The Rules of the Game
By Leonard Downie Jr.
(Alfred A. Knopf, 319 pp., $26.95)
I have this idea for a great Washington novel. A new president takes office, having prevailed in a gruesomely divisive election. He is muddling through his first few months in office when suddenly a great national calamity strikes. He had theretofore shown few signs that he had it in him to rise to this solemn occasion, but he meets with some initial success. And then, sure enough, it becomes apparent to some keener observers that he and the people around him are exploiting the tragedy for political ends, using said calamity as cover to realize a newly omnipotent executive branch, arrogating to itself vast powers that threaten the constitutional balance, and acting on a set of foreign policy goals that have long been the gleam in the eye of a handful of policy intellectuals but were, until disaster struck, widely considered extreme and even vaguely megalomaniacal. With me so far?
Now here is where it gets interesting. Novelistic convention would dictate that at this point my protagonist, the one who realizes what is really going on, arise from the quotidian muck to brandish the sword of truth and justice. He or she might be a crusading journalist or editor, a government whistleblower, or, in Brockovichian fashion--I'm definitely thinking screenplay!--a grave, busybody-ish, but ultimately valiant activist type. But this is where I cast convention to the winds. I have no protagonist. In my opus, Washington meekly goes along.
Yes, there are those who warn about the dangers that wait down such a path of action, but they are marginalized and dismissed as soft-headed pacifists. The city's great newspaper--the same one that once brought down a corrupt president--largely endorses the president's course of action. The salonistes and the hostesses fete the president and his men; the courtiers court and the jesters jest. I am even considering--it may test the credulity of my readers--that I will have Washington's most celebrated investigative journalist produce a book lionizing the president's march to a tragic and ill-considered war.
The administration runs into snags here and there. Indeed, almost everything it touches turn to disaster. Eventually the people recognize this. But in Washington, nothing much happens. Once the president has lost popular support, of course, the tastemakers prove adept at kicking him while he's down, a local skill honed for generations. But basically--no dramatic tension, no plucky heroes, no climactic showdown in which the forces of light prevail. The nation is left in chaos, and the president limps home to a cosseted retirement.
I know what you're thinking: there is not much potential here. And as I read back over my plan, I see that you may have a point. In fact, my agent has intimated as much. Who would want to read that? And who would believe it? People--intelligent and well-meaning people, dedicated to the public weal--are simply not that timorous, are they?
The non-fiction version, I mean the actual historical record, of how Washington acquitted itself in the Bush years is not a flattering story. Congress, the media, the foreign policy establishment--Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and (many) liberals--far too often enabled an administration that will clearly go down in history as one of our most incompetent and mendacious. But fortunately God made novels. And in fiction, people ... well, they are intelligent, well-meaning, dedicated to the public weal, and simply not that timorous. In novels, they do stand up. Truth, justice, and the American way prevail.
Boy, do they prevail in The Rules of the Game, Leonard Downie Jr.'s novel of contemporary Washington. Even the bad guy is good when it counts. Plagued by guilt and shame, he commits suicide, but before doing so he takes care to wrap all the incriminating documents in a nice little package, just like Tim Robbins did in The Shawshank Redemption--Downie is definitely thinking screenplay!--so the crusading reporter at "The Washington Capital" can spill the beans.
The actual rules of the actual game when Downie was the actual executive editor of the actual Washington Post (he stepped down last fall) were, as you may remember, a little different. The Post eventually broke some terrific and important stories during the Bush years, Dana Priest's pieces about the CIA's "black sites" in particular. But the paper's well-documented and much-debated failures when it really mattered--in the period when the Bush administration was accumulating all that power and telling us that Saddam Hussein was six months away from being able to take out New York City--make it awfully hard not to read this novel as an exercise in self-absolution.
Washington novels, whatever their literary shortcomings, usually attempt to capture a particular Washington of a particular time. The Rules of the Game does this to a certain literal extent--the plot involves matters such as torture and black sites and furtive lobbyists and shady government contractors and so on--but at its emotional core what it attempts is precisely the opposite: it is a rewriting of the non-fiction history so that everything works out the way it is supposed to work out. A fantasy version of the Bush years, a forgetting of things past, in which, at day's end, the moral decency and high standards of the community win the day, as we flee the power-hungry snares of "the unitary executive."
