Pity me in 1973: a second-year graduate student, committed to turning avocation (a fascination with American politics) into vocation (political scientist) and increasingly dissatisfied with my commitment. I read day and night in my library carrel—scholarly monographs, political periodicals, even the occasional Washington novel—yet my thirst for insight remains unslaked, my quest for understanding unfulfilled. On an idle Sunday I thumb through the year’s-end edition of The Washington Post’s “Book World” section. Famous Washingtonians have been asked to name their favorite books of the year: Bella Abzug liked Impeachment (what a surprise), Barbara Walters chose The Making of the President 1972 (Theodore White’s worst book), Gloria Steinem’s mother named a collection of Herblock cartoons (who cares?). But wait—what’s this from John Chancellor? “Ward Just’s The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, because I think Just is working in a terribly important field, using fiction to arrive at truth about people in our government.” I throw down my paper, hop in my car, race down the parkway to Washington (no bookstore in Baltimore has heard of Ward Just, much less chosen to stock his book), dig several dry wells, then find success in a narrow shop on Connecticut Avenue. I read quickly—bliss! I read carefully—insight, understanding.
I am hyperventilating, of course, not only about the virtues of Just’s book but also about the inadequacies of scholarship, journalism, and contemporary political fiction. But, putting Just aside for the moment, and Johns Hopkins University’s excellent political science department notwithstanding, I am not exaggerating by much. Political science, then and even more so now, was plagued by a self-referential, jargon-riddled, theory-bound pretentiousness that was divorced from both the discipline’s classical philosophical past and the real political world of the present. Devoid of interesting questions of its own devising and unable to provide useful answers to the questions and concerns of others, political science seemed bent on swallowing itself and vanishing, in the manner of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. As the Watergate scandal (a purely political crisis if ever there was one) raged on, we graduate students grimly noticed that the world was turning not to political scientists but to historians and law professors to find out what had gone wrong and what should be done to make things better. And why not? Then-current issues of the American Political Science Review were filled with articles such as “Cluster Bloc Analysis and Statistical Inference” and “A Note on “Voting, or a Price System in a Competitive Market Structure.”“
The political journalism of the early 1970’s certainly was more impressive than the political science of that period. Indeed, by many standards, political journalism seemed to be coming into its own. Old-style “objective” reporting, with its almost exclusive concern for accurately (and uncritically, as in “Senator Joseph McCarthy charged today that. . .”) transcribing the sayings and doings of public officials, was yielding the spotlight to investigative reporting and the “New Journalism.” Investigative reporters hitched their wagons to the new stars of the profession, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Post, vowing to dig beneath the superficial, self-serving words of politicians to find the real (that is, scandalous) story. New Journalists such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson became so convinced of the impossibility of objectivity and the limited value of facts as a path to truth that they embraced journalistic subjectivity and exalted the journalist as truthgiver.
Investigative reporting and the New Journalism were the sources of most of the exciting and insightful political writing of the day. But to see each form at its best—investigative reporting in the Watergate scandal that was so embarrassing the tongue-tied practitioners of political science and the New Journalism in, say, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail—was also to see the limits of them both. The Woodstein wannabes (most recently, Seymour Hersh in his anti-JFK screed, The Dark Side of Camelot) erred not only in portraying scandal as the rule rather than the exception in politics and government, but also in ascribing most of the ills of the political system to corruption instead of to tired organizational routines, human fallibility, scarce resources, and the all-too-frequent unavailability of sound solutions to major problems. The New Journalism typically turned a good point—the limitations of facts—into a bad practice through careless, even reckless disregard of such facts as were readily available.
Beyond these failings of its nascent genres, journalism seemed intrinsically limited as a form in its capacity to yield insights, much less truths, about why political life is the way it is. To understand politics fully one must understand motive as well as action, and to understand motive requires empathy. Yet journalism simply cannot discover and present the interior thoughts and emotions or even the closed-door dialogue through which political figures reveal themselves. Nor, as a consequence, can it explain adequately why people in power act as they do.
