A Beltway Education

An insider’s satirical take on Washington backstabbing, boozing and hustle

In a recent Maclean’s column, Barbara Amiel explained how she has come to see herself the way others portray her: “After the first 500 or so articles describing our collective faults in general and my particular nastiness, one gets the point and I’ll make a confession: after a while you come to believe it … In spite of all I know about the media, I cannot credit them with total fabrication—if so many people who have never spoken a word to me can dissect my being and attribute such vile characteristics to me I must have something that smells.”

It would be interesting to know how many people in the political world are defined by the narratives strangers create about them or their views. Based on reading David Frum’s first novel, Patriots, I think a similar situation might have happened to him.

The Canadian-born writer is best known as a speechwriter to George W. Bush during the run-up to the war in Iraq. He has published many books on conservative policy making, including the 2007 Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again. A frequent TV pundit, he writes columns for CNN.com and the National Post.

In Patriots, Walter Schotzke is a trust fund baby waiting for his inheritance to mature. His politically connected grandmother sets Walter up with a job at a senator’s office in the hopes he will make something of himself. The previously apolitical Walter moves to Washington with his girlfriend and begins work with the moderate conservative Senator Hazen.

However, Walter has arrived at interesting times. The country’s first black president, a Nationalist (in the novel, Democrats are Nationalists and Republicans are Constitutionalists), has lost re-election to General Pulaski, a war hero. Yet the Constitutionalist brain trust are not as happy with their man’s win as one might think; he is too moderate. He is willing to compromise and even to raise taxes, anathema to fiscal conservatives.

So the lead rain men and operators of the hardline Constitutionalist faction lean on Walter to push Hazen in the right direction. They know Hazen has clout with the new president, who seems to be shutting out their wing of the party. Walter, as a respected symbol of the moneyed class, is presumed to be the perfect man to straighten out Pulaski’s planned assault on the wealth of America’s job creators.

The hapless Walter learns the ins and outs of the Washington political scene—the backstabbing, the media hustle, the boozing and adultery—while slowly developing into his own man. As he bounces from fundraising luncheons to Senate briefings, he waffles from being used by everyone to being nobody’s fool.

Patriots is part satire, the sort of book the Washington crowd will thumb through to see which character is a thinly veiled substitute for themselves. Fox News becomes Patriot News. The Drudge Report becomes Sludge.com. Glenn Beck becomes the theatrical Mark Dunn. Even the issues get the same shake. The protracted drug war in Mexico is Iraq. The Truckers Protest is the Tea Party. The more you know American politics, the more you will unearth.

It is generally considered folly to discuss a novel in relation to the author’s personal life. Nabokov’s children grew tired of being asked what it was like growing up with a pedophile for a father—the questioners completely naïve to the fact that the vividness of Lolita was testament to Nabokov’s immense literary talents, not his assumed experience as a child molester.

Yet in Frum’s case the rule can be waived. While clearly not a strict roman à clef, there is much of Frum in the book. The author shares a background with his protagonist, and Walter’s six-month arc in Washington seems to be a compact version of Frum’s Washington career. Frum also made clear, in a piece he wrote for CNN.com headlined “Why a pundit wrote a novel,” that his goals were not strictly storytelling, but to use fiction to get across a point he had already argued elsewhere: “What I wanted to show and explain was why your government has gone AWOL at exactly the moment when decisive action was most needed.”

Frum thinks the government must do more to help people during current economic troubles. He has long been at odds with certain angles of conservatism, which appeared to come to a head when he was let go from the American Enterprise Institute. While never confirmed, the rumoured reasons were his criticisms of Republican healthcare positions and of Fox News. It is hard not to call this to mind when reading a character’s opinion on a fictional institute: “They call themselves a think tank, but it seems lately their real business is to manufacture and distribute pseudo-facts and pretend-information.”

While he is still conservative, much of Frum’s current commentary seems focused on critiquing the right rather than the left. Through this lens, Patriots comes across as Frum’s fictionalized account of going rogue.

From this experience he gives characters insight that solely literary authors might lack:

“If you are a Constitutionalist and a minority or woman (or like me all three), you will be ceaselessly subjected to rhetorical projectile vomit. We say U-S-A, they reduce us to T-and-A. Where are the feminists when these leering goons demean and objectify us? Hypocrites!” says a Patriot News commentator.

Or: “Young people imagine that everyone arrives here full of burning idealism—then get somehow seduced into corruption. And yes, that happens. But most of the time, the temptations do not seek you. You have to seek them.”

But despite its expert window onto the Washington world, many of the plot threads lack complexity. Most of the lampooning of Republicans seems to be a rehash of left-wing talking points. It is almost as if, dissatisfied with the party line, the author just adopted—to return to the Amiel point—whatever opposing party line was readily at hand. Feeling disenfranchised, he has come to believe the caricatures the other guys sling.

There is a grand reveal that Patriot News is not about truth, but about ratings and revenue (as if this should be a surprise), then a scene where the CEO revels in phone hacking. Another scene has a senator requesting a donation to manufacture a protest (alluding to the idea the Tea Party is not organic but financed by billionaires). “With $7 million … I could set this country on fire for freedom. We’d launch a freedom movement that would never be turned back!” The stereotypes got so heavy that I began to fear the next scene would involve an insider telling Walter the real truth about 9/11.

This is a fast-paced plot-driven novel heavy on dialogue. The sparse descriptions range from far off the mark (“She paused theatrically, like the boss in a gangster movie”) to the surprisingly sublime (“And now it was full spring. The last of the sequence of blossoms opened and fell: dogwood and apple. The nights grew long and bright and lovely.”)

Ultimately, Patriots is a novel of deep cynicism. It is about “a good man in a tragic situation,” whether this man is Walter, the moderate senator he worked for, or anyone trying for political change, which presumably includes the author himself.