Tory Stories: Neo-Con Novels
By Jeet Heer
Toro (May 2005)

George W. Bush has been called many things, but he’s rarely described as a literary maven. Quite the reverse: The U.S. president has carefully cultivated the image of a non-intellectual everyman, someone whose untutored common sense makes him more reliable than eggheads who spend too much time in the library. Given his populist persona, Bush often seems ill at ease with simple literacy, let alone literature. Not surprisingly, when Slate magazine surveyed the political views of thirty-one leading novelists in the run-up to the last election, Bush garnered only four bookish endorsements.

Yet, despite the disdain of the literati and his own linguistic difficulties, Bush presides over an administration chock full of novelists, particularly among the neo-conservative faction surrounding vice-president Dick Cheney. Lynne Cheney, the vice-president’s wife, has written three novels, as well as several children’s books. Before becoming the vice-president’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby made his literary debut with a historical romance set in early twentieth-century Japan. And, Richard Perle, who has been a formidable advocate for an aggressive foreign policy as the erstwhile chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board (DPB), is the author of a Cold War thriller. At the DPB, Perle shares the table with Newt Gingrich, who also has a thriller to his credit, an alternative history novel set during World War II. When the Bush administration sought the Pope’s blessing for the Iraq war, they sent over a special diplomatic delegation to the Vatican headed by Michael Novak, a prolific Catholic political philosopher and author of two autobiographical novels about his religious experiences.

The presence of so many novelists in the corridors of power raises all sorts of questions. For starters, is there some hidden link between a powerful imagination and real-world power politics? And, what do these novels tell us about how political decision-makers really see the world?

Like many accomplished authors, Lynne Cheney blushes at her early efforts. She has steadfastly stilted attempts to republish her second novel Sisters (1981), a historical work of fiction about the American West. This self-suppression, combined with rumours that the novel is filled with lurid sex, has made Sisters a hot-ticket item in the used-book trade; it typically sells for around US$500 a copy.

The only copy I was able to get my hands on was a pirated samizdat edition circulating on the Web. Reading Sisters, it becomes obvious that the author is less embarrassed by the prose of the novel (wooden but serviceable) than its sexual politics. Surprisingly, Sisters is not a nostalgic celebration of the wholesome days of yore in the tradition of Little House on the Prairie; rather, the novel offers a dark and unsettling vision of frontier America.

Its heroine, Sophie, uncovers that her sister Helen had a female lover, but later finds steamy letters between Helen and her female lover, a Sapphic schoolmarm. “How I long to see you again, to hold you, to kiss you a thousand times,” the schoolteacher wrote to her beloved. “My darling, my own precious darling. What I would whisper in your ear were you here this moment with me.”

Although she maintains that she prefers the company of men, Sophie lets her imagination run free, picturing what her sister’s sex life might have been like: “There could be no tearing off one’s clothing and lustily hopping into bed, not if one would preserve the love-religion. But the loving words and the warm embrace were permitted, and the kiss before sleep, the arousal gentle enough so that its nature would not have to be acknowledged.”

Many have been taken aback that Cheney, the second most prominent Republican woman in America and an outspoken champion of family values, once wrote a book filled with intimations of sweaty girl-on-girl action. Yet two points have to be made about Cheney’s pulp novel. First, good fiction has a complexity that polemical writing lacks (although, as we’ll see, some novels are simply disguised polemics). As the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a writer for magazines such as Commentary, Lynne Cheney has been a forceful advocate of a neo-conservative point of view; but like many writers, Cheney investigates, through fiction, possibilities and sensations that real life doesn’t offer.

Second, the radical and subversive subtext of Sisters exists in tension with a more conservative theme. Sophie is intrigued by the homestead homoeroticism between pioneering women, but her own preference is clearly men. She falls in love with her late sister’s husband – even though the lout had abused Helen and defends lynching – simply because she’s drawn to the “vitality” of “rich and powerful men.”

In retrospect, Sisters was a trail-blazing book, clearing the path for a Republican lesbian literary genre. There have been press reports that Mary Cheney, Lynne and Dick’s out-of-the-closet daughter, is working on a memoir. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, also has literary plans, having announced that her second novel will be about a straight woman who has a lesbian affair. These books will have to compete with Australian writer Cate Swannell’s debut novel, Heart’s Passage (2003), which focuses on a love triangle that includes the lesbian partner of a Republican senator.