What of political fiction, which, like journalism, was enjoying something of a popular and commercial heyday during my graduate school years a quarter-century ago? After all, political potboilers had populated the bestseller lists of the 1960’s, especially those written by former journalists such as Fletcher Knebel (Fail-Safe, Seven Days in May, Night of Camp David) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent, A Shade of Difference, Capable of Honor).
Yet if Washington journalism was (and is) limited by the conventions of its form, Washington novels were (and are) flawed by the execution of their form. Such novels tended to be rich in setting, which is equally available in nonfiction, but impoverished in characterization, which fiction is uniquely suited to reveal. Characters typically fell into one of two categories: thinly disguised real people whose identities the reader was teased to guess, or cardboard cutouts who were less themselves than two-dimensional representations of their titles: the senator, the general, the reporter. The result was a sameness that confirmed readers’ preconceptions instead of shedding new light. As the political scientist Ross Baker found, for example, the presidents of 60’s political novels almost invariably were “high-minded, principled, and humane” (scant preparation for Watergate, which in turn provoked a spate of demonic presidential novels). Tom Bethell concluded that, in novels populated by stereotypes, “the author is reduced to playing a game of literary chess with “the President” (queen), “the Secretary of State” (bishop), and so on. As with chess, there are an infinite number of ways in which such pieces can be moved, but in any game one queen is indistinguishable from another.”
Another chronic failing of Washington novels (and, more recently, of blockbuster movies such as Air Force One and Independence Day) has been the frenetic melodrama of their plots. Richard Reeves captured the form well in a satirical article for Esquire, written in the form of a letter to his publisher proposing a plot outline. In Reeves’ novel, President Thomas Canty (“a man of the people”) has a secret affair with the Soviet premier, a former vice president is strangled in a Uganda-like African country, and the beautiful female secretary of state jets around the world with the president’s chief assistant in an effort to force the president to resign—all in a quest for new sources of oil. Reeves was deliberately exaggerating, of course, but as readers of novels such as The President’s Plane is Missing and, more recently, Absolute Power, will recognize, not by much. The story that Washington novelists have missed, as Larry McMurtry—a Washingtonian and a novelist but not a Washington novelist—has written, is that “the ambience of Washington is not passion and melodrama: it is, first and last, control and impersonality. In these tones, or tones very much like them, life is lived here and decisions made, and a nation governed, more or less.”
If political scientists, political journalists, and political novelists were, each in their own way, offering pale illumination of modern politics, what made The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, now marking the 25th anniversary of its publication, so much more revealing?
The first words of the book—titled by Just “A Note” but carrying the ring of a manifesto—boldly asserted his claim to be offering something different:
The characters in these stories are imaginary. They are not based on persons living or dead. Nor are the situations à clef. The author is obliged to state this clearly, in view of the tendency of “the new journalism” to blend fact and fiction.
There is one other reason. Journalism is useful, but truth wears many masks and in Washington facts sometimes tend to mislead. All the facts sometimes tend to mislead absolutely.
If Just’s claim was bold, the stories that followed more than fulfilled it. The title story, for example, is about a 40-year-old congressman named Lou LaRuth at the time of the Vietnam war. LaRuth had grown up poor in a Southern mill town; his one passion in politics is to pass a bill to help make the schools better in towns like his. He had been lucky as well as talented—scholarships had enabled him to escape to Tulane and, subsequently to the Sorbonne, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Flaubert. Flaubert’s “understanding of ambition and the moral and social conditions that produced it” inspired LaRuth to turn to politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives and reelected five times, usually by large margins. But because he is considerably more liberal than his district, LaRuth frets about “the paper-thin depth of his support,” fearing that it would vanish with one wrong vote. He resents it when Northern liberal colleagues press him to join them on antiwar issues. Don’t they realize how precarious his political situation is? Don’t they understand that in order to get his innovative education bill through a House whose most powerful members “smelled of tobacco and whiskey and old wool, their faces dry as parchment,” he will have to keep a low profile?
