Political Novels: Summer (S)elections

A truck barrels past a newly posted 80 mph speed limit sign just west of Monahans in West Texas, Wednesday, May 31, 2006. Cars on two stretches of rural Texas highways can now legally travel 80 mph, the highest speed limit in the country. Truck speed limits remained at 70 mph. AP

In his Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer updates, just a little, his recommendations of some political novels for your summer reading pleasure.


Note: I wish that I could add more books to this list I first published in the summer of 2001. But the news kept us pretty busy at CBSNews.com this year. And, as I argue below, good novels explicitly about politics and elections are rare in America.

There is, however, one fabulous new addition: "Roscoe" by William Kennedy. Like all of Kennedy's great novels, it takes place in Albany, this one at the end of World War II. Roscoe is a hard-living, deep-thinking machine pol who runs the city while hanging out with hookers, blue bloods and cops. And he's in love. Party hacks are usually caricatures in our literature. Roscoe is a huge, memorable, complicated character and his book is a gem.

In American politics, truth is better than fiction. Tweedy literary critics and Armani lobbyists alike have long complained at how slim the pickings are in the Washington or political novel department. They're absolutely right. But there are some notable exceptions that are well worth a spot on anyone's summer vacation reading list.

The criteria for my list are simple. First, a book has to be about American politicians and their attendants – and the political things they do. Second, since this is summer, it has to be a riveting read, in my humble opinion.

There is only one book that fits the bill that I would adamantly argue is a masterpiece: "All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and is certainly one of the finest American novels. The story of the archetypal Southern populist Willie Stark and his tortured aide, Jack Burden, is emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically unforgettable.

Warren did not describe his story as a political novel. He wrote, "The book was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out."

But it is about politics; complex, vivid characters digging up dirt, following orders, seducing and scheming. Perhaps uniquely in American novels, "All the King's Men" portrays people with big, complicated public lives who have even bigger, more complicated inner lives; "deeper concerns."

"All the King's Men" is worlds away from Washington. Its closest competitor is the one essential Washington novel, "Advise and Consent" by Allen Drury. Published in 1959, it's a wily, literary, knowing thriller centered on a confirmation battle. It so perfectly captures the spirit of these intrigues and the souls of the combatants that 90 percent of the Washington novels, movies and television shows that have been produced since seem like stale imitations. More remarkably, and even eerily, the real-life players in dramas such as the confirmation fights of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, or the impeachment of Bill Clinton, appear to imitate Drury's characters and fit neatly into the molds he carved.

In the same breath as Drury, I commend a couple books by Charles McCarry, a mysteriously under-appreciated novelist. McCarry's "The Last Supper" is certainly the best American spy book ever and is right up there with John LeCarre's best.

"Shelley's Heart," published in 1995 but set in the early 2000s, is a classic political thriller. Jonathan Yardley, the book critic at The Washington Post, wrote in 1995, "'Shelley's Heart'" is an amazing book … in every important respect [it] rolls the competition into the ground."

No argument that it follows the "Advise and Consent" tradition, but the writing is far better. It has many familiar ingredients: conspiracy galore, assassination, a constitutional crisis, spies, a sleazy reporter, a tragically drunken House leader, and so forth. But at least some of the characters are deep and vivid. It also has an eccentricity and sense of humor rarely seen in the genre.

McCarry's "Lucky Bastard" is the funniest book about politicians I've ever read. It's a wildly cynical, hugely perceptive and imaginative riff on the Life and Times of Hillary and Bill and JFK, too, starring an epic rogue named, Jack Fitzgerald Adams. It's a downright zany satire that often, quite remarkably, chimes true. The X-scenes are hilarious and rather memorable.

By comparison, "Primary Colors" by Anonymous (or Joe Klein) is thin gruel. Still, this roman a clef taken from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign is worth reading if only for its opening, which is the definitive prose portrait of our own epic rogue.

McCarry wrote that "The Manchurian Candidate" by Richard Condon is "arguably the best thriller ever written." I'd argue, but it is a superb book and there's none better to take to the beach. It came out in 1959, the same year as "Advise and Consent." The witty and improbable story involves a Chinese-produced assassin and his insane mommy and is full of Cold War conspiracy and paranoia. It's Freud meets LeCarre meets Mort Sahl.

Sadly, this isn't a very long list. I expect complaints that "Democracy" by Henry Adams isn't on the list. I know it's a classic. I have been told so many times. But it is a very tough slog and so doesn't meet my second criterion. On the other hand, John Dos Passos' gargantuan masterpiece, "U.S.A." just barely misses my first qualification because it's directly about politics and politicians in only a few places. But it's an underrated monument of American 20th century fiction and a rare treat for political junkies.

It is also unfortunate that many of the books on this list are hard to find in bookstores. That's why God invented the Internet. Search away.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints and book ideas to
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