Fiction about the nation’s capital is a growth that flourishes only on the lower slopes of Parnassus. Think of the flower of our novelists—Updike, Mailer, Roth, Cheever, Bellow—and see if you can call to mind a single scene that is set on the banks of the Potomac. Mailer did a famous nonfiction account of the march on the Pentagon (The Armies of the Night), and Updike briefly created a lifelike President Buchanan, but that second exception proves a more general rule, exemplified by Gore Vidal’s canon: historical reconstruction is the form in which our novelists prefer to approach the matter.
Can one imagine a Dickens without London or a Zola or Flaubert without Paris? The radix malorum can probably be found in the famous bargain between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, made when New York was still the capital of these United States. In exchange for an agreement to build the constitutionally mandated new Federal City on the border of Jefferson’s beloved Virginia, Hamilton could have his coveted national bank. Thus, and allowing for certain Philadelphian interludes, it was decided early on that the cultural capital of America would be separated from its political one. Other countries that have made similar two-headed arrangements include Australia, Brazil, Burma, and Canada: we yet await the Brasilia or Canberra novel.
I’m among the few who consider Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost a triumph, but to the extent that it is a novel of Washington rather than of the Cold War, it’s part of a formula on which too many authors have relied: the political thriller. As Thomas Mallon, one of the city’s few resident literary novelists, once put it:
Washington novels, such as they are, tend to be found on racks at National Airport, the raised gold letters of their titles promising a bomb on Air Force One or a terrorist kidnapping of the First Lady. There’s a reason for all the goofiness. A serious novelist must take his characters seriously, regard them as three-dimensional creatures with inner lives and authentic moral crises; and that’s just what, out of a certain democratic pride, Americans refuse to do with their politicians.
Democratic pride”: the original of the Washington novel is Henry Adams’s Democracy, published in 1880 with its very title a sneer at the illusion of popular sovereignty. (It also founded the tradition that culminates with Joe Klein and Primary Colors: Adams published his book anonymously, hoping that readers would attribute it to his friend John Hay. Joan Didion borrowed the title, if not the practice, in her antipolitical novel of the same name, published in 1984.)
Probably without wishing to do so, Adams provided a template for later authors to use as their glass of fashion and mold of form. Essential dramatis personae include a president, a society hostess, a British ambassador, a lobbyist or journalist, and a senator—the last customarily outfitted with a “mane.” This mixture is repeated almost pedantically as late as Allen Drury’s classic Advise and Consent, published in 1959. I suspect that it was only with the assassination of President Kennedy that the stately Potomac-paced roman-fleuve began to give way to the imperatives of the anything-goes thriller and to the mounting demand for Washington stories that could easily make the transition to the big screen. I speak as one whose D.C. apartment, with its view of the presidential motorcade, was used by Clint Eastwood as the location of his character’s hideout in the movie version of David Baldacci’s novel Absolute Power. And do I not remember sneering in print at the close of one of Tom Clancy’s ill-carpentered Jack Ryan hack jobs, which ended with a plane crashing into the Capitol dome during a joint session? Currently, a special bipartisan committee is working on recommendations for what to do if that ever does happen, as it so nearly did in 2001. That body’s deliberations on the constitutional implications of such an event could form the basis for a fine novella.
But Washington, so dull to outward appearances, does have a way of outpacing the imagination of pulp writers. John F. Kennedy smuggling the Mob’s molls into the White House bedroom? Nixon and Kissinger praying on the Oval Office rug? Nixon and Chuck Colson discussing a possible bombing of the Brookings Institution? Oliver North running a parallel state and a private treasury from the White House basement? Ronald Reagan musing on the biblical end times with the head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? Bill Clinton’s furtive cigar with Monica Lewinsky, tagged and bagged by the FBI on the grounds—this actually is in a footnote of the Starr Report—that smoking materials were forbidden in the executive mansion?