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that LaRuth treasures his image of himself as “a fallen angel, a victim of the process.” When a delegation of professors beseeches him to take the lead in sponsoring an antiwar resolution (they want “not the traditional dove, but. . . a moderate man with a conscience”), he seems to revel in the apparent contradiction between his private agreement with them and the public demands of his political career, which he thinks mandates silence. In truth, there is no contradiction, as LaRuth’s congressional colleague, Warren Winston, soon demonstrates. Winston, who represents a Southern district that is as conservative as LaRuth’s, embraces the resolution, alters its language to render it less inflammatory, and uses the moment in the national spotlight that sponsorship affords him to launch a successful Senate campaign. For Winston, in whom, “there was no confusion between the private and the public,” the resolution was the raw material of an opportunity; for LaRuth, it was the occasion for an immobilizing dilemma. “He knew who he was,” the story concludes. “He’d stick with what he had and take comfort from a favorite line, a passage toward the end of Madame Bovary. It was a description of a minor character, and the line had stuck with him, lodged in the back of his head. Seductive and attractive, in a pessimistic way. He grew thin, his figure became taller, his face took on a saddened look that made it nearly interesting.”
Although Just is too subtle a writer to reduce all of politics to one theme, he explores the complex interaction between the public and the private realms again and again in the nine stores that comprise The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert. Modern political journalism has reduced the public-private dichotomy to a stale discussion of how much a politician’s private (read: sex) life should affect our judgment of his or her (read: his) performance in public office. But Just, in a story called “Burns,” wants us to think about temperament as well: the unhappy title character who tries to use the State Department to pursue his vision of himself as a thoughtful intellectual but whose superiors use him instead, transferring him to the action-oriented Central Intelligence Agency. He wants us, in “Prime Evening Time,” to consider how a privacy-obsessed Vietnam Medal of Honor winner manipulates a network anchor during the making of a documentary on heroism in which he has been ordered to participate. To be sure, sex rears its head in Just’s Washington stories—how could it not?—but in ways that are hardly formulaic. Instead, he introduces us to “Simpson’s Wife,” a congressional spouse who loves her life in Washington (if not Simpson) so much that she makes herself available to an old-friend columnist so that he will call a halt to his investigation of her husband. He tells us about “Nora,” in love with a married senator but unwilling to let him ruin his career by divorcing his wife because she knows that, deprived of political office, he would no longer be the man she loves. And he opens a window into the soul of the senator, who divorces his wife anyway in an effort to force Nora’s hand, only to lose career, wife, and Nora.
To summarize Just’s stories is, of course, to do him an injustice, to make plain what he wants you to squint to see. With Just, as with Hemingway (especially in the Michigan stories), each fact suggests ten others that are known but not stated. His aesthetic sense mirrors that of the Washington whose inner life he chronicles: the really important things are revealed not in what is stated but in what is alluded to or assumed. For example, no one, least of all Just, ever says in “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.” that the real reason the Supreme Court justice is willing to endure a long, handholding telephone conversation with the washed-up former White House staffer is that the staffer knows something about the justice that he has agreed (for the time being?) to withhold. But three-fourths into the story we see that message peeking out between the lines of the following exchange:
“Paul? You know I never really thanked you for letting me see the galleys of your book. And agreeing to the changes. It would have been awkward as hell for me.”
“I understand, I don’t know how the passage got in there in the first place. It was careless research.”
“Well, you know I appreciated it.”
