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Reviewed by Stephen Amidon
Sunday, January 11, 2009

THE RULES OF THE GAME

By Leonard Downie Jr.

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Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95

As the case of Rod Blagojevich demonstrates, people involved in politics can sometimes view the rules of their game very differently from the rest of us. The Illinois governor was allegedly so convinced that there was nothing wrong with selling a Senate seat that when an FBI agent called to say he was about to be arrested, Blagojevich asked if it were a joke.

Leonard Downie Jr.'s savvy first novel, set in contemporary D.C., captures this atmosphere of ethical relativity. Downie, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, writes about the corridors of power as if they all lead to an exclusive back room at a Vegas casino, where several high-stakes games are in progress, each watched over by a remorseless security team with an agenda all its own.

The newest player in town is Sarah Page, a young reporter at the Washington Capital newspaper. After cutting her teeth covering the Maryland state house, where she distinguished herself with her doggedness but also landed in hot water for sleeping with a senior colleague, Sarah is moved to the paper's vaunted national political team to cover the money side of the game. Her first assignment is to take a hard look at veteran consultant Trent Tucker, a "walking conflict of interest" who treads a fine line between getting politicians elected and lobbying for corporate interests. Tucker is currently the chief strategist for Monroe Capehart, the aging Democratic nominee for the presidency who has just chosen an attractive younger woman, California senator Susan Cameron, as his running mate.

It doesn't take Sarah long to uncover all sorts of dirty dealings on Tucker's part, most notably his entanglement with Carter Phillips, a retired Special Forces general who now runs a shadowy defense contractor called Palisar International. Sarah's digging reveals that Phillips and Tucker have set up an elaborate scheme in which subcontractors "pay to play" by kicking back a portion of their government largesse to the legislators who award them contracts, with Palisar serving as a well-paid middle man. After a House staffer who was Sarah's chief informant is killed by a hit-and-run driver, she realizes that she has stepped through the looking glass into a political netherworld where "ideological purity [is] folly," money and national security are the only absolutes, and no one except her editor is to be trusted. The plot becomes even thicker when it turns out that the kickback scheme is just the tip of an iceberg that involves some of the more extreme practices of our intelligence services in the war on terror.

The Rules of the Game is an engrossing read whose main value is its cunning take on the twisted gamesmanship that underlies Washington politics. Despite often resembling a pack of underfed hyenas, Downie's characters all see themselves as playing by rules that are fundamentally ethical. Tucker might look like a garden-variety conman, but in his own mind he is only practicing a time-honored tradition that greases the wheels of a broken-down government. Phillips, meanwhile, seems to be a war criminal in the making, though from another angle he is simply serving a country that demands radical measures against its foes and yet doesn't have the stomach to ask what's happening behind the interrogation room doors. Even Susan Cameron, with her sterling integrity and flawlessly progressive agenda, played some ruthless matrimonial hardball to take over the Senate seat of her disgraced ex-husband. These often tangential ethical pathways create an elaborate maze for Sarah to negotiate, even as she plunges down a few blind alleys of her own.

While Downie's fictional abilities are not always up to his political sophistication -- his style is never more than pedestrian, and he allows a few of his storylines to wither on the vine -- The Rules of the Game remains a persuasive piece of storytelling. Given the author's pedigree, it is hardly surprising that the book has a strong whiff of authenticity. Downie's best scenes involve meetings in which the give-and-take of Washington power is dramatized: a newspaper publisher standing up to the CIA after being summoned to Langley, a lawyer striking a plea arrangement for a client, a congressman and reporter delineating the limits of the personal and professional before jumping into the sack.

Most impressive, however, is Downie's creation of Sen. Cameron, the fetching young political superstar who dons "a fitted royal blue jacket and skirt that subtly highlighted her figure" while delivering a convention speech that trashes her geriatric running mate's opponent. Either Downie is astonishingly prescient, writing this before the advent of Sarah Palin, or he managed to do it afterward, in which case he is astoundingly fast. Whichever it was, her creation is evidence that we're watching a real pro at work. ยท

Stephen Amidon's new novel, "Security," will be published in February.


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