Fiction somehow declines the responsibility of creating a realistic Washington in favor of various genre approaches. Of the comic one, always so tempting, my friend Christopher Buckley is the acknowledged maestro, feasting on the buffet provided by lobbyists and Hill rats and those unhinged by ambition. (I pause to acknowledge his underrated and noir-ish earlier novel, Wet Work.) Of the politico-ideological and also of the Potomosexual genre, I would nominate Mallon as the leader. How come that’s two literary guys with backgrounds as conservative Catholic Republicans? Search me. Mallon’s most recent novel, Fellow Travelers, is a splendid evocation of Washington in the McCarthy era, with two kinds of victims as the atmosphere thickens: the covert Communists and the closet gays (a faction with a foot more in the camp of the persecuting than in that of the persecuted). It also has what few District fictions possess: a sharp working knowledge of the city’s neighborhoods, from northeast Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom and the Penn Quarter. (George Pelecanos, in his novels about the city in the time before the 1968 race riots, has the same level of shoe-leather skills.)
But here again, we are on the relatively secure turf of the known past. In this dimension, Gore Vidal has no rival. I once heard Newt Gingrich rebuke someone who was bad-mouthing Vidal’s politics, insisting that he wished to hear no ill of the author of the magnificent Lincoln. This work is indeed enormously praiseworthy, as is the larger sequence of which it forms a part. In Burr, for example, Vidal guessed the truth about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings long before most historians grudgingly conceded the point. However, Vidal’s narrative—like the rest of his career—declines as it reaches its end: the last novel of the cycle, The Golden Age, gave as free a rein to paranoia about FDR’s supposed foreknowledge of Pearl Harbor as the old boy’s public pronouncements did to the drivel about 9/11 “truth.”
Here is what Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, the inquisitive widow of Adams’s tale, thinks about moving to a town where she will dwell “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.” Perhaps there will be compensations for this exile to the provinces:
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.
Of course, that’s not exactly what she gets, what with the enervating climate and the pervasive atmosphere of corruption and cynicism. She has to be content with some unsought attentions from a too-powerful senator (the name of this odious charmer is Clinton, as it happens; there is also a character named Gore). No, the fact is that Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process. And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose—unless you’re a fan of the novels of C. P. Snow, which describe the intestinal workings of inner-sanctum power struggles conducted by micro-megalomaniacs.
This brings us to Ward Just, possibly chief among those who have depicted the nation’s capital as the bureaucratic and constipated place that it in fact is. Perhaps by way of offsetting the innate or latent tedium of this enterprise, Just—a former reporter for the Washington Post and Newsweek, who, like Allen Drury, pulled off the journalist’s dream of publishing his bottom-drawer fiction—has a flair for the arresting title. He called one of his books Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women, which certainly outpaces Democracy as an eye-catching title on a bookstall, as well as outbidding it as a definition of what most of our politicians actually work for. One of his short stories—“The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert”—is my selection for the most improbable title ever evolved on the banks of the Potomac.
Like Vidal, Just anchors his narratives in history, but unlike Vidal, he often brings them into our own day. In Echo House, he describes three generations of a political family named Behl. Somewhat didactic, the book is full of reminders that politics is not for the idealistic and is increasingly dominated by the media-savvy and the telegenic. (For some reason, we make this simple discovery anew every decade or so.) After an early disappointment connected with his failure to secure a vice-presidential nomination, the senior Behl hands his son a signed first edition—of Adams’s Democracy.
It must say something that the Adams mold is so hard to break. The days of the Georgetown hostess are gone; the hostesses themselves are gone, too. Their reign began to close years ago, when senators started canceling dinners to appear on shows like Nightline. (There’s a prefiguration of this in Larry McMurtry’s neglected 1982 Washington novel Cadillac Jack, in which a character pontificates on world-shaking matters of which he knows little.) The Washington pundit is also a thing of the past: it’s been a good while since any insider columnist had the kind of access or influence that Ben Bradlee enjoyed with John F. Kennedy. And the British Embassy, while it still stages some of the best dinners, is not the brokerage of influence that it once was. Yet—if we except the intermittent efforts at describing catastrophe or conspiracy, themselves mostly falling short of observable reality—this is the sort of stereotype in which the model remains confined.
Mrs. Lightfoot Lee can say a bit more for herself than her creator, who stressed that consuming interest in POWER. She has a reflective capacity also:
“Who, then, is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. There is only one thing in life,” she went on, laughing, “that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.”
It is that question, and no matter of process or advice or consent, that transcends all the others. We still await the novelist who can address the matter of the last, best hope of earth and treat it without frivolity, without cynicism, and without embarrassment.