Political Fiction

Police officers escort Jose Alberto Lopez, an alleged coordinator for the Mexican drug cartel known as "La Familia," during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, July 22, 2009. AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Ed Koch did it four times and now regrets it. No, not running for office - writing novels.

"I'll never write fiction again," says the former New York City mayor who published such thrillers as "Murder on 34th Street" and "Murder in City Hall."

"Fiction is a venue that I don't really like, that doesn't come naturally to me. I like writing about things that are real, that are about my life."

Koch prefers the literal-minded world of politics, but others still attempt the more literary mindset of fiction. In the past few years, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts are among those who have written (or, more likely, co-written) novels.

The latest politician-turned-novelist is former senatorial candidate, White House aide and Iran-Contra congressional witness Oliver North, whose thriller, "Mission Compromised," comes out in September with a first printing of 350,000. North's publisher, Broadman & Holman, is sending him on a cross-country tour and even sponsoring a contest for a trip to Washington, D.C., complete with visits to the Pentagon and the CIA.

"We made contact with Ollie a year ago about getting (the memoir) `Under Fire' back in print," says Ken Stephens, president of Broadman & Holman, a Nashville-based publisher that specializes in religious books.

"Then we said, 'Col. North, what would you think about writing fiction? You have an interesting background, to say the least.' He was intrigued with the idea and he sent us a couple of chapters. We found them very compelling."

Although North's memoir was a best seller, politicians are usually no more successful as fiction writers than Norman Mailer was decades ago when he ran for New York City mayor. Nonfiction books such as John F. Kennedy' "Profiles in Courage" greatly helped some careers, but novels more often are a source of embarrassment.

"Sybil" and "Coningsby," by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, stand out as rare quality works actually written by a politician.

"Disraeli's the grand exception," says literary critic Harold Bloom. "He's certainly, of all important politicians ever, much the best novelist."

Politicians write novels for many of the same reasons as other writers: money (Koch pleads guilty to this), self-expression, diversion. Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary under the first President Bush and author of the novel "Esther's Pillow," finds fiction a welcome break.

"There's a freedom of thought that you can achieve with fiction. It allows you to escape the bonds of your experience, your reputation, the expectations people have of you," says Fitzwater, whose book draws on family history rather than his White House years.

At least one novel owes its existence to a filibuster. Late one night, around 1980, Congress was deadlocked and Sen. William Cohen, a Republican from Maine, was walking on the Senate floor. He found just one colleague, Democrat Gary Hart of Colorado, and the two went to the dining room for coffee.

"I asked him, 'If you had a choice and didn't have to be here at 3:30 in the morning, What would you rather be doing?' And he said, 'I'd rather be in Ireland, writing a novel," recalls Cohen, who collaborated with Hart on the espionage thriller "Double Man."

"I said, 'I'm half-Irish, I've always wanted to go to Ireland and I've always wanted to write a novel. And since we can't go to Ireland, why don't we write one together?"'

For some, novels can mean wish fulfillment, or outright advocacy.

"Coningsby" and "Sybil," published in the mid-19th century, were a defense of Disraeli's conservative politics. "The Next War," by former defense secretary Casper Weinberger, warns that the United States has suffered from "victory disease" since the Gulf War and offers a series of "literary war games" to argue against cutting the military budget.

North's book was co-written by Joe Musser, whose previous work includes the religious novel "The Infidel." The new novel is set mostly in the mid-1990s and tells the story of Major Peter Newman, an ex-Marine assigned by the White House to head a clandestine operation against terrorists.

"Mission Compromised" is so rooted in real history that the office used by Major Newman was once occupied by none other than North, during the Reagan administration.

"I knew he would have interesting content because Oliver North has lived through things that people like Tom Clancy can only sit around and dream about," Broadman & Holman's Stephens says.

"Mission Compromised" is an obvious forum for North's opinions: "I also know that from what Colonel North went through that all it takes is for someone to think you did something wrong and that's the end of your career," Newman is told at one point. But the novel, set partly in the Middle East, also includes some offbeat melodrama:

"His face flushed with anger, Qatay spat out curses in guttural Arabic, the language he had learned from his father, and which his father had learned as an urchin in the dusty, filthy streets of Tikrit. `Kamil, you useless eunuch! You miserable woman equipped like a man! Where is your courage? Did you lose your courage with your manhood? Who is the father of my sister's children? It couldn't have been you!"'

Some fiction has had political consequences. Gingrich's "1945," published in 1995, contained a passage about a "pouting sex kitten" at a time when he was advocating traditional values. Lynne Cheney's "The Body Politic," a 1988 release about a vice president who dies of a heart attack, proved an uncomfortable omen when her husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, was having heart problems of his own.

Politicians have the clout to get book deals, but not always with their publisher of choice. Fitzwater published a memoir with Times Books, a division of Random House, but his novel ended up at a smaller company, PublicAffairs.

"I had gone back to Random House and offered the novel to them," Fitzwater says. "And they said, `If you want to write politics, we'll publish almost anything you produce. But if you think you're Hemingway, forget it. That's a different game."'


By Hillel Italie
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

Comments