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Heroes, fools and the mirth of a nation

August 29, 2004|Todd Gitlin | Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Letters to a Young Activist" and the forthcoming "The Intellectuals and the Flag."

"Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said, "and I'll write you a tragedy." Had Fitzgerald felt like extrapolating, he might have added: Show me a democracy conducting its public business and I'll write you a comedy.

With Monday's kickoff of the Republican National Convention in New York -- likely to be a staged, scripted performance, a sort of deliberate fiction, like every other recent political party assembly -- this is a fit time to consider the ways in which writers, not the parties themselves, convert the curious tribal rites of national politics into the stuff of the other kind of fiction: the kind that's bound between covers.

Novels of Washington and of the campaigns that aim for its centers of power are legion, but almost without exception they aspire only to tickle the reader. The satirical ones are frequently slapdash, though the best chill the heart, as they're meant to, as well as the spleen. Many end up dissolving into farces and cartoons, unserious skits that do not outlive their occasions. The impersonations may be managed with greater or lesser skill, but the novels veer toward mechanical plots, as do election campaigns themselves.

American political novelists conjure characters who perform according to type -- the flagrant lowlife, the charming hustler, the world-weary sophisticate. They invite their readers into a warm conspiracy of shared superiority to the degraded specimens who run the collective life, as if to say, "You and I, reader, are better than the buffoons, blowhards and callow, ambitious corner-cutters in charge." This is the American people's consolation: We are free, after all, to turn our backs on politics, politicians and all their detestable works.

The model was set by Henry Adams' "Democracy: An American Novel," published anonymously in 1880. A bestseller in its time, "Democracy" is a clumsy Victorian amusement on the theme of universal corruption in the Gilded Age, with a scattering of set-piece speeches to drive home the author's points. Adams, a guardian of gentility, plunged fearlessly into the purple depths of cliche; neither his archness nor his sentimentality wears well. The book is an aristocrat's stiff lament for a world seized by rogues. In it, the most august senator in Washington, who barely missed the presidency earlier and stands to win it later, is a smooth connoisseur of barefaced realism. "If virtue won't answer our purpose," he says, "we must use vice." Wouldn't you know, the senator turns out to have accepted a huge bribe. What is the gentle lady who has been courted by him to do? She is graced with an inner life -- perhaps the only character in "Democracy" who is -- and discovers that the only morally satisfactory recourse is to get out of town.

Rogues abound in Joe Klein's "Primary Colors," but there's too much fun to be had running around with them to justify a soul-saving exit. "Primary Colors" was deftly timed when it appeared in 1996, emerging in the early months of Bill Clinton's second presidential campaign with a plot hewing closely to his first -- complete with the portentous hesitations of Mario Cuomo ("Orlando Ozio"), the colorful, backcountry wizard advice of James Carville ("Richard Jemmons") and the purported dalliance of the dazzling Clinton ("Jack Stanton") with the venal Gennifer Flowers ("Cashmere McLeod").

"Primary Colors" remains a skilled performance, with the sort of wit that consists mainly of snap judgments, signature sum-ups, hip patter and the pat put-downs that play well in weekly newsmagazines. Such wit is composed chiefly of mimicry, with characters easily mapped onto recognizable figures like Hillary Clinton, Stan Greenberg, Betsey Wright and so on. There is even a walk-on for a simultaneously sonorous and credulous newsmagazine writer, "Jerry Rosen," a surrogate for Time magazine's Klein. The book might as well have come equipped with a seating chart.

Klein, disguised as "Anonymous" before he was outed by an analyst of writing style, plainly did his homework on election minutiae -- what he calls "the metabolism of the campaign." When his writing is not bloated in the manner of an extra-long Clinton monologue, Klein can be sharp on the campaign's "lunatic tide" and pungent on the empty conformity of the men and women of the press, who combine inside-dopester savvy with an indulgence for charlatans. In the end, though, Klein tries too hard. The mechanics of "oppo" research -- digging up dirt about the opposition -- detain him overlong, and his characters perform too much like wind-up toys. The nearest he gets to the inner life of a character is with his narrator, the young jack-of-all-assignments Henry Burton -- the closest of his principals to being altogether invented.

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