Lynne Cheney’s other novels – Executive Privilege (1979) and The Body Politic (1988, co-written with Victor Gold) – lack the internal division of Sisters and are therefore less interesting. They offer a satirical take on Washington mores, mocking the press and politicians alike, but they are driven more by ideas than passion. Though there is an intriguing subplot in The Body Politic that has raised eyebrows. In that novel, a Republican vice-president dies of a heart attack while making love to a sexy reporter, not his wife. The VP’s widow, conspiring with his staff, turns his death to her advantage, and by the end of the novel is herself the vice-president.

It is true that, like the widow in the novel, Cheney has always been politically ambitious and unwilling to stand in her husband’s shadow. (Aside from her writing, she served a high-profile term as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.) It is also the case that Dick Cheney has had a long history of cardiac problems, including four heart attacks. However, Lynne Cheney’s loyal co-author Victor Gold has posted a message on reassuring readers that he was the one who came up with the idea of having the VP’s wife gaining power over her dead husband’s body. But we might be skeptical of Gold’s protestations since his own novel shows that political underlings are quick to stretch the truth to serve their employers.

A strange and even twisted little book, Sisters packs a genuine emotional punch. But what happens when a novel doesn’t have internal tension, and presents a single-minded world view? Richard Perle’s Hard Line (1992) is one such novel.

A Washington fixture for more than three decades, Perle can be described as the hawk with the sharpest talons. As an aide to Senator Henry Jackson in the 1970s, Perle was one of the strongest opponents of Henry Kissinger’s policy of negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union to ease international tensions. Serving as assistant secretary of defence from 1981 to 1987, Perle repeatedly skewered arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, earning the nicknames “Darth Vader” and “the Prince of Darkness” at the State Department. More recently, Perle has been one of the most outspoken advocates of pre-emptive war, in the halls of the Pentagon and in his book An End to Evil (co-written with David Frum).

In Hard Line, Perle re-fights the Cold War one last time. The hero of the novel is Michael Waterman, an assistant secretary of Defense who is suspicious of arms control. In 1986, Waterman has two enemies: The first is the new Soviet premier Victor Novikov (a thinly veiled caricature of Mikhail Gorbachev), who is lulling the naďve West into a false sense of security with promises of glasnost and perestroika. Even more dangerous than the communist leader is Daniel Bennet, the pusillanimous assistant secretary of state, a pencil-pushing wimp who is willing to make any compromise to cut a deal with the Russians.

In Perle’s retelling, the real heart of the Cold War was a bureaucratic battle between two mid-level government officials. Unlike traditional thrillers that focus on spies and soldiers, Hard Line is an ode celebrating desk jockeys of power, who are described in terms befitting epic heroes. “Urbane guerillas in dark suits, they fought not with AK-47s but with memos, position papers, talking points, and news leaks. It was unrestricted warfare; there was no rule book. And no two antagonists in this administration had gone at it more regularly than Michael Waterman and Daniel Bennet.” The battle of these titans is retold in minute detail, making the book about as much fun as filling out your taxes.

The battle of these titans is retold in minute detail, making the book about as much fun as filling out your taxes. “The logical order of things would be to get the HLG paper approved by NATO members – or at least by the HLG – and to get ACDA’s verification paper agreed to first,” Waterman says at one point. “Then we can develop negotiating options that reflect those papers. We’re certainly in no position to comment, since we haven’t formulated any position.”

Amid this relentless welter of acronyms and memos, Perle tries to flesh out some human interest by recording Waterman’s faltering marriage, but here again bureaucratic jargon takes over. “It sounds like your writing me a memo,” Waterman’s wife Laura complains at one point. Fortunately, the hero proves to be very loving. “Now, he looked at his marriage in much the same way he had examined the intermediate-range missile question.”

Books like Hard Line are sometimes described as “insider novels.” They offer the reader the frisson of getting the straight dope, learning what really happened at important events. Richard Perle is a genuine Washington insider, but perhaps that is what makes Hard Line such a terrible novel. To understand the book at all, you already have to have a detailed knowledge of the internal wrangling of third-tier U.S. officials, circa the mid-1980s. Which means that this is a book that can be appreciated by about twenty readers, most of whom have recorded their own versions of the events.