Summary is unfair to Just in another way: it diverts attention from his superb depiction of the texture of political life. When I explain to my students (yes, I completed my studies in political science and have been teaching it ever since) why I include Just’s stories in the syllabus, I say that no writer can better help them understand how it feels to be inside the institutions of government and politics that they are studying in their textbooks. No presidential scholar, no journalist, no memoirist has ever captured, for example, the sensual lure of life in the West Wing better that Just does in the conclusion of “Guide”:
[Candler] remembered the black Mercury sedans, with the telephones and the reading light in the rear seat. He was up every morning at seven sharp, swinging into the circular lobby at a quarter to eight. He remembered the silence of the lobby, and the wan light from hidden lamps. In the early morning there were always one or two visitors seated on the couches, nervous men waiting for appointments, who put down their newspapers when they saw him. It was as if they felt newspapers were an unnecessary frivolity, a sacrilege in his presence, something profane. . . .
Then, safely inside the sanctum, he’d relax and stroll down the hallway to his office and the morning’s business. Before he did anything he checked the appointment book to see what was scheduled. What was public, what private, and what personal. Then he’d check the Oval Office to see if the old man was in. To see if there was anything special that day. Anything that needed doing. Anything at all.
It was the office, not the man. That was what the historians said, and for once the historians were right. Right in tight, near the Oval Office, where it happened. He’d been there for eight years, an assistant, a President’s man. Now he was on the outs. He hated being on the outs more than he hated anything. For a President’s man habits died hard, and suddenly he was afraid.
I did not realize it in 1973, but the same Just who had begun The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert by proclaiming the limitations of journalism had been a celebrated journalist himself. The lesson that “[j]ournalism is useful, but truth wears many masks” was one that he had learned from the inside.
Just grew up during the middle third of the century in a world of Midwestern politics and journalism. The sound of his grandfather, a power in local Republican politics, looms large in his memory—a sort of “verbless esperanto” in which matters were alluded to that political colleagues around the table understood without needing to have them spelled out. Just’s father was the publisher of the Waukegan (III.) News-Sun. The recollection of him that Just usually cites in interviews is of the telephone ringing during dinner, followed by the murmurs of his father listening to someone plead to keep his arrest for drunk driving or his daughter’s divorce out of the paper.(“You talk about a moral dilemma. . . .”) Just worked for the News-Sun when he came home from college but left after a couple of years. “My father and I fought all the time,” he recalls, but, more fundamentally, he just wanted to be something other than his father’s successor.
After leaving Waukegan, Just bounced around but always upward in journalism: the Chicago bureau of Newsweek, next to the magazine’s Washington bureau then headed by the now legendary Ben Bradlee, a short stint at the Reporter magazine, then, in 1963, Newsweek’s London bureau before returning to Washington in 1965 and moving with Bradlee to The Washington Post. Just’s relationship with Bradlee was, according to David Halberstam, “as close as reporter and editor could be. Just was a protege, a favorite son.” When Bradlee became managing editor of the Post in 1965, Just was one of the first of what were known as “Bradlee’s boys.” Later that year, Bradlee assigned Just to cover the war in Vietnam. He left for Saigon on Christmas Day.
Just’s reporting in Vietnam was, by any standard, brilliant. Halberstam, who, writing for The New York Times, was Just’s only equal as a Vietnam correspondent, said in his book The Powers That Be that “perhaps no reporter working for a major daily paper wrote as well from Vietnam, with as much subtlety and grace as he did. . . . He was fascinated by the bravery of men at war and he took exceptional risks in combat.” In June 1966, while out on patrol with a reconnaissance platoon, Just and eight American soldiers were seriously wounded and dangerously pinned down. A rescue helicopter managed to reach them, but Just refused to leave until all of the soldiers were out. “He stayed on the ground, stayed surrounded, when he had a free ticket out, which was untypical of reporters,” according to Colonel David Hackworth. “He won me for life. He joined the brotherhood of infantrymen.”
It took Just a while to realize that the bravery of the men whose stories he was reporting in the Post was not enough to produce victory in the war. But when he did, his dispatches turned dark with pessimism, much to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dismay. Just’s valedictory article, written in June 1967, concluded: “This war is not being won, and by any reasonable estimate, it is not going to be won in the foreseeable future. It may not be winnable.” After leaving Vietnam, Just made this argument at greater length in To What End?, which, along with another Vietnam book, Military Men, are the only two nonfiction works he has written.
