Former President Bill Clinton signs copies of his new novel written with author James Patterson, “The President is Missing,” on June 5 in New York. | AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
The novels of former politicians give us a real glimpse into our elected leaders’ worldviews. And it’s kind of scary.
By COLIN DICKEY
June 09, 2018
Colin Dickey is a regular contributor to the LA Review of Books and Lapham’s Quarterly, and is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.
If war, as Carl von Clausewitz argued, is politics by other means, then so too is fiction. Politicians have long written books: the jeremiad screed describing how the country is on the wrong track, the memoir-cum-launching-pad for higher office, the forest-felling autobiography. But more and more politicians have turned to writing novels in the past few years: If you can’t beat ’em at the ballot box, beat ’em in your increasingly elaborate fictional worlds.
This spring has seen former New York Rep. Steve Israel’s second novel, Big Guns, a satire about the National Rifle Association, and, of course, Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s publishing event of the season, The President Is Missing, already topping the bestseller lists (though the headlines it’s generating are less about the book and more about Clinton’s responses to difficult questions on his book tour). But they’re not alone: Other politicians, including former President Jimmy Carter and former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, have also tried their hand at fiction in the past decade.
And then there’s Newt Gingrich, the King Daddy of all politicians-turned-novelists. Gingrich has churned out 12 novels since 1995, including a slew of alternative histories and, recently, a trilogy of thrillers with their de rigeur single-noun names exuding gravitas: Duplicity (2015), Treason (2016) and Vengeance (2017). Despite many of the more recent political novelists being Democrats, the modern trend of politicians turning to fiction can be justly credited to Gingrich, who laid out a path for this increasingly common second act.
Why do so many politicians of late seem to be picking up the pen? It’s not for fame, obviously. Nor does it seem to come from a wellspring of deep artistry, given the leaden prose on display here (most of these books are co- or ghost-written, anyway). Partly it’s to show off insider knowledge; Gingrich Treason (co-written with Pete Earley) takes an unexpected break at one point from its fast-paced terrorism plot to detail how an insurgent Republican congressional candidate might unseat an incumbent Democrat in the South. Israel’s Big Guns touts some insider lore about the infamous navy bean soup in the Capitol Dining Room, and The President Is Missing promises in its cover flap “details only a president could know,” bends over backward to explain insidery language and protocol (When the Secret Service describes a suspicious person as “clear,” narrator President Jonathan Duncan explains, it means “she’s confirmed as not having explosives … [or] they’ve moved her far enough away to eliminate the threat to me.”)
But mainly, for these politicians, fiction is about stacking the deck. Politics is messy—you lose your majority, you get impeached, the whims of the voters are capricious. People are complicated, their motives unknown and ambiguous. Sometimes, the facts support your philosophy, but more often they don’t. The life of a politician is inevitably frustrating, but in your own fictional universe you get complete control over the narrative.
How a politician structures that fictional universe reveals a lot about his or her worldview. Instead of embracing the world’s messiness, and using the novelist’s tools to puzzle through that disconnect between fact and philosophy, political fictions reduce the world to its lowest common denominator, condensing the messy, complicated world into good vs. evil. And in the writers’ quest to prove good will prevail over bad, civil liberties are suspended, presidents recruit terrorists to work on their side and compromise is useless—story details that in the end elide the difference between good and bad in the first place. For all their clever plot twists and thrilling moments, these novels offer worlds mean and simple, and, ultimately, a crude, any-means-necessary nihilism.
The President Is Missing involves a national security breach so severe, and so secret—a devastating computer virus—it threatens to bring down the nation’s entire internet infrastructure, destroying everything from its national defense capabilities to the most basic of services. With no choice but to trust a mysterious hacker, President Duncan agrees to cut free from his own Secret Service detail and go undercover, meeting an informant at a Washington Nationals game who may or may not be willing to help him thwart the cyberattack. Ambushed, the president, alone and undefended, is forced to shoot his way out of a siege by unknown assassins, and as the nation’s peril deepens, it’s clear only the president can save his nation.
In the political novel, your own party is ethically serious, committed to country, resolved to do the right thing no matter the political cost (“No politics today,” Clinton’s President Duncan instructs his aides over a particularly tense decision. “No worrying about what might come out later.”) The opposing party’s politicians, on the other hand, are partisan hacks, whose ambition has so sabotaged their moral compasses they conspire with terrorists. (Both Treason and The President Is Missing revolve around a traitor buried deep in the high echelons of government, throwbacks to a time when such a plot was found only in political thrillers and was not the question mark at the center of a federal investigation.)
In Clinton’s novel, no good deed goes unpunished, and trying to save the country earns one only an impeachment threat. But then, this is only because, as The President Is Missing tries to explain to us, no one but the president himself understands the burdens and secrets of the job—as such, he is above reproach, best left unquestioned and unhindered in his quest to keep us all safe.
