The familiar point of "Welcome to Washington, Mr. Witherspoon" is that things in the nation's capital stink. The novel is future fantasy mingled, "Ragtime" style, with enough names of real people or obvious caricatures to be spicy.
The year is 1983 (get it?). Spiritual, mental and physical aberrations abound. The State is flaccid. Our freedoms are endangered at home and abroad. In all, the portrait is meant to be grim, the humor cynical, the effect disturbing yet entertaining: a moralist's warning.
Despite taking on the presidency, Congress and the sapped will of the Republic -- in short, despite its topicality -- "Welcome to Washington, Mr. Witherspoon" is still only a lampoon: too crude to be anything more than mockery. Satire is one of the highest arts and by a far cry, this book falls short of anything lofty.
Having said that, I admit to sort of enjoying it. I swallowed the exploits of Witherspoon and company in a few quick and willing gulps.
There are plenty of amusing character touches: a hapless, cuckoled congressman named Wilson Wheeler it issaid, was being considered in the mid-1970s for a Cabinet position. "Gerald Ford reportedly wanted him to be secretary of commerce. The New York Times called the consideration 'intolerable.' Then, during an unfortunate news conference, Ford said, 'Yes, William Wheeler is high on my list.' He was afterward reminded that Wheeler's first name was Wilson, and rumors of the appointment faded quickly and forever."
The Washington sex carnival is bawdy, even raunchy, but considering Fanne Foxe and Elizabeth Ray from our recent past, not necessarily outrageious. Although some Tiede portrayals of lewdness are not for the prim, they do fit the mood of the book.
The plot is in altogether too many bits and pieces to sum up but generally the situation is this: The Soviets are evacuating their cities as an obvious prelude to nuclear attack; then they demand the return of Alaska; the vice president is plotting to get rid of his boss, who is a psychotic; A House committee on the media is after the press; one congressman on the House floor displays a picture of his wife in flagrante with a colleague. And so on.
Witherspoon is a statue of a signer of the Declaration of Independence who comes to life on Aug. 23, 1983, and rambles through a steamy capital. The narrative employs a series of quick-take episodes that rush us through the day until midnight when the statute resumes his pedestal in despair.
The post-midnight climax sees all the great figures of U.S. history wrenched back to life to spare America the catastrophe it seems destined for. Jefferson places his hand on Witherspoon's arm and says: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."
Tom Tiede is a Washington journalist, who among other things, wrote a quickie book some years back about William Calley of My Lai fame. Now he's gone from solemnity to ribaldry. I'd rather smile too.