“No matter how many friends he may think he has in the press . . . the President must recognize that his relationship with the media is inherently adversarial.”
These cautionary words from a recent issue of TV Guide were penned by no less an experienced hand at adversarial press relationships than Richard Nixon. They might well have been used as the basis for the debut novel by his chief aide, John H. Taylor’s, about a White House under siege by the Washington Post. Not surprisingly, Taylor has stacked the deck rather heavily against the Fourth Estate, but in spite of that (or even, I shudder to suggest, because of it), the book is a very entertaining study of the abuse of press--and political--power.
Set in the very near future, Taylor’s America is a little different from the one we now know. Jack Kemp is governor of New York. Ben Bradlee has retired to teach at the Columbia Journalism School; his desk at the Post has been filled by a self-serving Machiavelli named George Stevens. And the country has just seen a presidential shift from California Republican Ronald Reagan to Louisiana Democrat Eugene Hoskins, a chief executive whose political philosophy seems slightly to the right of Reagan’s.
Hoskins has a big problem. An ambitious, obnoxious and unconscionable young Post reporter plans on breaking the news of a top-secret mission to rescue hostages from Lebanon, thereby threatening the success of the venture. What’s a right-thinking President to do? He orders the FBI to lock up the reporter until the hostages are safely home. The raid is successful, but the incarceration isn’t. The reporter dies in a car crash and a cover-up is attempted. It doesn’t work, and the Post is in position to bring down another President.
Though its specifics are unique, the situation--with the press nipping at wounded politicians’ scuffling heels like bush dogs coming off the eight-week low-cholesterol diet--is more than faintly familiar from both fiction and nonfiction. Happily, Taylor presents it with neither pretentiousness nor rancor. This is not a political morality tale. Nor is it a mirthless paranoid thriller, though it includes some skulduggery in Paris and murder in Washington. It is instead a well-crafted yarn in which we are taken on a generally intriguing tour through the complex jungles of D.C. politics, with rumor, fables and facts convincingly melded.
Along the way, we meet the President’s security adviser, a nimble-witted man of middle age who is the novel’s protagonist; his paramour, a beautiful young reporter (the only heroic journalist in evidence); the aforementioned evil and manipulative Post editor; a rather dim Republican senator with presidential ambitions; a trusted member of the National Security Council who leaks the scandal to get her hated brother into hot water (his identity is a secret Taylor rightly keeps as long as possible); a collection of reporters of varying political persuasions who wittily bat the news about on a weekend TV show; and an assortment of military men, pols and media mites blessed with the gift of gritty gab.
Unlike some other novelists who deal with national and international politics, Taylor is particularly straightforward in telling his story. We can actually follow the plot. His characters are credible and their dialogue has an authentic tone. And he convinces us that we are on the inside of a world that is as chillingly authentic as it is shadowy.
The author’s main failings are 1) that the ethics of the presidential act are never really addressed and 2) that he indulges in such aggressive media-bashing that one begins to feel sorry for even the likes of Geraldo Rivera. Those in the news-gathering profession will probably be annoyed by this apparent bias.
But how angry can you be with an author who is able to so stylishly sum up recent D.C. history? “Watergate was Shakespeare,” he writes, “and the Iran-Contra affair was Gilbert and Sullivan, complete with the very model of a modern lieutenant colonel. In journalist argot, they were both ‘great political theater.’ At curtain’s fall--as Nixon flew his living, breathing, bruised family to their Orange County Elba and Reagan’s shaky hand reached out for his smiling new Russian friend and his newest prop, a pen for signing treaties --many Washingtonians were strangely wistful as they filed back out into the neon-bright real world.”