Day after day, the newspaper headlines feed our deepest fears. Will evening bring nuclear war or just more sitcoms on television? Do we have enough zeros to handle the budget deficit or will we have to import them from Japan? Will the world banking system collapse before we get to the front of the line at our automated teller machine? And, whatever happened to those dastardly Libyan "hit squads"?
Eventually, we become jaded by the banality of endless bad news. Who can endure week after week of toxic waste dumps and unemployment in Akron, Ohio? That's why many of us burnt-out news junkies seek solace in Washington novels. Here, in this fictional world of highstakes politics, the problems may be blood-curdling, but somehow the republic is always saved on page 328 and the hero (usually an earnest White House assistant) gets the girl (generally a lissome blond TV reporter).
Ideally, of course, a Washington novel should do more than just play on our political neuroses. A century ago, Henry Adams used the genre to comment on the crass energy of democracy in the age of the boodle. On a less-exalted level, Allen Drury created an internally consistent and inherently plausible alternate political universe in "Advise and Consent." But this kind of writing takes imagination, wit, a subtle understanding of the nuances of power, and long hours at the word processor.
Far easier to just grind out a Washington version of the standard Hollywood disaster epic. Instead of a crippled 747, put a hijacker' aboard Air Force One. Instead of a beach community terrorized by a shark, have a beached president almost mauled by a right-wing military coup. Serve up a steady diet of assassination, kidnaping, murder, mayhem and lost nuclear warheads. Let the tension build until you hit nailbiting time in the War Room at the Pentagon.
Anyway, that's the theory of political potboilers. But judging from the outlandish plots of two recent Washington novels, this high-anxiety gambit is beginning to wear thin. The unlikely premise of John Weisman's "Watchdogs" is that a Korean cult is out to assassinate the first Jewish president of the United States. Warren Adler's "American Sextet" is predicated on an equally bizarre notion -- a crazed Washington Post reporter is blackmailing six of the most important men in Washington.
John Weisman is a novelist who has already proven he can write a convincing thriller. His first novel, "Evidence," painted a grimy and grotesque portrait of investigative reporters grappling with drug dealers in the nether reaches of big-city journalism. It vividly portrayed a side of the news business that is light years away from the graceful witticisms of "Washington Week in Review." The novel was an out-growth of the author's own experience on the Detroit Free-Press and, if the characters and situations were sometimes a bit exaggerated, the world that Weisman described had the ring of authencity.
Now Weisman is comfortably situated here in Washington as bureau chief for TV Guide, and an autographed dust jacket from "Evidence" hangs in a place of honor at the fashionable downtown restaurant, Joe & Mo's. It was perhaps inevitable that Weisman's next novel would be set at the White House, include a few megabucks and megalomaniac TV reporters, and offer a small scene at Joe & Mo's. The sad news is that Weisman has a far better feel for the mean streets of Detroit than for the media suites at the Madison Hotel.
"Watchdogs" is as one-dimensional as a White House photo ID. The novel's hero is Bill Chapman, head of the 100-man Secret Service detail guarding the president. Chapman is a square-jawed ex-Marine who "was not the sort to shirk his duties." Separated from his wife, Chapman has been "playing around" with Polly Harris, whose "interviews of celebrities and politicos on television received a 50 share from the Nielsen rating service." One would think Weisman could say something original about TV. Instead, Weisman gives Harris comic-strip dialogue ("God, how I hate losing a story") and her arch rival could win a Sam Donaldson look-alike contest.
I have avoided the plot, because Weisman's choice of a villain strikes me as a gratuitous cheap shot. I am no defender of religious cults. But it's pretty heavy-handed to begin a novel by claiming that a South Korean would-be messiah is trying to kill the president. Especially when the cult's called the Centralized Congregation, its founder is Colonel Jook, and its acolytes are called Jookies. If that isn't subtle enough for you, the cult recruits members through high-tech hypnosis and has a deep-cover assassin somewhere in the White House. He looks, talks and acts like a West Wing regular, but his heart belongs to Colonel Jook. What scant tension there is in "Watchdogs" evaporates about half way through the novel when you figure out the identity of this glassy-eyed Jookie.
After "Watchdogs," I was pleasantly surprised by the first few chapters of Warren Adler's "American Sextet." The novel begins with the discovery of a body at the foot of the Calvert Street Bridge, and some of Adler's descriptive writing displays a detailed knowledge of Washington. His detective, Fiona FitzGerald, the only woman on the homicide squad, isn't worthy of "Hill Street Blues," but she's intermittently interesting. Adler takes a few potshots at The Washington Post in the opening chapters, but at least the newspaper is half recognizable.
Things, alas, quickly degenerate. Post investigative reporter Jason Martin suffers the worst indignity since George Steinbrenner sent Reggie Jackson to California: He is exiled to cover local news in Fairfax County. Fortunately, Martin is blessed with a new live-in mistress, Dorothy Curtis, a naive, but beautiful "flower of the slag heap" from the coal country of Pennsylvania. Dorothy is the ultimate compliant woman, the sort of cardboard sex symbol you generally only meet in the letters column of Penthouse.
Crazed with fantasies of revenge, Martin turns Dorothy into a high-class call girl. She performs for free, but dictates her reminiscences into Martin's tape recorder. When the time is right, Martin will release the tapes and become "the P. T. Barnum of sexual scandal, a three-ring virtuoso, touching every point on the American power compass. The White House, the Senate, the House, the Military, the Diplomatic Corps, and, if he could pull it off, the Supreme Court. An American Sextet."
This kind of nonsense is embarrassing to read, let alone write. After "Watchdogs" and "American Sextet," I've had it with Washington novels. Next time I get the urge to read political fiction, I plan to curl up with a copy of the Congressional Record.