantasy.

There's a woman behind it all. She is Marta Pradilla, a former Miss Universe elected president of Colombia. Stockman grudgingly attends her inauguration and is initially suspicious of her: ''Foreigners were way too complicated for his Midwestern practicality. They talked too much, wasted too much time." Worst of all, President Pradilla has the nerve to speak her mind on hemispheric issues, even to Stockman. But, as Schechter repeatedly points out, Pradilla is drop-dead gorgeous and single, and Stockman happens to be a widower.

The two world leaders bump into each other again after a UN gathering and have a drink in her hotel room. Stockman admires her in-depth policy analysis, among other things. She cozies up to him on the couch and kisses him. Much to his surprise, Stockman enjoys it. She slips him her e-mail address, and they begin a relationship online. Schechter offers us page after page of long e-mail exchanges wherein the two presidents discuss drug policy, Fidel Castro, his late wife, and her time as Miss Universe.

Meanwhile, evildoers are afoot. Schechter's premise is pulled from today's headlines, and it's not bad. A diabolical Syrian diplomat obtains uranium from Pakistan and transfers it to Colombian narcoterrorists, who plan to smuggle it into the United States so that it can be turned into a bomb that will kill millions and trigger an international crisis.

A political consultant and a first-time novelist, Schechter is good at the cloak-and-dagger stuff, though at times his dialogue sounds improbable. For instance, when the evil diplomat picks up the uranium in Georgia, Schechter uses a friendly cabdriver to inform the Syrian (and the reader) about the geopolitical status of the post-Soviet republic. Alas, the cabdriver ends up sounding more like a Harvard professor than a working stiff, summing it up this way: ''We have become a strange country -- a country of shadows. We live in both light and darkness."

Anyway, the diabolical plot is uncovered by both US and Colombian authorities. At the book's critical moment, the Colombian narcoterrorists are preparing to smuggle the uranium into the United States. Pradilla learns of the smuggling plan first. Should she trust Stockman and tell him everything she knows, risking a possible US invasion of Colombia to seize the uranium?

Well, in the fashion of all love stories, both sides must learn to trust and compromise, even if they're world leaders. I won't spoil the fun, but I will say that Schechter's novel makes for an entertaining, if sometimes campy, escape from today's often frustrating, pigheaded political climate.

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