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.

It would, in other words, be rather exciting if a real thriller writer decided to backdate Watergate to Mayor Daley and let the chips (this style is infectious) fall where they may. Yet when Lockwood’s rival, the stainless Republican Cincinnatus Franklin Mallory, is told by a cynic that “elections have been stolen before,” he can only reply:

Yes, and look what happened afterward. Assassination, war, scandal, cover-up, the wholesale falsification of history. The people behind this kind of thing are always idealists.”

So we know right there and then that this will be a work of rancor, and that it demands only one variety of disbelief-suspension. The political level never rises above that of a Herblock Washington Post cartoon, where donkeys and elephants are shown, with labels on their flanks for the easily instructed, hitting each other over the head in apparently genuine and passionate disagreement.

The novel doesn’t actually feature a British ambassador, though it is peppered with knowing, “special relationship”-style quotes from Kipling and various English monarchs. It is, however, Anglophile to the point of Anglophobia; not an uncommon trope among members of the “intelligence community.” In order to believe the story, you have to believe that there exists an occult Shelley Society, based on a vile coven of Yale men, which is sworn to enact the poet’s dream of an egalitarian Utopia. It reaches into Congress, the Supreme Court, the media, and Wall street, though not (a singular omission in the circumstances) into the armed forces or the police. So great are its reach and power and strength, and so avid is it for a constitutional coup, that it can persuade the tainted President Lockwood (see above) to nominate its most extreme and most identifiable member to be Chief Justice. This is as if we were to open the papers, find William Kunstler being nominated by Sam Nunn to head the Court, and read every “liberal media” editorial applauding the sapience of the proposition. One of McCarry’s sympathetic characters explains for us the moral and intellectual squalor of Shelleyism:

Prometheus Unbound reads like a dream Stalin had in an opium den. Shelley describes heaven on earth as a place where people fall asleep and when they wake up they’re not human any longer. They’ve taken off their human nature and condition like a disguise; therefore they’re happy because now they’re all alike, thinking beautiful thoughts. Utopia always turns out to be an eternal prison camp with people like Shelley in the commandant’s office.

To which a secret Shelleyan who happens to be present replies as follows:

What absolute sick nonsense!” Hammett cried, recoiling.

Since Hammett is the Kunstler figure, and since he is elsewhere represented as being preternaturally cold, fishlike, reserved, ruthless, and stoical, it seems peculiar that he should fall below the disciplinary standard of Skull and Bones, and just at the point, too, where the merest “gadzooks” might give the whole game away, recoil or no recoil. But McCarry can’t help himself writing like this.

In order to foil the fell designs of the dead poet’s society, he has assembled the most extraordinary roster of stock characters. There is, of course, the pugilistic Shamus private eye with the rumpled look and the deceptive, shrewd way with him:

His lantern-jawed Celtic face was freckled and battered—skewed broken nose, thick eyebrows interrupted by thicker white scars, more scars around the brightgreen eyes. Red hair grew on the back of his bony, large-knuckled hands.

This son of Erin is a puzzle to the evil patrician Julian Hubbard, who as a confirmed Shelleyan is scheming against the honest men in the District of Columbia, and has wormed his way quite near the throne. He is baffled by the stripes on the Hibernian’s tie until:

As Julian stepped closer in order to shake hands, he saw that the stripes were actually made up of a printed motto that read—he squinted to make it out—“Non carborundum bastardum est,” which Julian remembered was beer-joint Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

This illustrates the hazards of slumming for an author like McCarry, who sounds just as awkward, in his hearty condescension to the other ranks, as did his mentors like Kipling, Sapper, and John Buchan. (Incidentally, the actual beer-joint Latin reads “Nil illegitimi carborundum“; McCarry’s version would mean, if anything, “the bastard is not ground down.”)

Who can be on next, if not the imperturbable and devoted black retainer, who appears on cue as the prop and stay to drunken, bleary, but decent Speaker Tucker Attenborough, the Texan populist with the heart of gold,

Albert Tyler (Lockwood had always called him Ablert), an aged black waiter and boyhood friend of Attenborough’s from West Texas who had worked in the House for thirty years.

Yes, sir, Mr. Speaker,” Albert is actually made to say when the speaker lapses alcoholically into Scripture. “Mighty fine passage.”

