By Thomas Mallon
Our current presidency is more like fiction than ever seemed possible — a postmodern black comedy with a crazed protagonist hellbent on blurring all lines between fantasy and reality. Which is just one of the things that make reading and judging a work of fiction about the last Republican president, George W. Bush, somewhat complicated.
“Landfall” is Thomas Mallon’s 10th novel. Most of the others are also set in Washington around Republican presidents, all the way back to Abraham Lincoln. Yet even though the presidency in this book ended only a decade ago, its past is a foreign country nonetheless. A government run by establishment Republicans, many of them decent and idealistic? How quaint.
The author is an establishment Republican. He ghostwrote Dan Quayle’s memoir and served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Bush. (Disclosure: The N.E.H. has provided funding to the public radio show I host.) In a 2016 article he called his party’s imminent convention “a political Jonestown.” Of course, the cyanide in Donald Trump’s Kool-Aid turned out to be a slow-acting kind, and in fact he’s done Mallon a favor, making this an optimal moment to publish a sympathetic novel concerning a bad-but-not-that-bad Republican president.
Previous fiction about Washington politics mostly avoided using real names of the living people they fictionalized, from Henry Adams’s “Democracy” through Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent.” Even in Philip Roth’s satirical fantasy “Our Gang,” Nixon and the other characters had fictional names, as did the Clintons et al. in Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors.” But by 2008 it seemed almost quaint when Curtis Sittenfeld altered Laura and George Bush’s names and backgrounds in her excellent novel “American Wife.” Oliver Stone’s biopic “W.” and Will Ferrell’s Bush play, “You’re Welcome America,” appeared around that time, and since then naming names has become the Washington-fiction norm, as in movies like “Vice.” So, no surprise, Mallon’s three most recent novels — “Watergate”; “Finale,” about Reagan; and now “Landfall” — are jam-packed with “real” people, a hundred apiece.
That extreme celebritude aside, however, Mallon writes old-school Washington fiction in the Ward Just tradition, neither Gore Vidalian cynicism nor, despite its funny moments — at a Christopher Hitchens party, “John Edwards and Donatella Versace silently marveled at each other’s appearance” — Chris Buckleyesque comedy.
As teenagers in 1978, the two main characters, Ross and Allison, meet at a W.-for-Congress campaign event in Lubbock — at which Ross encounters Bush too, and “vaguely realized that … he was a little in love with both of them.” Ross and Allie date a bit but that’s that. Ross goes from Lubbock to Harvard for a Ph.D., becomes a professor, whereafter “being a registered Republican academic made him enough of a rara avis” to get hired as a federal humanities bureaucrat in Washington (in other words, much like Mallon). Which enables Ross and Allie to re-meet cute after 27 years apart, just when Ross’s marriage to “his Bush-hating wife” is unraveling. Allie, a civilian lawyer for the Army, D.C.-based but dispatched frequently to Afghanistan and Iraq, never married. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld takes a shine to her uppity skepticism of the Iraq war. He assigns her to the National Security Council staff, hoping she’ll be a more forceful “office wife” to the president than Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state. Bush takes even more of a shine to Allie.
“Landfall” is a romance — a romance in which the president repeatedly intercedes, rom-com fashion — set against the machinations concerning the administration’s defining failure in Iraq. There’s also quite a bit about its other defining failure, Hurricane Katrina, and a good, MacGuffinish Bush family subplot that Ross uncovers.
Mallon’s portrayals of most of his well-known main characters are flattering. But he’s also entertainingly bitchy. He nails John Kerry at Bush’s second inaugural — “the disappointed, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger look … that pained expression of his, sort of a sigh that always meant to say it’s more complicated than that.” Barbara Bush is consistently mean, and not just about Jeb, the “son she admired more and loved less.” Laura never liked Karl Rove, and calls John Irving “a modern, mediocre Dickens.” Nancy Reagan muses that Princess Diana was dumb, John Travolta gay; since she’s old enough that her “daughter has had her first face lift” she should relax about life. Elizabeth Dole’s cosmetic surgery is “shockingly bad,” and her fellow-former-senator husband Bob “truly couldn’t stand” the elder George Bush and disliked his son “even more.”
