Management & Labor

Politics In Prose

1It's a cliche that there are no great Washington novels. I don't know if it's true or not. It may be. The book most often cited as a candidate, "Democracy," by Henry Adams, was written 120 years ago; in recent times, more critics probably have praised it than have read it.
by | December 2003

1It's a cliche that there are no great Washington novels. I don't know if it's true or not. It may be. The book most often cited as a candidate, "Democracy," by Henry Adams, was written 120 years ago; in recent times, more critics probably have praised it than have read it. Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent," published in 1960, is by all odds the most successful Washington novel of the modern era, and is copiously informative about congressional life in the postwar years. I loved it in high school. But as a work of literature it is sappy and overwrought.

The years since Drury have produced hundreds of new novels dealing with national politics, and perhaps somewhere in the pile lurks a neglected masterpiece that captures brilliantly the social and moral tone of present-day Washington life. If so, I missed it. But more likely, there hasn't been one.

When it comes to novels about state politics, however, the picture is quite a bit different. There aren't many of them, but they are good.

Most college students who sign up for a course in modern literature find themselves reading "All the King's Men," Robert Penn Warren's 1946 epic of Louisiana in the days of Governor Huey Long. The book's reputation seems only to grow with the years. Critics cite it frequently as the masterpiece of political sensibility that no novelist of Washington life has ever been able to produce.

Since then, there have been other good state novels. Billy Lee Brammer was a press aide to Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. Senate when he wrote "The Gay Place," his caustic but often lyrical account of life at the Texas Capitol in the early 1950s, when he was a newspaper reporter there. Garrett Epps was a disillusioned 26-year-old liberal activist when he finished "The Shad Treatment," an eloquent novel based on the 1973 campaign for governor of Virginia, in which Epps and his friends fought to the bitter end for Henry Howell, the defeated insurgent.

Why all three of these books are so much better than most political novels set in Washington is a question I can't really answer. What I do know is that the state political novels have something interesting in common. They aren't about the politicians who hold the important offices. They are about the aides to those politicians--idealists and reformers who enter the messy precincts of politics in pursuit of social change. And they are about the moral dilemmas all of them confront as they try to draw the line between compromising and selling out.

Brammer's Jay McGown is press secretary to Governor Arthur Fenstemaker, a fictional replica of LBJ, relocated to the Austin statehouse rather than the U.S. Senate. Epps' book is about Mac Evans, a youthful believer in Tom Jeff Shadwell, the quixotic populist doing battle with Virginia's sleazy Democratic machine. And Jack Burden, the hero of "All the King's Men," is the self-doubting assistant to the Huey Long-like governor, Willie Stark, ruminating day and night about when the end justifies the means. In one way or another, each of them comes to terms with it all, achieving self-knowledge and a measure of comfort as the story concludes.

Maybe it's moral ambiguity that makes these novels so interesting, and the absence of ambiguity that makes many Washington novels so disappointing. Brammer, Epps and Warren each write about decent people working for well-meaning (if frequently duplicitous) politicians. There are no cardboard constructions of idealism and corruption. Hardly anything is black and white. Politics is portrayed with the subtleties it actually possesses. Either politics at the national level doesn't lend itself so well to this sort of realism, or the writers of Washington novels haven't figured out how to achieve it.

I wanted to write a column about Brammer and Epps when I discovered their work a few years ago, but I couldn't think of a way to make the subject current. So I put it aside. Last month, however, I came across "The Things That Are Caesar's," a brand-new novel about Kansas politics written by Bud Norman, a reporter at the Wichita Eagle, and published by a local Wichita company, Alexander and Fraser.

It's not a book that many people will hear about, but something told me it would be good. There are excellent novels about politics in Louisiana, Virginia and Texas. Why couldn't there be one about Kansas? And I was right. It's good.

I don't want to mislead anybody here. Bud Norman is not Robert Penn Warren, and his book is not a literary masterpiece. It is also meant largely as satire--unlike the novels of Warren, Epps and Brammer--and not all the satire comes off. Anti-abortion activists and the Christian right will complain that they are being cruelly caricatured, and they will have a point.

