I suspect that most of us have vices that we occasionally rue. Mine is the so-called political novel.
Despite the fact that most such novels rarely rise to the level of brain candy, I can’t seem to get enough of them. I blame this unfortunate defect of character on the American Legion.
In the summer of 1972, the American Legion post where I was living at the time decided to send me to Boys State, one of this nation’s best-known institutional attempts to instill in young men some modest sense of civic responsibility.
A month or so later, the Legion compounded its mistake by sending me to Boys Nation, a program which sought to instill that same sense of civic responsibility at a national, rather than a state and local, level.
The political process that myself and my fellow delegates were privileged to witness, especially at the national level, was fascinating. But then, the American Legion had worked very hard back then (as it continues to do now) to make certain that delegates such as myself came away with precisely that impression.
The inner workings of the Defense Department were outlined for us in a meeting with the Secretary of Defense (and former Congressman) Melvin Laird. A former Attorney General, William P. Rogers, briefed us on the State Department, where he was then serving the nation as Secretary of State. Each delegate had lunch with his state’s two Senators in the Senate Dining Room. The highlight of the program was a handshake and a few brief words with President Richard Nixon in the East Room of the White House. (Unbeknowst to us teenagers, the seeds of this President’s eventual downfall had been sown only a few weeks earlier in a hotel just a mile or so from where we then stood.)
I was hooked. On politics. Shortly thereafter, I took a B.A. in Political Science with the idea of going into the Foreign Service. And I started reading everything political that I could get my hands on: theories, histories, biographies ... political novels.
I think I should get at least partial credit for not starting out immediately with the dross. No sirree! It was Stendahl’s The Red and The Black, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, as well as American political classics like All the King’s Men, Advise and Consent and The Last Hurrah.
Unfortunately, there were enablers. Lots of them! I was doing a good bit of travel in those days. Lots of airports. Lots of airport bookshops. Lots of enforced downtime (this was BLT: Before Laptops). A copy of Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel.
Pretty soon, my briefcase was stuffed with the likes of Time Will Run Back, Speak No Evil, even (much later) my current Senator’s A Time to Run....
At one point, I had hundreds of political novels, mostly paperback, scattered about my abode-of-the-moment. Alas, I eventually parted company with most of them due to demands on my time.
But my addiction to the political novel has never been entirely suppressed. A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Stuart Scheingold’s The Political Novel: Re-imagining the Twentieth Century.