This is the rare novel about a real danger that has a lulling effect on its reader. It is also an absurdly incredible story lashed to a strangely banal climax. Sarah Page, a young reporter for the aforementioned Capital, has been covering Annapolis but is shifted to the national money-and-politics beat. There is a presidential campaign going on, in which the Democrat Monroe Capehart seems poised to win under the guidance of the rock-star consultant Trent Tucker. Page had known Tucker previously, because Tucker had been a consultant to the Democratic governor of Maryland, and the two had even engaged in brief and unsatisfying extramarital sex.
There is also a star political reporter named Mark Daniels, who also engages in brief and unsatisfying extramarital sex, with a Capehart aide. He takes Page under his wing. Meanwhile Capehart names a woman as his running mate--Senator Susan Cameron of California, who had been married to a multimillionaire senator who resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving (you guessed it) extramarital sex. She takes his seat and, despite her inexperience on the national stage, becomes "a red-hot media celebrity." She delivers a scorcher of a speech at the convention, attacking the GOP candidate Warner Wylie by repeating the refrain, "Where was Wylie?" Here is Ann Richards and Arianna Huffington and Sarah Palin rolled bizarrely into one.
Page is barely two or three months on her new beat when she breaks a big story about Tucker's corporate clients and lobbyist connections, an angle that up to this point had evidently not occurred to any of Washington's most experienced journalists to explore. Page is at the gym--I mean "the well-appointed health club near Washington's Cleveland Park neighborhood"--when a fellow walks up to her in fine Hal Holbrook-style: "It was a good story. But you've only found the tip of the iceberg. There's more, a lot more. And it gets nasty. Very nasty."
So Page follows the money. Her sources start dying in mysterious hit-and-run accidents. She works the local-crime angle with the Capital's police reporter, a black woman who of course calls Page "girlfriend" and so on. Mark Daniels knows that Monroe Capehart is in ill health, but he learns about it in such a way that he cannot print it. Capehart is elected. He attends the White House Correspondents' Dinner about three months after his election. He makes a joke about William Henry Harrison in his speech, and then, in the most extraordinary coincidence, he goes back to the White House and falls over dead. Susan Cameron is president. Trent Tucker attends an orgy in Arlington.
Pretty soon Page is receiving anonymous phone calls at 4 a.m.:
"You're a political reporter, Miss Page. You should stay away from defense matters. You could make mistakes, serious mistakes."
"I really don't understand." She tried to draw more information out of him. "Where are you calling from? You sound too polite to be making crank calls."
"This is not a crank call, Miss Page. This is serious business. It's about the security of our country."
"What about it?"
"Your reporting, Miss Page. Who you've been talking to. What you've been asking. You need to return to politics, Miss Page."
The trail leads back to Tucker, who is enmeshed in some sort of Abramoff-esque web of private companies that engage in some of the rough stuff in Iraq and to non-profit groups that sponsor congressional junkets to help cover it all up. (The novelistic imagination does not exactly run riot in this book.) The fearless Miss Page keeps advancing the story. At a certain point the pushback starts--first from the companies and their lawyers, eventually from the White House. Page is undeterred, and naturally (and somewhat more interestingly), so is the Capital's editor, a swashbuckling principal named Lou Runyon who backs Page, Jason Robards-style, every step of the way. "Get used to the fact that we're going to run this story whether you like it or not," Runyon tells a lawyer.
A few more sources are killed. An attempt is made on Page's life, with a car bomb. She starts having brief and unsatisfying extramarital sex with a congressman who is feeding her information. Her reporting leads her toward the White House and an aide named Elliott Bancroft, toward the corporation that is providing the contract employees--and, of course, toward Tucker. He knows the jig is up, and this is when he kills himself--by, I kid you not, stepping out in front of the motorcade of the head of the Federal Reserve Bank as he heads to the office in the pre-dawn darkness. The Shawshank package is left on his dining room table.
On and on it goes, page after page of this stuff. I cannot say that I was gripped, but I was curious about what the deep-dark secret would be. And you know what? It was only the outsourcing of torture. A terrible thing, of course; but a letdown of a secret. We have known about the outsourcing of torture since Abu Ghraib. Couldn't Downie, sitting where he's been sitting these last eight years, have devised some mega-bomb to drop on us, something he had learned at the top of Washington journalism that the rest of us did not know but that he could not in good conscience convey reportorially? A real scoop that demanded real fiction? Anyway, President Cameron announces that she will serve only one term as president, take it upon herself to clean out the stables, set things aright and retire. This is a Washington that has no need of an Obama. It fixes itself. The republic is saved.