Mallon turns a few real people into piñatas he hits repeatedly, and not just famous ones like Edwards and Henry Kissinger. The longtime Bush lieutenant Karen Hughes asks Condi Rice to pull strings to get her son into Stanford. (Rice was actually Stanford’s provost, and Hughes’s son, named in the novel, actually went there.) The Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson gets multiple whacks, including a joke about his real-life heart attack. I anticipated fun when a certain White House staff secretary appears early on, complete with a presidential nickname, “K-Man” — but, unlike a Chekhovian first-act pistol, Brett Kavanaugh never speaks or returns.
Rice is the most compelling character. Allie pities “poor Condi, who seemed to have spent a lifetime offering graciousness as a kind of microwaved substitute for actual warmth.” Barbara Bush reckons Rice “wanted her real personality to break through; she was merely afraid of it — as opposed to Hillary … who despised her own real self.” But Rice has an authentic center, knows that if she ran for office “every compromise and stifling and self-suppression to be performed would … devour her with shame.”
At an Army base in Germany, preparing to address the troops outdoors, she unbuttons her coat so it will blow open and “reveal a pair of knee-high boots tightly encasing two legs whose several inches of exposed thigh had been made shapely by uncountable hours on the elliptical. … Our Miss Brooks morphing into Lucy Lawless. … Dominatrix? Who, me?” Three hundred pages later, she’s in bed with the named, real Canadian foreign minister, a man 11 years her junior. “Condi admired the forearm flexors of Canada’s Sexiest Male M.P.,” and later proudly thinks “I got laid,” but also recognizes that their “lovemaking resembled the U.S.-Canadian relationship … affectionate; not especially dramatic; and unlikely to evolve.”
As for Bush, I’m willing to buy that he really is kind, particularly to the women in his life; emotional about the wounded and displaced; “sickened” by corruption “more than any dovishness”; and realized after being re-elected “how much he already wanted the whole thing to be over.” And he might have the dark, funny thought that “if the plane aiming for the Capitol dome on September 11 had actually hit it, he could imagine his vice president muttering ‘No loss’ through that sly slit of a mouth.”
But the W. of “Landfall” is unbelievably wonderful. He makes charming fun of his reputation for ignorance — and then disproves it again and again. He’s fluent geopolitically, historically, philosophically. He knows minutiae, like the Iraqi village where Saddam’s regime executed over 140 people in 1982, and he’s smart about the bigger picture, understanding that his war to incite regional democratization “was, he’d come to realize, his own domino theory, a reversal of the L.B.J. version.” When Rumsfeld and Rice have a spat, he angrily asks: “What would you call that? A ‘dialectic’?” His born-again Christianity, he figures, gives him “more in common with, and more insight into, the most radical Muslim who read his Quran than the unbeliever who never opened his Bible.” And Mallon’s Bush is this much of a brainiac mensch: He’s trying to finagle a happy ending for Allie and Ross because he’d failed in Iraq and New Orleans, and thus “felt required to amalgamate … the miniature and the giant. If he could help to solve their problems, writ small in the ink of a double catastrophe, maybe that could lead him toward a solution for the catastrophes themselves.”