Not all of freedom’s allies are folkloric cutouts. Mallory, the once and future President who has been cheated of his election, has several safe houses in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as the control of a vast private corporation and the use of a top-notch private security force. This force is composed of sexless boy-girl teams, operating in pairs. Every month, we learn on page 63, each of these agents has to pass a fitness test in which he or she must

run five miles, bike ten miles, swim two miles, and then, in less than two seconds, while still standing chest-deep in the water, fire eighteen vinyl-tipped explosive/expansive rounds from a 6mm pistol into a three-inch bull’s-eye from a distance of fifty yards.

It’s just as well that McCarry mentions these exacting qualifications so early on, because on page 546, nearly five hundred pages later, all of them are required to fire the burst that puts the narrative out of its misery. His linking of the stipulations to their eventual deployment is the very essence of his concept of a plot device.

Other pockets of traditional Washington are also immune to the Shelleyan virus, and are reassuringly populated with the sorts of salon-fodder and Georgetown reliables who customarily swell a progress and fill a scene in storybooks of this kidney. At one such soirée:

After looking Zarah up and down, Bitsy, a still-voluptuous former first runner-up for the title of Miss Oklahoma who was many years younger than her white-maned, corpulent husband, smiled a dazzling contestant’s smile and moved protectively closer to the senator.

A relief in a way, for McCarry as well as the reader, to have got the senatorial mane out of the way. Or, as McCarry has his journalist-character confess, while he “wrote all this out in green luminescent letters”:

The computer screen, so like another consciousness in its eager response to every thought and word, had an almost hypnotic effect on him.

This piece of work—bad writing about bad writing—is an oblique clue to McCarry’s style of composition, or better say compilation. It also introduces one of McCarry’s animating grudges, which is the one he holds against the press. Interviewed recently by The New Yorker, William Kristol had this to say about the most pelted target of the conservative and neoconservative vernacular:

I admit it—the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.

This is a piece of magnanimity in victory from a former Reagan and Quayle man, and a current Murdoch man, but it is nonetheless welcome for that. Considering the insipidity of the press since at least the Watergate hearings, it is also an overdue recognition. Charles McCarry in fiction cannot even contemplate the concession that Kristol makes in fact. He goes at the thing foot, horse, and guns. The reporter Macalaster, so essential to the turgid narration and thus indispensably present throughout, is nonetheless a member of a subversive profession, and so:

He would never have gone to college if he had not been inducted into the Army at nineteen and sent to Vietnam in the place of some rich kid who dodged the draft. His social background won him assignment as a rifleman in the First Infantry Division and he was wounded twice by enemy fire, both times superficially, in battles around the Iron Triangle.

While attending Williams College in the early 1970s as a representative of the deserving poor, he had been bullied in class and undermarked by leftist professors while being regarded as a babykiller by members of the antiwar movement, who constituted the majority of the student body. At the same time, Movement chicks from Bennington College who imagined themselves to be undercover members of the Viet Cong crawled through his window at night, as if he were a prisoner of war who excited their sexual fantasies. At Williams Macalaster discovered in himself a deep, undiscriminating curiosity and a gift for writing, and after serving an apprenticeship on a Buffalo newspaper, he got a job with a paper in Washington.

Here is all the self-pity of the American right, along with some of its prurience, condensed into one clichéclotted passage. (The stuff about class, sex, and the veteran might be easier to take, though not by much, if it had not come from the pen that once produced phrases to be intoned by Cabot Lodge.) One wants to ask: How did Macalaster find a niche in the degraded business of Washington journalism if he was so gung-ho and wholesome? McCarry solves this by having him ostracized within the profession and confined to “writing books, appearing on talk shows on cable television, and writing a twice-weekly syndicated column.” Nobody lives in Washington and does those three things and occupies a political position to the left of Walter Mondale. (Let’s not be so tasteless as to “reopen the wounds of Vietnam” and inquire how a twice-wounded rifleman gets himself bullied at Williams College.)

