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Ode to the West Wing

Shelley’s Heart

by Charles McCarry
Random House, 558 pp., $23.00

The “Washington novel” is bound and confined by a number of relatively strict conventions, and by one limiting fact. The limiting fact is that the United States, alone among developed nations with the possible exception of Australia (and the recent anomaly of Germany), chooses to locate its capital city in the provinces. The effect of this on the national letters cannot be calculated; but let us just agree that an aspiring writer in Texas, say, or Wisconsin does not number among his aspirations the desire to relocate the garret to the District of Columbia. In The Company of Critics, Michael Walzer writes semi-humorously that he, like most of his friends and colleagues, has never really even been to Washington except to protest. For Updike, Bellow, and Roth, the action is elsewhere. Norman Mailer has, admittedly, attempted the city by way of nonfiction or its close relative, the historical reconstruction of old skullduggeries for fictional purposes. But only Gore Vidal has really annexed the capital as a novelist, and he enjoys the advantage—among many others—of being in some sense “from” Washington and of therefore possessing the right combination of familiarity and contempt. This was the same advantage possessed by Henry Adams, whose Democracy is the foundation of the genre.

It is slightly surprising to see how much fealty is still demonstrated to the Adams model. Most “Washington novels” still have the same cast: a President (inescapable), a British ambassador, a prominent hostess, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator. Adams (who published Democracy anonymously and hoped that people would think the author was John Hay) even had a Clinton and a Gore among his characters. And he capitalized the question of motive. Mrs. Lightfoot Lee is alive to the objection of her metropolitan and cosmopolitan friends that in moving to Washington she is condemning herself to live “among the illiterate swarm of ordinary people who…represented constituencies so dreary that in comparison New York was a New Jerusalem, and Broad Street a grove of Academe.” Nonetheless:

What she wished to see, she thought, was the clash of interests, the interests of forty millions of people and a whole continent, centering at Washington; guided, restrained, controlled, or unrestrained and uncontrollable, by men of ordinary mould; the tremendous forces of government, and the machinery of society, at work. What she wanted, was POWER.

What she gets, of course, is corruption and cynicism and a near-insupportable climate, plus some unwelcome attention from an overmighty senator. Already, the elements are in place. Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, published almost eighty years later, has Lord Claude Maudulayne instead of Lord Skye as British ambassador, and Mrs. Phelps Harrison as the hostess. In this story, and in its numberless imitators, senators have “manes,” rooms are filled with smoke, party allegiances are strong and distinct, regional characteristics are heavily stressed among members of Congress, and newspapers are ruthlessly committed to breaking stories at any cost. The sexual temperature is set fairly low, because everything is sublimated by POWER, but animal magnetism is allowed. (A more recent sub-genre, written by Mrs. Benjamin Bradlee and Mrs. John Dean, turns up the thermostat a bit here and was indeed characterized by Christopher Buckley, one of the most deft local practitioners, as “cliterature.” In this narrative, a lot of heavy drinking gets done and a crisis is often precipitated by the expiring, in the arms of the illicit, of some high officer of state.)

In general, those responsible for this output are either journalists or retired practitioners of the power game. Hence the attachment to formula, which is also expected by the reading public and demanded by the sorts of publisher and Hollywood executive for whom it is actually composed. There are three crippling general disadvantages. The first is that virtually no one has ever invented a successful or believable President. (John Updike, who himself brought off quite a serviceable President Buchanan, points out that this also spoils almost all Washington screenplays.) With, again, the grand exception of Gore Vidal—who has had the nerve to fictionalize actual presidents and succeed at the task—fiction’s chief executives are all craggy, troubled populists or faint Kennedy derivatives. Few authors have the nerve to do what Adams did, and represent the president as an impotent, transient stick insect; a plaything of the influence of others.

Second disadvantage: Washington is not a town awash with drink and smoke and sex, peopled with white manes and gruff regional characters, and obsessed with power and partisanship. Nor is it a place where the remorseless press stalks the corridors in search of a story, any story, with which to embarrass the great and swell its own circulation. It’s a near-teetotal, thank-you-for-not-smoking city, with an early bedtime and a National Prayer Breakfast and a stunted libido. There hasn’t been a mane since Gene McCarthy, and the most striking senatorial hair (“belonging” to Strom Thurmond, admittedly a distinctive regional character) is a laughable dye-job. The tameness and complicity of the press, meanwhile, is something that has to be seen up close in order to be believed. The favorite word of this press—favorite, I mean, in point of approbation—is “bipartisan.” That is also the favorite word on the Hill and in the White House. Consensus is the highest value. Fund raising, which both determines bipartisanship and is determined by it, is the principal practice of the city as well as its chief recreation.