Just stayed at the Post for a few years after returning from Vietnam. He was given what most reporters would regard as prime assignments: covering the 1968 presidential campaign and writing editorials. But after nearly two years of immersion in the literal life-and-death struggles that had marked every day in Vietnam, “any other journalistic assignment was a pale brew.” As for the editorial page, “I felt silly commenting on news instead of digging it out.”
Why, in 1971, at age 36, did Just climb down from the top of the journalistic ladder in order to begin an uncertain career in fiction? The answer seems to lie in his understanding of what fiction is and what journalism isn’t.
In general, what fiction is, especially for writers of Just’s generation, is the summit of the writing profession. Journalists have the manuscripts of unpublished novels in their desk drawers; novelists don’t have nonfiction manuscripts in theirs. The writers Just singles out for special admiration are Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and James, not Mencken, Liebling, and Steffens. In 1964, even as he was practicing journalism at its best, Just was spending his six-month leave from Newsweek writing short stories that no one would publish.
Just’s general attraction to fiction-writing became more urgent and particular during his years in Vietnam. Time and again, he found the conventions of journalism pressing in to keep him from conveying the larger truths that he was seeing. When Just talks about reporting, the images are of constricting boundaries: “Journalism wasn’t a heavy enough frame for what I saw”; “The form is obviously confining, as narrow as the width of a column”; “The newspaper business is a woman I loved but obviously could not live with.” Fiction, on the other hand, promised an opportunity to explore the most important human subject, namely, what motivates people to do the things they do despite the sometimes awful consequences for themselves and others.
One could quibble with Just about his assessment of journalism’s limitations. In his strict constructionist view, journalism is properly limited to “the facts; I mean, the reporter’s direct observation.” In a 1979 article for The Atlantic Monthly, for example, Just compared two recent stories about Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who was then preparing to challenge President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. The first, by Robert Healy of The Boston Globe, was written “woodenly,” just one fact after another in the service of no conclusion. The second, written by Anne Taylor Fleming for The Times, was more interesting and better written. But Just did not like Fleming’s story because it was about Kennedy’s character. “A man’s character is the quality least accessible by writers obliged to live by the facts,” he complained. “This is a life that belongs in a novel by Tolstoy or a play by Shakespeare.” Was Just seriously arguing that the character of presidential candidates is a subject that journalists should ignore? Or, having cast his lot with fiction for personal reasons, was he defining journalism in such a way that it can only be good when it is devoid of human insight?
Fortunately, one does not have to agree that journalism is as narrow an approach to political writing as Just says it is in order to be grateful that he has turned to fiction. The proof, beginning with The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert, is in the tasting—11 novels and three collections of short stories that, taken together, have rightly earned Just comparisons with Wharton, James, O’Hara, and Hemingway. Some of his books, notably In the City of Fear and Jack Gance, have been set wholly or substantially in Washington. Most, including several of his recent novels (The Translator, Ambition and Love) have not, and Just gets growly whenever he is pigeonholed as a Washington novelist. But, to a greater or lesser extent, all of his fiction has been about politics. As Ken Ringle recently wrote in the Post, Just’s recurring subject is “the hubris and moral ambiguity of kingmaking and power, the hidden secrets and sorrows and pathos and ethos of the social and political insider.”