The question now arises: Is this a nasty book, or just a stupid one? We are, remember, supposed to be in an unprecedented constitutional interregnum, with no lawful president in the White House and cabals afoot and nuclear weapons on the loose, to say nothing of the Shelleyans closing in with their weird Whiffenpoof oaths. Yet dozens of pages trudge by, and whole swaths of conversation and explanation occur, without so much as a single microsecond of tension. Subplots and characters break the surface only to vanish utterly; points in the evolution of the story are established only to be entirely forgotten. For example, in a moment of all-American sentiment or whimsy, McCarry elects at first to show both rivals for the presidency as friends beneath the skin:

In Lockwood’s mind, everything that had happened between them in their struggle over the presidency was just politics. He was a throwback to the age when American politicians were Christians first and ideologues second. [When was that, by the way?] Such men forgave and forgot; to them, politics was a game, not a religion. Lockwood had been Mallory’s friend for more than twenty years, and Mallory had been his.

In spite of all the fouls on both sides, he was Mallory’s friend even now. Nothing could change this…[etc., etc.]

In support of this redundancy-laden paragraph (one can presume that if someone has been someone’s friend for twenty years, the other someone will have been his friend also) McCarry has Mallory and Lockwood meet in the White House for a man-to man and a one-on-one. The longueurs of this encounter would make Lord Snow himself wonder if he wasn’t holding up the action. Yet for the remainder of the story, the plot is needlessly and repeatedly convoluted by the insertion of “intermediaries” who have to perform feats of disguise and evasion in order to relay simple messages between these two old and intimate friends.

Irritating distractions have their counterpart, in this masterpiece of inattention, in obvious omissions and inconsistencies. The sinister radical lesbian named Slim, who is a pliant tool of the Shelleyans and who is commissioned to research and discredit poor boozy Speaker Attenborough, is unaware at the dénouement of whether or not he is married. Julian Hubbard is described on one page as being sexually impotent because of his blood-pressure pills but then, only a few pages later:

Like the giant he was, he plucked her from the floor and bore her, kissing and groaning, toward the bed. And as his great ursine weight fell upon her with a brutality that made her gasp with pleasure…

Yes, yes. After a while, I stopped listing the contradictions. Why should I care, if McCarry does not?

What he does care about, and does prosecute with some energy and consistency, is the rehabilitation of Richard Milhous Nixon. As the impeachment of President Lockwood looms, the near impeachment of President Nixon is recalled. One of the good-guy lawyers opines:

Richard Nixon seems to have been condemned not for what he did, for which there was no documentary evidence until the Supreme Court, in effect, ordered him to incriminate himself by releasing the famous tapes, but for what a majority of the House of Representatives and the news media perceived him to be—a bad man.”

(Bear in mind, incidentally, that the above is an unusually lively sample of McCarry’s dialogue.) The plain fact—that Nixon got off scot-free—nonetheless dilutes the pure self-pity that his partisans desire to feel on his behalf. It must be dealt with somehow. So McCarry has President Lockwood say, of his disgraced predecessor:

The fact is, he resigned the presidency because he knew he didn’t have the votes in the Senate to be acquitted. He thought of the country, of what would happen if the government was paralyzed by a trial he couldn’t win.”

(McCarry here seems to have forgotten that he has already described Lockwood as an unflinching spokesman for the politically correct.)

The role model for this book seems to be The Spike, an atrocious thriller penned jointly by Robert Moss and Arnaud de Borchgrave, and published at the dawn of the Reagan era. The Spike, too, was based on preposterous assumptions (a determinedly liberal and gullible media, an unswervingly partisan and leftist Democratic Party, a cadre of determined Washington internationalists), but it did have some brio as a yarn, did have some oomph in its bedroom scenes, did feature intelligible motives, and did bear in mind the relationship between one action and another. Partly as a result, it succeeded in influencing the local Zeitgeist and in creating the atmosphere for a man like William Casey. No such luck, I would venture, for this effort. McCarry is from the same milieu as Moss, de Borchgrave (and Casey), but he doesn’t know plot from shinola and his timing is off. Seeking to express the fullest possible contempt for the William Kunstler type whom the Democrats desire to make Chief Justice, McCarry has one of his characters say:

But then, what does anybody really know about the son of a bitch except that he’s a friend of any poor suffering underdog that knows how to make a bomb out of fertilizer and diesel oil?”

This, I predict, will not be the keynote novel of the age of Speaker Gingrich, and of Congressman Steve Stockman and Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth.