In the annals of history, Condoleezza Rice will surely be remembered for many things. Her inspiring rise from a childhood in the segregated South to become the first African American woman to hold the post of U.S. secretary of state. Her love of football. That unfortunate time she warned us about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear ambitions by saying, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
But when I think of her, I also remember that incredibly expressive face. Usually surrounded by straight-from-central-casting Washington white guys, Rice was always the power listener in the room, sometimes smoldering with what looked like unspoken rage or disgust, other times lighting up the place with wordless megawatt charm.
I often couldn’t help but wonder: What must be going through her head?
It’s nice that we have a writer as skilled as Thomas Mallon, a prolific author who lives in Washington, D.C., to imagine that for us. At its best, Mallon’s amusing new novel, “Landfall,” operates like the thought-bubble we’d always wanted.
The book, which weaves historical events with fictional scenes, spans the tumultuous second term of George W. Bush, a period marked by the twin disasters of violence-plagued, post-U.S. invasion Iraq and the incompetent government response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush is the central figure in the story, but it is the people and scenes around him that Mallon animates most fully.
At the ball celebrating Bush’s inauguration, Rice squirms as Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld approaches, saying something about getting her nomination on the floor of Congress. She hears it differently.
“To her horror, Condi thought that Don was asking her to dance,” Mallon writes.
Poor Condi, she’s smart and ambitious, but the Bushies and other Republican luminaries that Mallon conjures are always snarking on her. Bush’s mother, Barbara, sniffs about the “test-marketed Muzak” of Rice’s dinner-table conversations. Rummy and Vice President Richard B. Cheney “bristled” at her “pink and white parfait of an outfit” at a big meeting.
The Rice of Mallon’s imaginings is obsessed with pleasing Bush, and prone to “tattle” to the president about her fellow Cabinet members. But she is conflicted about Rumsfeld, who comes off as both an oleaginous creep and a master political schemer.
“She detested [Rumsfeld], and because she did she found herself, at moments, actually liking him: he was the rare person whose respect she didn’t crave and whom she didn’t want to please,” Mallon writes.
Mallon has done his homework and his novel delves, at times a tad too exhaustively, into the kaleidoscope of events and characters of the Bush era — everyone from Christopher Hitchens and John Edwards to Merv Griffin and Nancy Reagan. Larry King and former Texas governor Ann Richards keep popping up to offer crotchety comic-relief like side characters in a Shakespearean play.
Watching the State of the Union, Richards quips about “the rounded forms of” House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Cheney.
“They look like two of those Russian nesting dolls,” Richards says. “Like they’re waiting to see which one is going to be asked to encase the other.”
“Landfall” occasionally gets a bit too goofy, such as a clunky scene that comes out of nowhere — and adds little to the narrative — involving a sex tryst between a high-ranking U.S. official and a Canadian diplomat.
“Their just-completed lovemaking resembled the U.S.-Canadian relationship itself: affectionate; not especially dramatic; and unlikely to evolve,” Mallon writes.
Mallon invents many characters who never existed, most notably a National Security Council staffer named Allie O’Connor who unflinchingly tells Bush what’s really happening in Iraq and a National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities official named Ross Weatherall who provides the same input about post-Katrina New Orleans. The Bush who inspired such affection among staffers emerges through his interactions with these two fictional creations.
O’Connor’s advice for Bush regarding Iraq is to: “Embrace the suck.” He loves it. Weatherall, who feels his “political and personal calf love” for Bush waning, sends the president the kind of poignant and deeply observed snippets of life in the drowned city of New Orleans that Bush missed during his infamous flyover of the disaster zone.
“The waters have washed away a lot of illusions here, Mr. President,” Weatherall tells the president.
Inventing O’Connor and Weatherall is a neat device because their presence gives Mallon even more latitude to observe Bush. Late in the book, O’Connor confides in Bush about her life plans: “She looked at Bush and seemed for a moment to understand herself through him. Half the time he was without self-confidence; the other half he spilled an excess of it.”
Close readers of “Landfall” might detect the faintest echo of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” which set the highest of bars for political historical fiction with its depiction of a Louisiana governor inspired by the real-life Huey P. Long. Like Jack Burden, the tortured staffer in Penn Warren’s novel, Weatherall goes on a search for a secret from the past.
Burden's quest is a dark one, and he is forced to accept the theological conclusion that "man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." Weatherall's quest hints at possible darkness, but in the end nudges us to consider Bush in a kindler, gentler and more sympathetic light.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer for The Washington Post.
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon. 473 pp. $29.95