Now comes Echo House, Just’s latest novel and a finalist for last year’s National Book Award. It is, despite, its relatively brief 328-page length, a sprawling book that, against the unchanging backdrop of the stunning Rock Creek Park mansion invoked in the title, encompasses three generations of family history and nearly a century of American political history, culminating in an unspecific present whose president is the husband of one of the book’s minor characters. Is Echo House a “Washington novel”? Just’s own answers to this question in post-publication interviews with the Post and Times have been complicated. His first and most direct response is that he hates the label because “[p]eople read that and they think I’m writing thrillers.” Besides, he claims, because the basis of the book is a scene in which “a powerful man falls from a great height, . . .really it could be anywhere.” But Just is also taken by the idea that, “For 80 years, not Henry James, not Edith Wharton, not Faulkner, not Hemingway—none of the major American writers of the 20th century made their own nation’s capital a focal point for fiction. That’s certainly not true of London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, or any of the European capitals.” The last great novel set in Washington, according to Just, was Henry Adams’s Democracy, a first edition of which happens to be Echo House’s most prized possession.(Childe Hassam’s drypoint sketch of Adams hangs from one of the house’s walls.) Echo House covers most of the years since Democracy was published, almost as if Just had decided to pick up the torch where Adams left it. If Echo House isn’t a Washington novel, it certainly is a government novel, and in Washington, Just writes, everyone is “in the government.”
What, within the setting of government, is Echo House about? As was the case with The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (and, for that matter, with all of Just’s stories and novels), it surely is about more than you think. Just is a master, as one reviewer put it, of the “teasingly oblique”; he writes not in primary colors but in tertiaries and shades. His wisely and wearily disillusioned style always leaves you with the disquieting sense that you aren’t quite getting it, even as you are grateful that he respects your intelligence enough not to spell everything out.(I like it, for example, that he refers at one point to “Allen” on the assumption that of course this is Allen Dulles and that he sets an entire chapter at the Illinois governor’s mansion on election night 1952 without ever saying that Adlai’s last name is Stevenson.) Indeed, one of the things that keeps the reader of Echo House off balance throughout the book is how to pronounce the name of the family whose 20th-century history it chronicles: Behl.
Part of what Echo House is about, surely, is the decline of politics. During the long course of the book, Washington is transformed from a “dull Southern village . . .just another glum city of government, like Albany or Sacramento” into a national center of money, media, and power.(But, pace Clinton, not sex—by century’s end, Just writes, Washington “had become a self-infatuated money-grubbing iron triangle of stupefying vulgarity, vainglory, egoism, and greed, worse than Rome because at least in Rome there was lively sexual license, orgies and the like.”) Side by side with the story of Washington’s material ascent and moral decline is the ebbing in importance of the rough and tumble of elections and (Adams again) democracy.
The book opens with a scene of profoundly democratic politics, Adolph Behl, a Midwestern senator and the owner of Echo House, is surrounded at home by friends and cronies, all festively awaiting the promised telephone call announcing that he is his party’s nominee for vice president.(The Behls are Democrats, the party that embraces government.) Instead, the call brings bad news: the presidential nominee has chosen someone else. Adolph drops the phone. He cannot bring himself to utter even the usual platitudes of loyalty and congratulation. He is a democratic politician, one who loves to spend time in his home state and who wanted to be vice president so that he could build museums around the country. But democratic politics has let him down and, now, so do his assembled friends, whose conversations quickly turn to the coming campaign and, implicitly, to their own ambitions for placement in the new administration. In a flash, “they” has become “we.”
Adolph’s son Axel is at the party; he witnesses his father’s humiliation. Instantly Axel resolves, despite his and his mother’s longstanding plans to have him move to Maryland and run for office (eventually for the presidency), that he will never put himself in the same position as his father. “I knew that I never wanted to be dependent on a promise that could be withdrawn over a telephone line. . .,” Axel later tells his own son. “I never wanted to learn the mumbo-jumbo and say that everything was fine when it wasn’t fine.” Instead he joins the State Department and limits his role in election politics to raising money quietly for candidates such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. After serving during World War II and afterward in the clandestine intelligence services, Axel leaves the federal payroll to become a behind-the-scenes “fixer without portfolio” and, eventually, the capital’s leading eminence grise. Unlike his father, Axel gives bad news to senators; he is not a senator who receives bad news from others. He and his fellow wise men have a great mission, to resist the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but they feel hobbled in their efforts by the inconveniences of an elected Congress, a free press, and public opinion—hence, the need to operate in the shadows, in “the dark seven-eighths that supported the sunny eighth.” At the end of Axel’s life, the president opens his mouth to pay him tribute and is momentarily stumped, having suddenly realized that “so many of the old bastard’s contributions to the life of the nation were sub rosa, made many years before and dubious even then, not precisely illegitimate but surely on the margins of the law.”
