We reveal most about our culture, our fears and the truths we want to believe, the author Scott Turow has said, in the fiction we invent about ourselves. So what kind of stories will we invent about today, the Trump era in America, when the news itself often reads like dystopian fiction?
In trying to answer that, it’s useful to look back at the political fiction of the past. It reveals that we often dream of a mirror image of our politics, both darker and more idealized, depending on the time.
The apex of political storytelling in literature occurred in the 1960s. It was a time of split vision about the country: fear of nuclear annihilation competed with hopes, if not confidence, in those who ran the government.
The era began with the publication of two landmark novels in 1959: The Manchurian Candidate and Advise and Consent. McCarthyism had subsided, but the Cold War was becoming more frightening. And over the next nine years, from 1959 to 1968, one in five of the top-selling books annually in the United States was a political novel—a run not seen before or since.
Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate was about a foolish politician, his deranged wife and her brainwashed son, who were the tools of an international communist conspiracy. Made famous by a 1962 movie of the same name, it was a frightening Cold War tale that made our political system look vulnerable and saw American optimism as a little naive. Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent was about vicious Senate debate over a cabinet nominee who, it was feared, would be unwittingly manipulated by a ruthless and immoral Soviet regime.
Drury’s book was the true phenomenon. It spent 102 weeks on the best-seller list, gained momentum in its second year, was the best-selling novel of 1960 (a campaign year) and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction over Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King.
The best explanation for this enormous popular and critical success, I think, is that Advice and Consent offered a view of politics that was just as sophisticated but less cynical than more familiar political literature. Books like Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946), tended to offer one-sided meditations on how power corrupts.
Drury’s Washington has its share of cynics, hypocrites and the politics of personal destruction. One man’s political rise is stopped because of a relatively innocent youthful flirtation with the Communist Party. Another senator is blackmailed for a homosexual love affair he had during the war. He ultimately commits suicide, both to hide his past and because he refuses to allow it to be used to make him vote against his conscience.
Yet more striking than the unscrupulous or even tragic Machiavellians in Drury’s Washington is the decency of the men who stop them. Rather than dark archetypes spoiled by the power they wield, Drury’s four main protagaonists—three senators and the vice president—save the country by sorting through their moral conscience, their political responsibilities and the arc of their own experience. And they choose well.
Drury, a former Capitol Hill reporter for the New York Times, was a hardline conservative who believed fervently that an international communist conspiracy was aiming to subvert and destroy the West. He distrusted liberals, whom he thought were naïve about the Soviet menace. But he saw the pluralist instincts and basic decency of elected officials as the system’s saving grace.
That is a question that seems as relevant today as then.
In other ways, Drury’s Washington, at least on the surface, bears little resemblance to the modern capital. In the book’s 616 pages, there are no aides or staffers. There are no interest groups or think tanks. Nor are there PACs or major donors. None of the senators speaks to a consultant. No public opinion polls are conducted. Even more striking, the words “Republican” or “Democrat” never appear in the book. But his portrait of 1950s Washington is loving, his passion for the grand traditions and petty customs of the Senate evident on every page. ABC News political correspondent Jonathan Karl has called Advise and Consent “the last great novel set in Washington.”
That affection is ground in the worldly hopefulness about his characters, not a lack of sophistication—a view that fit a generation of World War II and Korea veterans seeing people their own age now coming to power not just in John F. Kennedy but an entire generation of political leaders. That hopefulness would not last.
In the wake of the Manchurian Candidate’s paranoia and Advise and Consent’s optimism came an explosion of political fiction. From 1962 through 1968 (only 1963 is the exception), at least two political novels sat among the top-10-selling fiction books of the year. The list included four sequels by Drury himself (about many of the same honorable senators); three authored or co-authored by journalist Fletcher Knebel (including Seven Days in May, about an attempted military coup by the joint chiefs); Fail Safe (about how simple mistakes could lead to nuclear war); and Irving Wallace’s The Man (about the first black president). Almost all of these books explored the tension between Americans’ faith in their political institutions and fear that they were too vulnerable to unscrupulous foreign regimes or unhinged or cynical ideologues at home.