Lewis Libby is as much a creature of the Washingtonian political scene as Richard Perle, but in his novelistic debut, Libby made an interesting decision to write about a distant time and place. As an undergraduate at Yale in the early 1970s, Libby enjoyed classes with a young teacher named Paul Wolfowitz. A decade later, Wolfowitz recruited Libby to join the Reagan administration. A fan of non-fiction spy books like A Man Called Intrepid, Libby was eager to join the government. Aside from the intermission of the Clinton years, Libby is often at the forefront of those arguing for a hyper-aggressive foreign policy. In 1992, Libby helped draw up a position paper stating it should be the goal of the United States to remain the permanent sole superpower in the world, always working to suppress any potential rival.

Given his key role in forging the neo-conservative vision of an American dominated planet, you would expect from Libby a Perle-style insiders novel. Instead, in his first and only work of fiction, The Apprentice (1996), Libby followed the path of Lynne Cheney and penned a historical romance. Indeed, he went even further than Cheney by writing about a period that seems even more remote from the bustle of today’s headlines: rural Japan in 1903.

The Apprentice tells the story of Setsuo, a young hick from the mountains in the north of Japan who is training to become an innkeeper. While his master is away, Setsuo takes care of the inn, although he is awkward and unsure of himself. Then, during a snowstorm, he finds himself thrown into a world of intrigue when a guest is murdered near the inn. At the same time, he falls in love with another guest, a travelling performer named Yukiko who arrives for the spring festival.

Evoking a world where all relationships are circumscribed by rituals and tiny gestures of deference, the novel carefully registers how attentive the apprentice is to the smallest gestures of Yukiko. Here is his first sight of her: “Then the girl reached into her mountain trousers and tugged at her clothing. The young apprentice could see the movements of her hands inside her pants.” The prose here is deliberately understated, giving us a sense of how even a brief glimpse can be charged with desire. Their second encounter with Yukiko and her friend takes the same tone but makes it just a little bit more intense: “The girls were flushed and clean from the baths. Their collars stood open from their necks and the skin showing there looked pale in the dim lamplight.”

As a work of prose, The Apprentice is easily the best of all neo-conservative novels ever written. A dismal compliment, you could say, given the competition. Still, Libby has written a strong first novel that convincingly re-creates an exotic world, something the majority of historical fiction fails to do.

Libby wrote his novel during the Clinton years, his brief reprise from government service. Perhaps that explains the quiet, almost Zen-like mood of the novel, which seems to be an argument for the primacy of personal life over politics. But of course, when George W. Bush became president in 2001, Libby resumed his policy-making career and the world lost a promising novelist.

It’s always tempting to look for the link between fiction and biography – all the more so with authors who are public figures like Cheney, Perle, and Libby. Novelists are often badgered by readers wanting to know what the real deal is behind their stories. Biographers typically spend many pages tracing the parallels between the facts of a writer’s life and the fiction that resulted. This dirty laundry approach to literature gives us the feeling, often illusory, that we’re getting closer to a truth that the writer attempted to cover up with fake names and polished prose. The interest in biography is a measure of our distrust of fiction.

Yet, as we read neo-conservative novels, as poor as some of them are, we realize that fiction is not simply a form of disguised autobiography (although it can be on occasion). It’s the element of fantasy and desire obliquely related to the lives of the authors that gives a spark of life to novels such as Sisters and The Apprentice. The sexual daydreaming of Sisters is an obvious case, but The Apprentice offers an even more intriguing example of the discrepancy between life and fiction. The power fantasy is a common type of novel: the work of a wimpy writer imagining that he’s a world-conquering hero. In The Apprentice, we have the reverse: a fantasy about powerlessness.

Written by someone who has exercised high public office, The Apprentice is about finding bliss in being anonymous, free from the responsibilities of authority. Although some neo-conservative novels are clearly written to push an agenda, books such as The Apprentice unexpectedly turn out to be arguments against partisan politics of any sort. Rather, they affirm the autonomy of the imagination as a realm with its own rules.