Third disadvantage: when real crises and scandals occur, such as the exposure of Richard Nixon’s court or Ronald Reagan’s state within a state, they are so arresting as to make fiction superfluous. It would be a bold thriller writer who topped Kennedy’s smuggling of a gun moll into his bedroom, or Reagan’s telephonic musings on the End of Time, relayed in late-night calls to the head of the America-Israel Political Action Committee, or Nixon’s chats with Chuck Colson about blowing up the Brookings Institution.

Nor does this city, so self-obsessed at one level, care to look much at itself in the fictional looking-glass. Larry McMurtry, who was once Washington’s chief bookseller as well as its senior novelist-in-residence, wrote a book called Cadillac Jack in 1982. It is his only Washington fiction. In an early chapter, it features an amazingly recognizable Washington pundit holding forth in a pulverizing manner in the drawing room of an amazingly recognizable Washington hostess. (The subject is South Yemen, pointed like a dagger at the heart of North Yemen.) McMurtry once told me that he had later been in that very drawing room, in the presence of that very hostess and that very pundit, when they decided to flatter him. “Time to turn your talents to the capital, Larry. You should essay the dragons of Washington.” As he put it: “What was I supposed to say? That I had already done it, and that they were both in it?”

Given the oppressive weight of these predecessors, these conventions, and these limitations, it is essential to choose between the tediously authentic model, symbolized by Advise and Consent, where at least everything depicted could have happened and where the only problem lies in making the reader care, and the frankly fantastic option (Tom Clancy, Jeffrey Archer), where the city is just a backdrop for melodrama. One or the other. Not both. Charles McCarry’s eighth novel, a six-hundred-pager marketed, inevitably, as the work of a “Washington insider,” is a failure because it is pedantic and didactic for whole furlongs of its immense length, and utterly, artlessly fantastic for the remainder. Try, if you will, to imagine C. P. Snow giving himself ample time to summarize a plot devised by Ian Fleming:

Mallory had never imagined that Lockwood would call him at eleven o’clock and offer to hand over the presidency. The advice he had given Lockwood the night before was excellent, and following it would certainly be in the best interests of the country and of Lockwood himself. But Lockwood was a politician to the depths of his being, and his office was all he had. Like most political figures of his generation who embraced progressive convictions, Lockwood had never in his adult life been anything but a politician. The only life he knew was public life. Unlike his heroes, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, he had never taken a mistress, fought a duel, or stood up for an unpopular cause. Every idea he had ever espoused was politically correct and brought him praise and approval among the opinion makers. The only money he had ever earned was government money: he had gone through a state college on an athletic scholarship, served for a while in the Army, where he played football and basketball instead of leading a platoon of rifles in Korea like many of his classmates now dead. Back home, after marrying a rich girl from the Bluegrass whose family had influence in rural politics, he started running for office on the basis of his lovable personality, his humble childhood (he came from the hollows of the eastern Kentucky mountains), and his celebrity as an athlete. He had nothing to go back to, no life to lead.

The only energy is supplied by the same source as that which powers Mr. McCarry himself: a very strong and very confused emotion of class resentment, in which only rich Republicans and certain kinds of soldiers can really empathize with the American poor, or with the rank and file in general.

About the novel you must know that it turns on the computerized theft of a presidential election at some time in the imaginable future; that this theft was committed by overzealous subordinates who may not have had the winning man’s interests uppermost in mind; that this same winning man was already in trouble for ordering the assassination of a Middle Eastern sheik to prevent the detonation of stolen nuclear devices; that in the end a canker at the heart of the state is rooted out by an improvised “bipartisan” alliance.

About the novelist you must know that he is a former spook from Langley, Virginia, that he has written many other thrillers which feature a character named Paul Christopher (CIA man with thwarted literary streak), and that he was chief speech writer to Henry Cabot Lodge when the latter ran with Nixon in 1960. In earlier adventures of Paul Christopher, like The Tears of Autumn, the original sin of modern American politics is held to be the theft, by the Kennedy dynasty, of that very election. (In The Tears of Autumn, North and South Vietnamese special forces join up to eliminate Kennedy and avenge the assassination of Diem, and it is stated: “Kennedy wasn’t elected President. Nixon was…The Democrats are in the White House by fraud.”)

Regularly drenched as we are—especially by the Clinton team—in ersatz Kennedyisms, it might be quite pleasurable to suspend such disbelief as remains in this hypothesis. There is persuasive evidence that the Kennedys rigged a decisive precinct or two, especially in Illinois, in 1960. And there is a mystery about the failure of that worst of bad losers Richard Nixon to complain about the fact. (Likeliest explanation: the words “full election inquiry” would have had an unwelcome ring to his ear.) There’s no mystery at all about the interim conclusion that Nixon drew, which was that he would never be outsmarted again. The covert interventions in the 1968 and 1972 campaigns are often “explained,” usually sotto voce, by his sympathizers as part of a rough-justice revenge for the fraud in Cook Country in 1960.

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