Gingrich, on the other hand, who never got to be president, hardly thinks the commander in chief is above reproach. Especially if she’s a Democrat. Gingrich’s liberals, when they’re not openly colluding with the enemy, are feckless, useless and spineless. In Duplicity, the scandal of Benghazi is definitely real (though transposed to Mogadishu), the result of a craven electoral ploy by a weak Democratic president. Hoping to use her foreign policy experience as a wedge against an “America First” Republican challenger, president Sally Allsworth pushes through the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Somalia, leading to an inevitable terrorist attack. While ordinary Marines rise up to save the day, the Hillary Clintonesque character is dithering and overmatched; she and her squishy advisers repeatedly choose moderation, constitutional norms and basic humanitarian legalities as America descends into chaos, a direct result of her simpering ninnyism.
It falls to America’s True Heroes to shoot first and shoot often, since, to hear Newt tell it, all Muslims are terrorists, and every single last one of them has it in for America. In Duplicity’s sequel, Treason, the American government is paralyzed by inaction and a traitorous mole, as an all-powerful terrorist named the Falcon wages all-out war on America.
Arab journalists are ghouls (after the Falcon sends a video to the Al Jazeera stand-in, Al Arabic, threatening to behead hostages, the reporter is described as “clearly excited” as she “breathlessly announce[s]” this exciting scoop). When a Muslim woman complains that she’s being racially profiled for wearing a hijab, any civil liberties issues are rendered moot once she and her accomplice assassinate her would-be profilers. Treating Muslims humanely and letting them live only ensures they’ll return to the battlefield as bloodthirsty savages, superhuman in their criminality and inhumanity, and all attempts to follow the Geneva Convention or observe basic human rights backfire against the milquetoast liberals who cling to humanity at their own peril. (To be sure, one character is a Muslim U.S. congressman and seems explicitly designed to be the good foil to the other Muslim characters in the book, and even he doesn’t get that far away from extremism—his brother is a terrorist.) Terror attacks and assassinations come so fast they quickly blur and lose effect, but Gingrich’s intent is to depict the world as an all-out Holy War between Islam and the West, in which inhuman foes will stop at nothing to bring down our American utopia. The moral certainty in Gingrich’s novels derives from their apocalyptic worldview and vice versa.
Clinton’s fantasies are less partisan in one sense, but more extreme in another: His president not only handily defeats cyberterrorists, but also grabs a gun and dispatches several terrorists himself. President Duncan is an uber-masculine fantasy character, part JFK, part Die Hard’s John McLane (though had this president been at Dealey Plaza, we assume, he would’ve not only dodged Oswald’s bullets, but stormed the book depository and disarmed him).
Mostly, though, The President Is Missing offers a series of do-overs. President Duncan (like Clinton) lets the world’s Most Wanted Terrorist get away (here Suliman Cindoruk rather than Osama bin Laden), but unlike Clinton, Duncan gets another bite at the apple. Here, too, is the threat of impeachment, but now premised not on allegations of perjury but the president’s steadfast commitment to putting America above all else, even his own political fortunes. After all, President Duncan is facing a cyberterrorist threat so severe it could send the country back to the DarkAages. While Gingrich marshals the threat of apocalypse to justify an ever-growing body count, Clinton fantasizes how the same threat might actually bring the country together (and yes, it reads about as plausibly as it sounds). Both writers yearn for an End Times scenario so total it would end American partisanship—and as long as their guy is redeemed in the end, does it really matter how it gets done?
The problem with this eagerness to bend the world to one’s worldview, of course, is that it makes for abysmal writing. Once you reduce the world to ham-handed caricatures of good and evil, it’s hard to maintain the tension and suspense of a thriller—a genre, after all, that depends on moral ambiguity, reversals and surprises.
Steve Israel’s use of satire suits the politician’s outlook better than thrillers do: At least here he’s free not just to embrace stereotypes but hyperbolize them to the point of ridicule. In Big Guns the PACs have names like “Americans for America,” and pro-gun legislation includes funding for “pre-K target practice.” Likewise, the liberals aren’t just feckless, they’re extremely feckless: squaring off against the pro-gun militia We The People Army stands a ragtag group looking “like a field trip from an adult education class on social activism,” calling themselves the We the People Coalition of Peace for All Americans Working Hard to Get Ahead If That’s What They Want, We Don’t Judge. If Big Guns occasionally reads as thin-gruel-Veep, it still manages to turn the liability of political fiction into an asset, taking this tendency for moral simplicity to its reducto ad absurdum conclusion.
