Speak Now

I’ve always been fascinated by politics and history; the two go hand-in-hand, and you really cannot understand one without understanding the other. (Economics are also a lot more important than is ever given credit in most histories–wars and exploration and colonization was, inevitably, always about markets and trade and thus money) I’ve maintained for years that history should be taught as the advancement of individual rights–the ups and downs of individual freedoms, rather than dates and battles and Kings and Queens and Emperors–and that study of individual rights also needs to examine prejudices and bigotry and zealotry, and how those three factors have poisoned civilization and humanity throughout much of its history. I also feel that, while the study of wars are important for their impact, the fact that the impact these wars had on the citizens of the country (countries) being invaded was also important. Putting humanity in the study of human history would not only make it more interesting, but would also further the understanding that should come with the study.

I tend to avoid books about politics, or political thrillers–the news provides enough stranger than fiction moments every day–and as a general rule, fictional films about politics rarely interest me, either. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years, thinking a fictional show about our government couldn’t be interesting enough for us to get vested in; we were clearly wrong (but I still refuse to watch The American President.) Fletcher Knebel, a long forgotten writer of the mid-twentieth century, wrote political thrillers, and while I was aware of him when I was young, I never read any of his books; why read about fictional politics when actual history is available to read and study? But a few years ago, I read an article about one of his books, recently brought back into print, and intrigued me enough to want to read it.

It’s premise: what if a sitting American President begins to slowly lose his mind and grip on reality?

And I am sure you can imagine why that premise was intriguing.

Jim MacVeagh’s burst of laughter came so unexpectedly, his hand jiggled the stem of the wineglass, and a splash of champagne spotted the linen tablecloth. Sidney Karper, the Secretary of Defense, sitting on his right, grinned in shared appreciation and shook his head.

“Unbeatable, isn’t he, Senator? He just won’t be topped.”

“Nobody can touch him when he’s determined,” agreed MacVeagh. He wiped at his eye with a corner of his napkin and turned back toward the center of the long head table, cluttered with late debris of ashes and crumpled menus amid the sparkle of glassware.

The speaker, President Mark Hollenbach, was mock-solemn again after flashing a responsive smile for the spray of laughter which greeted his first sally. His was the honor chore of the night–the brief reply to the toast to the President of the United States which signaled the closing of another annual Gridiron dinner. The news correspondents had lampooned the Hollenbach administration and its foes in a series of musical skits, some sharp as stilettos but one belabored in its buffoonery, while the Marine Band orchestra in shining scarlet coats. played for the 550 diners.

I finally read this book while I was on vacation over Thanksgiving week, and found myself enjoying it tremendously. It’s a thriller, of course, and the main character is junior Iowa senator Jim MacVeagh. Jim’s a good guy, without too much ambition, with a wife he loves and a tween daughter he adores; he also is having an affair with the chair of the DNC’s secretary–not really a smart thing to do, but we see this self-destructive behavior from politicians all the time (although the idea that adultery is disqualifying for higher office has long since been shown up as a lie). After the Gridiron Club dinner, Jim is invited by the president to join him for a talk at Camp David–and it is there the story kicks into gear. Enormously popular President Mark Hollenbach has decided to dump his vice-president for the upcoming campaign–he’s been tainted with a whiff of scandal regarding a building project a campaign donor was awarded–and the President is interested in having Jim join him on the campaign trail.

Naturally, this is very exciting for Jim, awakening ambitions he wasn’t aware he’d even had, and realizing that, if selected, this would make him the front runner for the top of the ticket in four years–which of course is very exciting for any politician, particularly a young one–but as the conversation continues, Jim begins to become concerned, as some of the things the President wants to do in his second term are not only unconstitutional but borderline insane–for one example, he wants to wire tap every American’s phone, so as better to track and prevent crime, espionage, and foreign agents–and he also displays paranoiac tendencies. As Jim gets closer to the President and one step closer to being on the ticket, more and more evidence of the president’s instability is revealed to him….and he has to. ask himself–party or country? Patriotism or partisanship?

This is a terrific read, and certainly one any American today could identify with and get caught up in the story.

I’m now curious to read other works of Knebel’s, and then of course, Allen Drury’s terrific series of novels about Washington, beginning with Advise and Consent.

I do remember reading an Arthur Hailey novel about politics–yes, government was one of the industries he turned his research and writing to–called In High Places. (I read this during my Arthur Hailey phase; I learned alot from his books. I read The Moneychangers when I worked at a bank; he was spot on about day to day operations on the floor. I reread Airport when I worked at an airport; again, pretty spot on, despite the decades of changes to the industry since he researched and wrote the book.) And The Coyotes of Carthage, which I read earlier this year, was one of the best books I’ve read about rural politics.

I think you might enjoy Night of Camp David. I certainly did.