Washington novelists ponder Obama

November 14, 2008 12:13:16 PM PST
In the 1960s, Irving Wallace wrote a novel called "The Man," in which the sudden deaths of the president, vice president and speaker of the House bring to power a most unlikely occupant of the Oval Office: Sen. Douglas Dillman - a black man.

Thanks to the election of Barack Obama, a black president in Washington fiction will be no more exceptional than one in real life.

"Before Obama, you wouldn't have gotten away with simply having a black president and having that on the periphery. Now you can, and what a great thing that is," says David Baldacci, the brand name author of such Washington thrillers as "Absolute Power" and "Divine Justice."

"Invariably, Washington takes its cue from whomever is in power and so will Washington novelists," says Christopher Buckley, author of such D.C. satires as "Thank You for Smoking" and "No Way to Treat a First Lady."

The "Washington novel," an enduring genre that includes such classics as Henry Adams' "Democracy" and Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent," has inevitably changed, but in the next few years it may change profoundly. Authors cite not just Obama's ethnicity, but his youth and his bearing.

"He's charismatic, with a young family, and he's multiracial, and I think for all of those reasons it would be very hard to accept the sort of traditional, white Donald Rumseldian authority figure you see in a lot of presidential fiction," says Richard North Patterson, author of such political best sellers as "Protect and Defend" and "Private Screening."

"When Kennedy was president, even if people were trying to portray a conservative president, there would be some aspect of youth, charisma, a new spirit. Obama is going to be at least as strong a figure; there's no way of getting around it."

Patterson says Obama has already influenced one of his books. The author met Obama in 2004, during the Democratic National Convention and their conversation helped shape Patterson's novel "The Race," a story of three Republican president candidates and their involvement with an African-American woman.

"I did it to raise the kinds of things Obama has dealt with, the complexity of race and politics," Patterson says. "I talked with him for about 40 minutes in 2004 and have met him a couple times since. He's a very nuanced thinker. He gets and embraces complexity, rather being scared by it."

Patterson says an Obama presidency may help pull the Washington novel away from post-Sept. 11 stories of conspiracy and apocalypse. Ward Just, a former Washington Post reporter whose novels include "Jack Gance" and "The American Ambassador," hopes Obama will inspire a couple of trends. Just looks forward to more stories about members of Washington's black middle class and to a more serious approach to government.

"It's so difficult to write about Washington without satire," Just says. "Washington is a lot like Hollywood; the city has become so outsized and so preposterous in so many ways. If an Obama administration could bring some real statecraft and is seen as interesting and intelligent, that might prepare for a reader for a straight ahead novel that happened to be in Washington."

A smart presidency is exactly why Washington satirists, like standup comedians, worry about an Obama administration. Buckley, son of conservative hero William F. Buckley and a conservative outsider because of his endorsement of Obama, says he is "hoping for competence and even-keeledness and a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of government.

"But," says Buckley, "he won't give me much to work with."

And like Jay Leno and other comedians, Buckley sees more promise in Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware. In Buckley's current novel, "Supreme Courtship," Buckley features a chatty chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (Biden's former position) whose communication skills crest helplessly into the "logorrheic tide, the tsunami of subordinate clauses and parenthetical asides, the inexorable mudslide of anecdotage."

"So much will depend on Joe Biden," Buckley says. "But I've written a book about Joe Biden. So I've had my quota of Biden fun."


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