His flaws are barely flaws. Dole rags on him for “always choking up” and Kissinger, likewise, for possibly being “the sincerest man I’ve ever met.” In this book his biggest problem, which Mallon diagnoses well, is a fundamental uneasiness, the lack of an even keel. Young Laura worries “how long it would be before the quick, constant movements between overindulgence and athletic self-punishment broke the spring of her husband’s metronome.” When Allie first beholds him, she remarks on the fake good humor — “He’s actually pissed off. I can see it in his eyes” — and three decades later still sees the bipolarity: “Half the time he was without self-confidence; the other half he spilled an excess of it.” But this is such a mature and self-aware Bush that he knows he “had to fight it, the sudden shift from merriment to irritability, from runner’s high to cramp, the flight and crash he experienced a dozen times an hour.” He wonders at one point if he is “getting as paranoid as Nixon,” and then decides that maybe President Ford “was the only normal guy to have occupied the place,” including himself and his father.
I was surprised how little space such a thoughtful writer devotes in this long novel to the awful particulars of its central catastrophe. He’s too easy on everyone. The action starts nearly two years into the war, well after the administration made its big, terrible decisions. The profound bungling and cynicism and deception behind those decisions is elided, practically ignored, eclipsed by Bush’s present-moment sincerity and idealism. Dick Cheney is generally absent, as are any real discussions of waterboarding or renditions or Guantánamo. Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, who warned the president in 2002 that if we broke Iraq we’d own it, is recalled as a self-righteous ass. The war years Mallon has chosen to focus on, 2005 and 2006, perfectly stack the moral deck in Bush’s favor — after breaking Iraq but before committing to trying to put it back together. In fact, the military “surge” that started in 2007 reduced the chaos the United States had unleashed. The one main character in the war zones is likable, lovable Allison, whose work doesn’t involve killing or torturing, and the Iraqi (and Afghan) characters we meet still welcome the Americans as liberators, years into the wars.
Ross’s government job also consists of doing nice things. The most Republican opinion he expresses isn’t very right-wing — annoyance at “P.C. colleagues in his department … with their theory-ridden view of American history as a sort of ongoing atrocity.” In fact, he’s a deep-state RINO, finding the new bureaucratic term “homeland … a trifle Third Reich-ish,” and arguing against funding a hagiography of the conservative pundit Norman Podhoretz: “Let’s not reject their junk just so we can start pushing our junk.”
The only contentious domestic policy topic addressed at any length is the ban on federal funding of stem cell research, which Mallon presents as Bush’s proudest achievement but also has Nancy Reagan eloquently deride. Otherwise, no contemptible beliefs or behaviors are imputed to anybody. Even grading on a curve with Trump and his administration at one end, that seems strange.
Some of the dialogue is reminiscent of the strenuously extra-witty repartee in Aaron Sorkin scripts. As when a German lawyer, flirting with Allie in Baghdad, proposes a “coition of the willing.” Or when Ross presses her to accompany him on a business trip, and to his “carpe diem” she replies, “You mean carpe your per diem.” Or — come on! — as Bush reads through a proposed Iraqi constitution with his national security adviser, “Laura softly sang: ‘Sharia, I’ve just met a law named Sharia. …’”
But still, “Landfall” is smart and knowing and absorbing. It is to novels as good studio movies are to movies — extremely well made, satisfying if you have a taste for the genre, occasionally excellent. The prose is a pleasure. For better or worse, I can’t imagine a more positive portrayal of George W. Bush in a novel of this quality. And its unconventionality in that sense makes it more interesting than if its take were standard leftish bien-pensant. Fiction is supposed to provide glimpses inside people different from us. As a one-of-a-kind artifact of pre-2016 Late Republicanism, “Landfall” is fascinating.
Mallon’s novels have traced a pattern in their time travel: He set the first in the recent past (15 years before publication), moved back in history until reaching the 1860s, then reversed course and gradually set them closer and closer to the present. So here’s what I’m thinking: His next Washington novel will be set in an even more recent past, and won’t be bittersweet and fond but bitter and appalled and vicious, because its main real-life character will be the current Republican president.
Kurt Andersen is the author, most recently, of “Fantasyland” and the co-author, with Alec Baldwin, of “You Can’t Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump.”
By Thomas Mallon
473 pp. Pantheon Books. $29.95.
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