The Rules of the Game

A Novel

By Leonard Downie Jr.
Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95
Jan. 11, 2008


Chapter One

It was a moment Sarah Page had been working toward ever since she first walked into the Washington Capital newsroom six summers earlier. Yet it felt as though she was being punished.

"I have rules," Ron Jones, the political editor, was warning her. "And I expect you to follow them."

Jones, a big, burly man, overwhelmed the little desk that separated them in his cramped, glass-walled office on the edge of the newsroom.

"Do I have to explain it all over again?" Sarah asked. She knew she had to keep her composure or miss this opportunity to move onto the national politics staff. She sat as tall as she could in a chair facing Jones.

"Of course not," he told her, softening his tone. "And I'm not blaming you. Evans should've known better. He was an editor."

"He wasn't really my editor," Sarah said. It was important that she not be seen as a victim, a naïve young woman seduced by her boss. She didn't want special treatment.

"Investigative projects get pretty intense. At least this one did," she said softly. "Is that why I'm being moved?"

"Hell, no," said Jones. "I wouldn't let the local staff dump anyone on me. I asked for you. You did good work on those lobbyists in Maryland.

"And you were tough but fair with the governor," he added, "even though she's a woman."

Sarah hated being constantly reminded that politics was still mostly a man's game. In Annapolis, the suggestive comments of leering legislators and dismissive slights by some of the veteran reporters had made it clear she would never be one of the boys. In the newsroom, she had faced the widespread assumption that male colleagues had the inside track to the national politics staff.

Before she could respond, Jones smiled knowingly, as though sharing an inside joke.

"C'mon, look at me," he told her, spreading wide his huge arms. "Don't you think people have always seen a big bad black man before thinking anything else? It's only made me more aggressive. Sometimes, in this business, it helps to have a chip on your shoulder."

Sarah thought about that for a moment.

"You think I do?"

"I know it's a cliché," Jones said, looking at her intently. "But I see a determined young woman fighting for respect. I also see something of an idealist, but we'll cure you of that."

Sarah saw herself as a fighter, too, but not necessarily an idealist. Her parents, who had grown up in the sixties and worked as reporters in Washington, had always talked about a sense of mission in journalism after Watergate. But that was before they switched to public relations and lobbying, where the money was.

"So why aren't there more women on your staff?" she asked Jones.

"Fair question. I inherited these guys, and nobody ever leaves. So I asked for you the minute I heard they wanted to separate you and your editor friend."

"Former friend," Sarah shot back. "He dumped me."

"Sounds like you're still pissed."

"I am. It's all over the newsroom, for heaven's sake. But I'm dealing with it. I just have no social life."

"You don't have to be a nun," Jones told her. "But there're no secrets in political reporting. So it's not a good idea to fraternize on the beat.

"Some of my guys aren't happy about you," Jones added. "They don't think you've had enough experience. And a couple of them are close to Evans. They resent your coming over here after what happened to him."

"So you're really not doing me any favors."

"Listen. I know how badly you wanted this. And you're getting it a few years early." Jones leaned back in his chair. "You know, when you think about it, you should be kissing my ass."

They both laughed, and Sarah relaxed enough to make her pitch.

"I'd like to cover money."

"That's just what I figured." Jones smiled at her directness. "And I don't have anyone on it full-time yet. The Democrats are raising and spending more than ever to take back the White House, and the Republicans are matching them dollar for dollar. I'm particularly interested in what Trent Tucker will be doing."

Sarah nodded.

"You know who Tucker is, don't you?" Jones asked. "He's running Monroe Capehart's campaign for the Democrats. I think he did some work for Elizabeth Tawney in Maryland."

Sarah froze for a moment. Was he testing her?

"I met him when I was covering Governor Tawney," she said carefully. "He was a consultant for her campaign."

"Well, he might be a good place for you to start," Jones said. "He's a walking conflict of interest. A consultant and a lobbyist. He helps put them into office and then he lobbies them on behalf of his business clients. If Capehart wins, Tucker will have the run of the White House."

Sarah had known she wouldn't be able to avoid Tucker if she covered money and politics. But she felt she had prepared herself for it.

"I'll send you to the conventions so you can meet everyone," Jones said. "You'll have a few weeks to do some homework before the Democrats go to Chicago. I'll make sure your new colleagues help you."

"I'm okay on my own," Sarah said. "I've always been pretty independent-you know, the only child of two workaholics."

Jones could already tell she was a loner, the kind of instinctive outsider who, in the news business, often gravitated to investigative reporting. But he wondered who she was trying to convince, him or herself?

Less than five minutes after Sarah left Jones's office, Mark Daniels strolled in. Jones made a show of looking at his watch.

"What took you so long?"

"You're not really bringing Sarah Page over here, are you?"

Mark knew the decision had been made, but he didn't like it.

"Why not?"

"She doesn't understand politics," Mark said, casually perching himself on the edge of Jones's desk. "She's really an investigative reporter."

"She was investigating politicians."

"That was in Maryland. This is the big leagues."

"C'mon, Mark," Jones said. "Your real problem is your friend Evans. He gets busted. She gets promoted. And that doesn't seem fair to you. Do married guys who fool around have some kind of club?"

"Low blow." Mark slid off the desk and flopped onto the worn black leather couch on the other side of the office. "I've never messed around with anyone in the newsroom. Anyway, whatever became of consenting adults?"

"They had to be separated." Jones went through the motions of explaining what Mark already knew. "Evans was one of her supervisors on Metro. He broke the rules, so he gets exiled to a suburban bureau. I asked for Page because she has potential, and I needed more bodies for the campaign. I wanted someone who could do money, which she did in Maryland."