The Rules of the Game, with its title's absurd allusion to Jean Renoir, is a pretty lurid paranoid fantasy. Did CACI and Titan, the two chief private contractors in Iraq, really have multiple people in Washington killed? It seems highly unlikely to me, and I am no prude about the Bush era. (Since they have shown a litigious bent, perhaps I should say it seems altogether impossible.) Any student of the modern world knows that sometimes more violence may be perpetrated by memorandum than by car bomb. But car bombs look better on the silver screen.
At the same time, the novel is a heroic re-interpretation of a highly un-heroic period. A woman president was, when Downie was likely conceiving his plot, as good a guess as any; he swung for the zeitgeist fences and missed, but he is not to be blamed for poor powers of divination. Still, a president who willingly gives up the presidency after one term? Yes, I know that Lyndon Johnson did it. But that was long before today's permanent-campaign culture, and Johnson stood down because of the unpopularity of a war that he started--not as a matter of honor, but because an election was coming up and he thought he would lose. Downie's Cameron is not responsible for the contractor scandal in any way. More importantly as a literary matter, it might have been more plausible if Downie had taken us inside the mind of President Cameron and shown us her private wrestling match with her conscience. But these people have no insides. This president's moral epiphany is just something that she announces during a State of the Union address, and that's that.
The lack of interior reflection is rather a shortcoming, of course. And so, too, is the novel's style, or lack of one. The writing is newspaper-prose-y, with no irony intended; there is not a single surprising verb or fresh adjective in the entire book. This is fiction as edited by the metro desk. And not a single funny thing ever happens. Is life, even in Washington, really so witless? But here, even in the midst of serious goings-on, nobody cracks a joke (except for a few bromidic newsroom cynicisms), or humorously misreads another's intentions, or bollixes things up in a way that introduces a spot of wryness into the proceedings. I seem to recall that a little humor even penetrated the Karamazov household from time to time.
I will say this on Downie's behalf. The lay reader will learn certain interesting things about how journalists and politicians negotiate the terms of publication of a sensitive journalistic story. Toward the novel's end, there are about three or four passages in which Page and her editors are in the White House talking with officials, sometimes Cameron herself, about whether and how such-and-such a piece of information can be used in a story. These are interesting, and the author assays them with real authority--an authority that does not leap off the pages in the same way elsewhere. I imagined as I was reading them that a non-journalist reader who has never given any thought to how such matters are conducted in the lofty precincts could well find them fascinating. Whatever else The Rules of The Game is, it is J-school literature.
But now that I have said this very nice thing, there is another matter that annoys me. The names of the characters are so dull. I went through the novel circling the last names: Page, Jones, Daniels, Tucker, Landry, Tawney, Capehart (slightly more inventive, but a real-life colleague of Downey's at the Post), Cameron, Winters, Morgan, Phillips, Lawson, Aiken, Malone, Peterson ... and then, at last, on page 45, a glimmer of mimesis and a mote of verisimilitude: a Jew! And then on page 240, one more Jew! And that's it, in this knowing novel of big-time Washington journalism and Democratic politics. I'm not saying anything other than that this is not, well, realistic.
Look, there are big problems in this world. Leonard Downie's novel is not one of them. But it is certainly a document of the capital in the years when the capital has much explaining to do, and precious little is explained here. Quite the contrary: the novel is valuable for the fidelity with which it exemplifies the local spirit of complacence and absolution. It is itself the expression of the deeply problematic urge to reach for an airbrush when the writer ought to be firing up a chainsaw. There is a lot of shame to go around concerning the Bush years. Trying to "capture" those years in a novel in which the evil is cartoonish and the good is scarcely credible serves no end, literary or historical. In this spirit, I think I'll drop my novel idea. Downie has scared me away. But what about a novel of Wall Street? A vast mortgage crisis hits, the pillars of American finance are bending and breaking, and a gallant regulator rushes in, after some brief and unsatisfying extramarital sex, to save the American economy just in the nick of time ...
Michael Tomasky is the editor of Guardian America, the U.S.-based website of The Guardian.
By Michael Tomasky