Better Dead Than Read
When politicians pen novels, we the people are in danger of some taxing reading
In 1935, Louisiana Sen. Huey Long published his ultimate fantasy: He defeats Franklin Roosevelt at the polls and becomes president of the United States. So magnanimous in triumph is Long that he throws FDR a bone, naming him secretary of the Navy.
Well, why not? No reason not to be generous in our dreams.
And politicians have been dreaming just as big ever since, penning novels that often serve as spruced up, more exciting versions of their own lives. Political leaders who've written fiction (and actually called it that) have ranged from former President Jimmy Carter to Saddam Hussein, whose "Be Gone Demons!" was rolling off the presses when he was toppled from power. The latest is Barbara Boxer, Democratic senator from California. Her debut novel, "A Time to Run," hits shelves next month.
Considering how long this literary trend has been around (19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote more than a dozen books), I decided to spend a month reading nothing but novels by politicians. Would they tell us something about leadership? About the pressures of public life? About the need for term limits? Like Marlow in "Heart of Darkness," I was determined to find out the ugly truth.
The Kingfish and the Hornet
First up is the oldest of the books on my list, Long's "My First Days in the White House." The Kingfish, as the Louisiana senator referred to himself, planned on running for president, and this satirical novel was meant as an entertaining way to get a national audience in his corner. (It came a little too late: Long was assassinated shortly before the book was published.)
The novel -- he called it "prophecy" -- begins with Long, the new president, bringing together the most "honest and courageous" leaders to carry out his plans to fix the country's problems. This includes naming Roosevelt to the highest office the Kingfish deems him qualified for.
FDR, offended, resists the offer, saying: "I can't feel that you have complimented me very much. . . . It's a terrible fall from the Presidency to the Secretaryship of the Navy."
Long's laconic response -- just as it was to Herbert Hoover, to whom he also offered a job -- is for Roosevelt to look at it as a step up. "Just what is your position in public life today?" he asks the just-defeated former president.
The remarkable thing about Long's book is that, 70 years later, it still feels current. Long's political style, so funny and disarming, so full of optimism and swagger, is remarkably reminiscent of President Bush's. Reading Long, I couldn't help but wonder what Bush's "My First Days in the White House," written in 1999, would have been like. Maybe a presidential version of "Bridget Jones's Diary"?
"Weight: 185 (could I have put on 2 pounds during a Cabinet meeting? Note to Andy 'Goober' Card: No more Cabinet meetings). Cigarettes: 1 -- slapped it out of Rummy's mouth in Oval Office. Movies watched: 3 (that John Wayne sure has incredible range)."
Well, maybe not. But, to be sure, politicians who've taken up fiction have almost all embraced the maxim "write what you know." That's probably why there's so much description of farming and the land in Jimmy Carter's 2003 opus, "The Hornet's Nest," even though the book's cover insists it's a "novel of the Revolutionary War."
At least the places described by Carter are believable, if uninteresting. The people who inhabit those places are both unbelievable and uninteresting. Yes, folks were more formal back in George Washington's time, but what passes for everyday conversation in Carter's imagination is just plain painful. ("I'm glad to hear this," says one character, chewing the fat on a hot afternoon. "Now let me explain my tentative schedule, which of necessity must always be quite flexible.")
What breaks your heart is Carter's obvious earnestness. He didn't write "The Hornet's Nest" for the kick of being a published author -- he'd already proven himself an excellent memoirist with "Turning Point." He wrote it because he thought he had an important story to tell. But because he was the 39th president of the United States, there was no one to tell him he just didn't have it in him.
To put some kind of positive spin on "Hornet's Nest," we can say this much for Carter the novelist: He didn't succumb to the standard ego stroke of the politician-novel genre -- the thinly disguised doppelganger/hero who clears up misconceptions about the real thing.
For example, in "The Accidental Pope," Edward Kirby, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and former mayor of Chicago, "was a zealous jogger whose clear eyes, lean face, trim stature and universally respected work ethic belied an undeserved reputation in the hostile Chicago press for excessive consumption of wine and beer."
