1/ went into its final approach before landing at 2. . On the ground, Barrington Barclay, the tall, dapper, Harvard- educated , fiddled nervously with his Phi Beta Kappa key as he waited for the plane to land, knowing that in minutes he would be face-to-face with and would have to tell him about the puzzling phone call from , the wily and unscrupulous .
Six compound nouns. That's all that stands between these two sentences and literary success. Watch what happens when we fill the blanks with these key words:
1. Air Force One
2. Andrews Air Force Base
3. Secretary of State
4. The President of the United States
5. Dmitri Gargarin
6. The Soviet Ambassador
Suddenly you have the opening paragraph of a gripping Washington novel. Now ponder why these six alternative nouns do not work:
1. USAIR Flight 567
2. Pittsburgh International Airport
3. The secretary-treasurer of the Acme Corporation
4. The chairman of the board
5. Chase Hanover
6. Pittsburgh banker
This short exercise explains why we don't have Pittsburgh novels and why the Washington novel has endured as a literary genre for more than a century. Popular fiction is built around cardboard characters with awe-inspiring jobs, glamorous places and the hint of intrigue. Washington -- even in real life -- has all of these in abundance. Cities like Pittsburgh don't. Even New York doesn't quite cut it. Would you rather read about Bloomingdale's or the War Room at the Pentagon?
The goal of a Washington novel is to get the reader to hum "Hail to the Chief" as he turns the pages. That's why either the president, the Oval Office or Air Force One is almost invariably in the first paragraph. Margaret Truman, for example, began Murder in the White House with the president's plane landing at Andrews. William Safire opened Full Disclosure with the airborne White House soaring over "the brown Russian countryside."
Back in 1959 Allen Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with Advise and Consent. There was nothing subtle about Drury's opening paragraph: The Senate majority leader picked up his morning newspaper and read the headline, "President Names Leffingwell Secretary of State." The plot was ticking like a New York taxi meter before you turned the page. Would Leffingwell be confirmed? Would the Senate go along with the president?
Suspense novels sometimes begin with the plot being hatched and then cut to the White House to capture the calm before the storm. The Fifth Horseman, for example, starts with the Libyan terrorists loading a stolen H-bomb on a tramp steamer. But the oddest opening gambit in the history of Washington fiction belongs to an obscure 1905 novel actually called The Wife of the Secretary of State. It begins with a fictional Senator Byrd saying over dinner at the fashionable Alibi Club, "It needs a trifle more red pepper." (Life Imitates Art Department: It wasn't until 28 years later that the first real Senator Byrd appeared in the U.S. Senate.)
There aren't really characters in Washington novels, just job titles. Seventeen senators are featured in the cast of Advise and Consent. Washington novelists use the Congressional Directory the way poets use a rhyming dictionary. Even the names sometimes sound vaguely familar. Instead of Lyndon Johnson, the beleaguered president in Seven Days in May is called Jordan Lyman.
Ulysses S. Grant was president when Democracy by Henry Adams was published in 1880. These days Democracy is widely hailed as Serious Literature, but the Adams characters have inspired a century of political potboilers. The novel is built around Madeleine Lee, a beautiful and bored Washington hostess, who thought that "what she wanted was POWER." Playing opposite is Treasury Secretary Silas Ratcliffe, commanding, corrupt, conniving and convinced that he'll soon be president. The actual president, who remains modestly offstage through most of the novel, is an amiable cipher who "came to Washington determined to be the Father of his country; to gain immortality -- and a re-election."
Modern novelists update Adams by merely adding a few other stock characters from the permanent repertory theater that is Washington. Enduring favorites include: a cynical political reporter with a drinking problem, a blond 27-year-old TV reporter named Nina or Nora, an idealistic young White House speechwriter, a CIA official who may or may not be a Russian mole and a $500-a-night call girl with a heart of gold.
Every Washington novel also has its Iago, usually a Chuck Colson character who'll do anything to protect his boss. In typical fashion, Patrick Anderson selected Ed Murphy, a top White House aide described as "an instrument waiting to be used," as the murderer in The President's Mistress.