And yet I was struck by how well this book does the things that great novels of state politics have done in the past. It captures the tone and physical setting of political life in a particular section of the country, and frames the moral uncertainties common to anyone who chooses to live that life.

In the tradition of its predecessors, "The Things That Are Caesar's" is about the dilemmas of a political aide. But Norman runs a nice twist on the genre: In this book, the aide is also the boss.

The hero of Norman's book is Franklin Livengood Jr., who as he approaches his 40th birthday has been in Kansas politics for nearly three decades. There are people like this in every state capitol. Livengood knows how to manage campaigns, draft legislation, write speeches, and do virtually everything else that political lifers teach themselves to do. He does all of them well, although he is disillusioned with politics and the citizens he has worked for over the years.

"The wisdom of the people--ha!" he complains to a reporter in the first few pages of the book. "They come into my office every day hollering to high heaven for the government to get out of their lives...and then they storm in the next day wanting to know why we haven't solved every little problem they've got."

Cynical or not, Livengood wants to stay in politics; it's the only thing he knows. His problem is that the incumbent governor, for whom he works, is about to retire. He will soon be unemployed. There are numerous candidates for the office, but Livengood doesn't like any of them. He comes up with a better idea: Find a novice, steer him through the campaign, take over as chief of staff, and run the next administration from behind the scenes.

Livengood finds Harley Christianson, a small-town mayor who looks like Gary Cooper, is smart enough to be presentable, and is a decorated Vietnam War hero besides. Christianson slips through the Republican primary by capturing the moderate vote while feuding conservatives divide the rest. He breezes through the general election and becomes governor of Kansas.

I feared, reading through Norman's account of these events, that he would follow one of two tiresome dead-ends. Either Christianson would turn into a monster, corrupted by power and self-importance, or he would be a dolt, playing the foil for his creator and demonstrating the gullibility of the whole system.

But Christianson is neither of these things. He is a decent man who combines modest ability and genuine integrity, sort of a Gerald Ford of state government. His first two years in office are benign but uneventful. Only in the third year does he decide what he would like to be remembered for: cleaning up pollution in the state's rivers.

It is the story of that idea, and Livengood's desperate schemes to succeed with it, that bring the book to its climax. Ultimately there is a floor fight in the State Senate involving a package of deals so complicated that it's virtually impossible to keep them all straight-- and yet the very complexity of the enterprise paints a portrait of political frenzy on the last day of a legislative session that very few writers, of fiction or nonfiction, have managed to do successfully.

One advantage that novelists of state politics usually have over novelists of Washington is the presence of a physical landscape. Epps starts his book with a Virginia geography lesson; Brammer begins with a description of the Texas hill country. Norman leads the reader on a campaign tour of Kansas that takes in everything from the plains near the Colorado border to the suburban subdivisions of Wichita and the campus bars at Kansas University in Lawrence.

But the landscape that the author paints most vividly is the social and moral landscape of state politics in the first decade of the new century. It's a politics in which the Republican Party--nominally the majority party--is fractured by angry differences between religious conservatives and the affluent suburbanites who make up much of the party's traditional base. In real-life Kansas, this Republican feud led last year to the election of a Democratic governor. In Norman's novel, it generates a series of verbal and physical confrontations that drive home the sheer ferocity of political argument in a state that most of the country mistakenly associates with quiet Midwestern reasonableness.

In fact, as the author makes clear, Kansas has been a hotbed of moral activism--even fanaticism--since its founding before the Civil War. From the abolitionism of John Brown to the ax-wielding temperance crusades of Carry Nation to the anti-abortion and creationist zeal of the 1990s, the state has specialized in moral arguments of violent, sometimes murderous, intensity. What Norman is telling us is that Kansas isn't Iowa, and it isn't Nebraska. It's a unique place, with a unique history and a unique mixture of emotions that periodically drive its political system beyond the borders of common sense.

For anyone who wants to understand American politics, that's a useful piece of information. It's one that can be learned from political scientists and historians, but sometimes a novelist with a sure sense of his territory can get the same point across better. That's why it's good news that novelists are still telling stories about state politics, and even better news that every few years, a writer comes from clear out of nowhere to do it well.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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