In many ways, those two hopes and fears were played out in our politics as well. The World War II generation was entering middle age. America was prospering—and also reeling from the Kennedy assassination. The civil rights movement was delivering on America’s unfulfilled promise and dividing the country. We were tackling the war on poverty and winning the space race; and we were also deepening our involvement in Vietnam, a war privately the president knew he couldn’t win. We coined the term “The Credibility Gap” to describe our loss of faith in what the government told us.
By 1968, the country it seemed to boil over, and the stories we told ourselves about politics, in turn, were never the same. Early in the year, the majority of Americans, turned against the war in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and a sobering prime time news special by Walter Cronkite. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered soon after, and the Democratic political convention in Chicago fell into chaos. Richard Nixon narrowly won the presidency over Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
The run of both aspirational and apocalyptic political fiction also ended. After 1968, no political novel would make again the year’s top-10 list for half a decade—until Gore Vidal’s darkly ironic Burr in 1973.
Instead, a bleaker and more skeptical political storytelling was on its way, and it was moving into film and out of books. It began gently enough with the incisive look at campaigning in Robert Redford’s The Candidate (1972). It took a paranoid turn in Warren Beatty’s The Parallax View in 1974 and Redford’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) from the wonderful book by James Grady. Fiction and fact blended into Watergate in All the Presidents Men (1976). We had a more absurdist but no-less-cynical view of politics in Being There (1979), based on Jerzy Kozinksi’s novel about an illiterate gardener whose TV-inspired banalities persuade people he should be president.
The Reagan years are remarkable in many ways for an absence of political books, films or television. It is the decade of Robert Ludlum’s cynical but romantic Bourne books and Tom Clancy’s CIA agent Jack Ryan, pure spy or military adventure books that meditate less on workings of electoral politics, Congress or the White House than even a book like The Manchurian Candidate.
In the Clinton and Bush years we see a shift to what might be called imagined political revisionism, especially in film and television—stories that betrayed a collective yearning for an idealized past. The American President in 1995 imagined a Bill Clinton-like character who regains his moral center after falling in love. Dave starring Kevin Kline (1993) imagined a look-alike who stands in for an ailing president and brings virtue back to the office. Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing (1999-2006) imagined a sanitized White House led by a morally centered and compassionate intellectual Nobel prize-winning economist president (a character who is emphatically neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush). The other definitive take on George W. Bush’s terror-dominated foreign policy, Fox TV’s 24 series, imagined super-operative Jack Bauer saving the country from terrorists and from flawed political figures—a fantasy that might be called “a few good spies.”
In the Obama years, our fictionalized political musings became curiously dark. With a relatively scandal-free president, whose enemies were angered more by his policies than his character, we imagined a more scandal-ridden city in the fearful conspiracies and chaos of Homeland; the abjectly evil political gamesmanship of House of Cards; the cynical hilarity of Veep; and the melodrama of Scandal. (I am exempting the optimism of CBS’ Madame Secretary, though even here it takes a former CIA agent to bring off idealism at the State Department.)
In our best political fiction, good and evil is less a clash between different characters than it is a struggle in the hearts of each character. Drury’s senators are complex realists. Condon’s Major Ben Marco, who figures out and ultimately thwarts the North Korean plan to send a brainwashed assassin to kill the American president, is himself damaged and tragic. Knebel’s heroes in Seven Days in May are flawed by drink or trouble with women.
What will tell ourselves about today? And what kind of heroes will we imagine for our time?
If the Obama years inspired paranoia, the Clinton years an idealized vision of virtue and the Bush years an intellectual president, I imagine we will dream of virtue again, not darkness. Perhaps the heroes of our next great work of political fiction will be anti-heroes, 1960s style, who stand up to remind us of who we once hoped to be. Certainly, we could use them.