Watergate, of course, produced more than its share of forgettable pulp fiction. But clever novelists like to turn yesterday's headlines upside- down in the quest for believable fictional stereotypes. Allen Drury had the audacity in Advise and Consent to transform Joe McCarthy into a peace-at-any-price left-wing senator. Ralph Nader has undergone a similar fictional metamorphosis. The Nader character in Les Whitten's Sometimes a Hero is an Italian-American libertine who turns to the Mafia for help when Big Oil tries to blackmail him with some compromising motel-room photos.
The easiest way to identify a Washington novel is by its plot. There are only two. If the author has literary pretensions, he or she will write about the loss of innocence in the corrupting world of big- time politics. This leads to the inevitable bittersweet ending as the sadder-but- wiser hero prepares to return to Pocatello. A typical example is The National Anthem, Barbara Raskin's bed-hopping saga of the Watergate summer. Leaving her married lover behind her, the sadder- but-wiser Nona drives across the Bay Bridge "above the black water and through the dark night . . ."
The only other plot for a Washington novel is a crisis so terrible that it makes Three Mile Island look like a White House photo opportunity. Whatever your worst fears, you can find them in the remainder pile at your favorite bookstore. Accidental nuclear war? Read Fail- Safe. A right-wing military coup? Seven Days in May. Arab terrorists with an H-bomb hidden in Manhattan? The Fifth Horseman.
Even shooting the president, sadly enough, has become old hat. These days novelists have to knock off the Soviet premier, as well, in the same fusillade of bullets. Both William Safire in Full Disclosure and Marilyn Sharp in Masterstroke used the gimmick of a double assassination -- and in both books it was merely a sub- plot.
Authors who are
their novels around a
constitutional crisis. The trick here is to come up with a what-if problem so bizarre, yet so alarmingly plausible, that it carries with it the threat of bringing the nation to the brink of anarchy. There have been a half-dozen novels about a deadlocked presidential election thrown into the House of Representatives. Safire grabbed the 25th amendment (the complicated one about presidential disability) and used it as the centerpiece of his novel about a blind president.
In Washington novels, murder is politics conducted by other means. Death alone, of course, no longer has much shock value, so the only way to get the reader's attention is to pull off the dirty deed at a revered patriotic spot. That way some minor character can discover the body and gasp, "Why that means it's murder! Murder in the National Arboretum!"
These days, the White House should have its own homicide squad. Margaret Truman had the secretary of state garroted in the Lincoln Sitting Room. In Sunflower, Pla Marilyn Sharp arranged an untimely end for an Austrian composer (a secret ex-Nazi, of course) during a White House state dinner in his honor. Asked about her choice of locale, Sharp said, "I did it for fun. I got a big kick out of knocking someone off in the White House bathroom."
Pick up a typical paperback novel, and Jordache jeans, Lucchese cowboy boots, Giorgio Armani suits and Valentino ties follow each other in dizzying fashion. But Washington novels are different. No one ever mentions clothes, except for the occasional reference to the secretary of state's Saville Row suits. You can descibe the slinky, blond 27-year-old White House aide taking off her clothes, but not what she was wearing. Asked why, novelist Patrick Anderson said, "The men all dress the same in Washington. And it's the men who usually write the books, and they don't pay attention to how the women dress."
The cliches in the Washington novel are as imperishable as the stock scenes in a Western by Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour. But all literary genres ebb and flow in popularity. Michael Korda, for example, the editor-in- chief at Simon and Schuster, believes that readers are no longer interested in Washington fiction: "What are you going to tell them about Washington they don't already know? They already know it's a cesspool." Korda said that science fiction is what currently sells.
That's why, any day now, we'll probably pick up a best- seller and read, "The UFO went into its final approach before landing on the White House lawn. On the ground, Barrington Barclay, the tall, dapper, Harvard-educated Secretary of State, fiddled nervously with his Phi Beta Kappa key . . ."