In a marvelous passage, Just describes Axel’s view of himself and his disdain for democratic politics:
He saw his chores literally as bridges, elaborate spans of iron and cable soaring into the sky as gracefully as a hawk in flight. A bridge took you from one frontier to another. Axel identified with the agile and imperturbable New York Indians, the Mohawks who balanced on the footwide beams, . . .placing the rivets just so, wielding them into place, scratching your own signature on the underside of the beam where no one would ever see it. . . . If you were successful your labor and the elegance with which you went about it were noticed only by your fellow aerialists, those who shared the heights. The danger was a given. And the danger was not the point. The bridge was the point, and the applause, when it came, would never be heard by the spectators below. That was its value.
Axel’s son Alec, whose activities in Washington are even more elusive than his father’s, burrows one layer deeper into the capital and further from democratic politics. (He thinks that “America is a pestilence;” when he flies to Chicago, he is bored stiff with the “middle-aged face, wrinkled rivers here, knobs and bald spots there, eye-shaped ponds” that he sees from the airplane window.) Alec is the sort of lawyer whose practice never involves opening a law book. Instead, “He introduced one man to another man and handled the marriage ceremony if it worked out and the divorce if it didn’t.” During the Watergate crisis, “one day Alec act [ed] on behalf of the White House, the next on behalf of the congressional committees. Willy thought that Alec’s natural role was to represent both at once, Alec a corporation counsel retained by Washington itself.” He and his fellow operators work best in the sort of blue-smoke-and-mirrors setting “where they didn’t have to use verbs in their sentences.” But unlike his father’s generation, they have no great cause. They play the Washington game for its (and their) own sake.
The absence of a great cause, along with the greater scale of wealth and power, is about all that significantly distinguishes the present from the past in Ward Just’s Washington. The other changes he notes seem more apparent than real. The media are more intrusive but are easily diverted. When a celebrated reporter interviews Alec for a major cover story, he leaves her “thinking that she was peering into a man’s soul when she was only looking at a second mask.” Women have become more overtly influential, but only when they act like men: “as garrulous as senators, understanding that Washington did not reward hesitation or uncertainty.” Outside consultants pervade the capital, but those who succeed don’t bring new perspectives into the government. Instead they tell the government what it wants to hear, which is what it already thinks.
To be sure, great causes, as all of Just’s previous writings about Vietnam have warned us, can be dangerous things. In the climactic scene of Echo House, at the great party for Axel that culminates fatally in his accidental (or is it suicidal?) fall down the stairs, two generations of Washington insiders stand across the room from each other in hostile clumps. The “Venerables” of Axel’s generation, who surmounted the Great Depression, won World War II and had enough left over to save Europe and Asia from communism, look at their draft-avoiding, money-grubbing successors with contempt. To the younger Washingtonians, staring back, their elders’ plaint is “a loud fart from . . .the oldest creatures in the zoo and the most troublesome.” For all their “high intelligence, [the Venerables] had bankrupted the nation fighting foolish unwinnable wars and encouraging dubious insurgencies.” Better no great cause than an unaffordable, unsuccessful one.
What characterizes this confrontation, along with much else in Just’s Washington, is its claustrophobic quality, its absence of bright windows and fresh air, of a democratic politics whose capital is the setting, not the source, of national policymaking. Elsewhere in Echo House, a different vision is offered, frightening to Axel, tantalizing in its raucous vitality to us. “The country would be a different country,” Axel muses, “if its capital were located in Boston, San Francisco, or Chicago, brawling immigrant cities quick to lose patience, quick to anger, quick to act, quick to claim credit and demand their rightful place in the scheme of things.” Just imagine: democracy.