The author of that sentence? Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Boston mayor and dedicated runner whose not-so-clear eyes and widely questioned work ethic in Rome underscored his reputation, deserved or not, in the Boston press for excessive consumption of wine and beer.
Just one page later, we are told that Kirby "had been termed the 'Lech Walesa of American politics.' " Take that, Vaclav Havel.
The Lost Cause
After the twin disasters of "Hornet's Nest" and "The Accidental Pope" (Flynn's accidentally silly book is about the first American pontiff, Pope Bill), it was time to turn to Newt Gingrich. With the former speaker of the House's best-known previous book being the campaign tome "Contract With America," there was little reason to expect much from his 2003 alternative history "Gettysburg," the first in a trilogy.
But the novel, written with William Forstchen, turns out to be an audacious and remarkably readable account of the great Civil War battle, with the twist being that this time Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia wins. In particular, the insightful explication of the strategy and field decisions make clear just how easily the battle could have gone the other way. The story is so believable, in fact, that I recommend you follow it with Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels," an earlier, Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional account of the battle that still lets the North prevail.
Gingrich's impressive success with "Gettysburg" is due in part to his cinematic approach, focusing on action and large, straightforward themes, and keeping the characters' interior lives to a minimum. He seems to have instinctively understood that he could get himself in trouble if he reached for any emotion more complex than: "The anger began to flare. 'Damn!' " (That's Lee getting angry, in case you're wondering.)
Gingrich and Huey Long, it turns out, were the only ones on my reading list who had this self-awareness; the rest seemed to have no knowledge of any lack of craft. This is not to suggest all of these politician-writers are without talent, just short on practice. Here's former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, now a candidate for governor of New York, in the coming-of-age novel "Stillwater":
"The hat shops were all gone by the late 1920s. . . . Grandma found work at the Gee and Grover wooden box factory but said it wasn't the same. I supposed it was the same, but you like best the thing you do when you're young."
Compare that with Nick Hornby -- who's probably never even voted -- in the come-of-age-but-not-happy-about-it novel "High Fidelity:" "(Sarah and I) were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being left alone for the rest of their lives at twenty-six; we were of that disposition. Everything seemed much later than it was, and after a few months she moved in with me."
Why does Hornby's paragraph work and not Weld's? It's not what they're trying to get across -- doleful angst, for the most part -- but the voices they use. Hornby's thirtysomething protagonist, speaking about himself from a short remove, is immediately relatable and even kind of moving.
Weld's observation, though also relatable, falls into the "no duh" category and rings false coming from the book's 15-year-old narrator.
Which is exactly why it's surprising that office seekers continue to write fiction. With politicians more aggressively packaged and scripted than ever, you'd think a literary sideline would be verboten. Because writing a novel does exactly the opposite of politicians' public mission: Novels show us just how human their authors really are.
That may be the best reason yet to read them.
– By Douglas Perry, published in The Oregonian, 2005
Image at top: An illustration of Long from "My First Days in the White House"
Four novels that ran up against term limits
Here are four novels on my list that I hadn't finished by the month's end. Some I'm still reading and enjoying; others I abandoned to keep my will to live.
"A Time to Run" by Barbara Boxer with Mary-Rose Hayes (2005)
Engaging story, though Boxer's descriptive style tends to come across like Snoopy channeling Raymond Chandler: "The slam of the car door sounded loud as a gun shot. He approached Micaela's building, hearing the sound of his footsteps, the water slapping around the pilings, the foghorns, and, out in the bay, the bark of a sea lion."
"The Strategies of Zeus" by Gary Hart (1987)
Would make a great Senate subcommittee report on arms control, except for the sex scenes.
"The Canfield Decision" by Spiro Agnew (1978)
Unreadable, says this nattering nabob of negativism.
"Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less" by Jeffrey Archer (1976)
A conservative Brit writing in a liberal era led to a lot of sentences such as this one: "He recalled what his tutor in European affairs used to say: 'If you must work in Great Britain, better make it the North Sea. With their union problems, there's nothing else great about the country.' "
– Douglas Perry