But to say Big Guns is more readable than Treason is hardly praise. Either way, this is not the kind of literature that delves into ambiguity and contradiction, inviting us to contemplate how we might face impossible decisions.
Boxer’s A Time to Run is one of the few political fictions to yearn for something approaching complexity and contradiction. Its ripped-from-the-headlines plot follows Sen. Ellen Fischer as she tries to decide whether to torpedo a Supreme Court nominee after she’s given damning information about the nominee from an old flame (the information is fake, the flame a right-wing political operative hoping to draw Fischer into an embarrassing misstep that will cost her her career). But A Time to Run is less a thriller and more of an elegy for lost idealism, following the senator from her days as a young idealist in the waning months of the Nixon administration through to the morass of contemporary political gridlock. As the young Fischer chooses between two suitors—one on either side of the political spectrum—A Time To Run raises the question of how to negotiate between personal desire and political allegiance. Its twist ending, whereby Fischer avoids going public with the ersatz documents while still persuading the nominee to withdraw her nomination, suggests that the answer lies in a deep and abiding cynicism: Maintaining your principles in Washington involves a level of cold-hearted calculation that outmatches even your most cynical opponents.
It’s a shame, then, that it’s so unevenly written, that even when it seeks to escape political clichés it embraces literary ones, dragging down the reader with hackneyed prose. Bad writing is like a shark: It stays alive only as long as it keeps moving, and at least The President Is Missing has a propulsive sense of momentum that keeps the pages turning.
All of these writers have inherited quite a bit (probably without knowing it) from their forebear, Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly served as a representative from Minnesota from 1863 to 1869, before internecine strife drove him out of the Republican Party. He went on write a number of conspiracy-laden books, including a best-seller on the lost continent of Atlantis and a 1,000-page monolith arguing William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. Increasingly involved in the populist movement of the 1890s, he published a number of novels while mounting increasingly unsuccessful presidential runs.
Of his novels, the first, Caesar’s Column (1890), has had the longest-lasting legacy. Set in a futuristic Manhattan of 1988, the wealthy use Fitbits (here called “Vital-Watches”) to monitor their vital signs and regulate their diets, they order lavish meals off iPad-esque touch-screen menus (though their mechanisms are a tad more steampunk). Cool, sweet air is pumped through the streets, and every luxury is at their fingertips. Meanwhile, alongside this plutocratic 1 percent lives a permanent underclass, doomed to poverty and slave-wages, brutalized with impunity by the rich. As the book’s narrator soon learns, an apocalyptic army of the proletariat called The Brotherhood of Destruction is rising up to overthrow a plutocracy of concentrated wealth. Led by the eponymous Caesar Lomellini, the Brotherhood eventually enacts its revenge, taking over New York City in an orgy of bloodshed.
Victorious, the Brotherhood’s first new task is sanitary: Corpses litter the streets, and there’s far too many to dispose of easily. Caesar proposes heaping them into a pile and encasing them in cement, the “column” of the book’s title. “It shall reach to the skies!” he exclaims. “And if there aren’t enough dead to build it of, why, we’ll kill some more; we’ve got plenty to kill.” The narrator, aghast, escapes with his wife and a few friends; his last sight of America is of Union Square, “lighted by the bon-fires, where Caesar’s Column was towering to the skies, bearing the epitaph of the world.”
Caesar’s Column was a best-seller, but its subsequent legacy has been mixed: Many share the horror of historian Richard Hofstadter, who noted that “Far more ominous, however, than any of the vivid and hideous predictions of the book is the sadistic and nihilistic spirit in which it was written.” And it’s true that it’s deliriously difficult reading at times. As with The Dark Knight Rises or Fight Club, it simultaneously critiques economic inequality while predicting that the masses, should they actually rise up, will descend immediately into fascism and bloodshed.
But that nihilism is not unique to Caesar’s Column—it’s the chief component of political fiction. Be it Israel’s jaded resignation on gun politics, Boxer’s admission that political compromise saps one’s soul, or Gingrich’s belief that peace comes only by the blood-soaked hands of hyper-violent American patriots. As a thought experiment on what might actually bring America together, The President Is Missing is so far-fetched and convoluted that it ultimately has nothing to offer but vague wish fulfillment, and for all its insider knowledge it offers little in the way of hope.
The most essential of insider knowledge, which each of these politicians reveals in his or her own ways, is that politics is bullshit. They lament the soul-sucking necessity of compromise, and concoct increasingly elaborate fantasy realms where sticking to one’s guns (often literally) can be both heroic and successful. Ultimately the political novel is a kind self-serving apology—both an explanation for cynical resignation and a justification for war at all costs.
In 1975 Michel Foucault reversed von Clausewitz’s aphorism, arguing that politics is simply war by other means. The same could be said of the political novel.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been clarified to include the Muslim congressman character.
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