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 …