"I heard she thought everybody in the legislature was on the take."

"Some of them were, including a couple of the governor's allies. Page did Tawney a favor."

"Tom told me he had to rein her in."

Jones leaned forward over his desk.

"So," he said, slowly and emphatically, "Evans wasn't just screwing around behind his wife's back. He was also bad-mouthing his girlfriend behind her back."

"I shouldn't have said that." Mark straightened up on the couch.

"Damn right," Jones told him. "Sarah's part of the team now. I'm sending her to the conventions, and I want you to show her around."

A few days later, on the Fourth of July, Sarah allowed herself to sleep late in the small house she shared in the old Palisades neighborhood, just beyond Georgetown on a bluff above the Potomac River. Her housemate, a lawyer, who was intent on becoming a partner in her firm, had already left to spend the holiday working downtown. Sarah's task for the day was nearer at hand.

The late morning sunlight was filling her upstairs bedroom. She threw on a T-shirt, shorts, running shoes, and a baseball cap that covered her short black hair. Rather than going for a run or to the gym, as she did most mornings, she walked over to MacArthur Boulevard, where she knew the Fourth of July Palisades parade would be starting.

It was a distinctly neighborhood affair, with fire trucks from the local engine house and police cars from the Second District sounding their sirens, a big refrigerated truck from Safeway honking its air horn, and open convertibles carrying parents and children from local churches and schools. It was traditionally political, with the mayor and members of the city council marching amid supporters who handed out campaign buttons and bumper stickers. It was also eclectic, with representatives of the Oldest Inhabitants association in antique cars, a Bolivian dancing troupe in brightly colored costumes, Scottish bagpipers in plaid kilts, and a gay marching band called D.C.'s Different Drummers.

Sarah walked the length of the parade route down to the edge of the Georgetown Reservoir and back toward Palisades Park, studying faces in the crowd through a reporter's curious eyes. She encountered neighbors, newsroom colleagues who lived nearby, and a lawyer who had once been a source of hers.

When she saw the energetic young mayor coming toward her, shaking as many hands as he could, Sarah decided to introduce herself. He was only a few years older than Sarah, and she noticed how fit he looked from his well-publicized running and exercise regimen. His shaved head glistened like polished mahogany in the sunlight.

"Good to see you again, Miss Page," the mayor said, taking her by surprise. "We met last year, when I was visiting the governor in Annapolis. I hope you haven't been demoted to covering me. You're too tough."

Sarah was impressed that he remembered her and flattered by what he said. She was about to tell him about her new assignment when the mayor recognized an older woman pushing toward him.

"Mrs. Landry, so good to see you," he said, reaching out his hand. "Thanks again for that reception in your beautiful home."

I guess I'm not that important to him, Sarah thought, remembering that it wasn't the first time she had taken a politician's fleeting attention too seriously. She slipped away and continued down the street.

Just as she neared Old Chain Bridge Road, a winding lane that tumbled downhill into MacArthur Boulevard, she spotted Trent Tucker. Wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, with shorts as white as his legs, open-toed sandals, and a floppy hat and sunglasses, he was off by himself, sprawled in a lawn chair on the grassy hillside.

"Sarah Page, my darlin'," Tucker called out before she could reach him. He took off his sunglasses to better assess her tanned, athletic body. "Aren't you still a fine-lookin' woman."

How could I have forgotten that down-home accent he uses when he turns on the charm? Sarah thought. She knew that Robert Trent Tucker III, who hated the traditions of old Southern families like his own and never used his full name, liked to manipulate people.

"I didn't know you lived around here," Sarah said, acting surprised. Actually, she had already looked up his address-just up the hill on Old Chain Bridge Road-and had spied on the castle-like stone house from outside its gates. She had also checked on what he paid for the house and the amount of the mortgage, which, according to city land records, was held by a company called Malin Associates.

"No 'Hello, how've you been?' darlin'?" Tucker drawled, easing into the lopsided grin that women found inexplicably captivating. "I know it's been a long time, but there's no need to be cold about it."

"Just businesslike, Trent. They've moved me to the national political staff."

"We're reunited? Hallelujah!" Tucker waved his sunglasses in mock celebration but made no move to get up. Sitting in his lawn chair, his chalky legs splayed in front of him, he was at eye level with Sarah, who was standing just below him on the hillside.

"So," she asked, as though she hadn't heard him, "do you live around here now?"

"Sure do, darlin', back a ways up the hill and round the bend." He motioned toward Chain Bridge Road. "What about you? Are you a neighbor? Or are you here workin' the parade? I saw the mayor come by a while ago." He paused, still grinning. "But then, you just said you were coverin' national politics now, didn't you?"

"I live on the other side of MacArthur, toward the river," she said, ignoring the teasing she had once found so amusing.

"Sounds nice. Maybe we can take a walk round the 'hood some time."

"You don't walk, Trent," Sarah said. "I wonder how you're going to get back home when the parade's over."

Tucker laughed.

"That's my car, parked right over there, the big Beemer. I drove down, darlin'. That hill's real steep."

"They've assigned me to campaign finance," Sarah told Tucker, turning serious to put him on notice. "I'll be in touch after I get up to speed. And I'm going to the convention in Chicago. Maybe I'll see you there."

"Happy to see you anytime, darlin'."

Tucker put his sunglasses on, and Sarah walked back down into the crowd watching the parade. He's got a bit more paunch, she thought, but otherwise he didn't seem to have changed much. But everything else had. Once, she had been his quarry. Now he would be hers.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Rules of the Game by Leonard Downie, Jr. Copyright © 2009 by Leonard Downie, Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
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