Elective Work: Novels Centred on the US Elections
By Andrew Madigan
In a year when the presidential elections read like speculative fiction, we should examine novels that address them. They are not as common as you’d think. American presidents, in contrast, either by name or in pseudonym, often appear in novels. Just read John Updike, Don DeLillo, Irving Wallace, or Curtis Sittenfeld. In 2004 ex-president Jimmy Carter even wrote a novel, The Hornet’s Nest, featuring George Washington. How meta.
However, US presidential elections are not a typical plot point in serious fiction. Here are five notable exceptions:
Let’s start with Gore Vidal, the preeminent fictive chronicler—and radical reviser–of America’s history, politics and major personalities. In his seven-volume series of historical novels, Narratives of Empire, Vidal created, like Balzac, his own Comédie Humaine, a panoramic account of the nation and its history. From Burr (1973) to The Golden Age (2000), he combines the historical record, fiction and his own savvy, acerbic analysis of the country and its leaders.
In Burr, Vidal examines the election of 1800 between Democratic-Republican candidate Jefferson, Federalist Adams and, as it eventually transpires in this messy race, Jefferson’s running mate Aaron Burr. Jefferson and Burr tie in the Electoral College. The vote goes to the House, where they tie again, 36 times, until Hamilton persuades his colleagues to elect Jefferson and get on with the business of government. Democracy, according to Vidal, isn’t always pretty or efficient. The Constitution and the electoral process are both deeply flawed. Burr touches on several other elections as well, including the highly contested 1836 race between Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. Van Buren wins, but his enemies try to destroy him with rumors, one of which maintains that he is Burr’s illegitimate son.
For Vidal, presidential elections aren’t about platforms or statesmanship but rather about mudslinging, dirty secrets, corruption and compromise. This is evident in the ironically titled The Golden Age, which focuses in large part on the 1940 election. The incumbent, Roosevelt, aspires to nudge the US into World War II while also honoring his campaign pledge to keep the country out of foreign wars. Meanwhile, the Republican front runner, Wendell Willkie, like Roosevelt, is an interventionist; the Democrats are determined that Hoover, an Isolationist, not get his party’s nomination. Vidal, in his thorough and painstaking description of the Republican National Convention, implies that a delegate was murdered so that a Willkie supporter could be placed in a key position and thus stymie Hoover’s comeback bid. This is one of many conspiracy theories in The Golden Age, which is in equal parts Ken Burns and Beverly Hills, 90210.
Thomas Mallon is a contemporary writer following in Vidal’s footsteps, though without the acid tongue, revisionist agenda or ear for lurid Beltway gossip. He’s written fiction and nonfiction about JFK, Lincoln, Watergate, the 1948 presidential race, and even ghostwrote Dan Quayle’s memoir. His most poignant and gripping work is Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, which primarily covers Reagan’s last two years as president. The book is ripe with celebrity appearances, some of whom are major characters and others mere walk-ons. Among the cast is Merv Griffin, Eva Gabor, Jimmy Carter, Gorbachev, John Hinckley, Jr., Christopher Hitchens, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Margaret Thatcher and Joan Quigley, Nancy Reagan’s astrologer. Former president Richard Nixon, doing his best to stay relevant, is one of the novel’s pivotal figures. He sees the political landscape with a sharper eye than anyone else. A crucial chunk of Finale, which Mallon returns to throughout the novel, is a flashback to the 1976 election. Nixon understands what no one else does—when Reagan bows out of the race so that Gerald Ford can secure his party’s nomination, it isn’t the end of Reagan’s career, but the beginning. Mallon is astute in his exploration of where true power lies, where it doesn’t, who understands the game, and who’s merely playing a part.
For Philip Roth, the novel is always a portrait of America, even, and perhaps especially, when his ostensible focus is a narrow sliver of Newark. The broad strokes of history and culture are a backdrop for the seemingly minor conflicts within a community, family and individual. Because of this, US presidents often peek out from the shadows of his narrative: Nixon and Johnson in American Pastoral, Clinton in The Human Stain. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth takes this a step further. He imagines a fantasy world in which an inexperienced, dangerous and bigoted demagogue becomes president—Charles Lindbergh. The 1940 election is at the center of this brief, harrowing work, which is a fusion of bildungsroman, alternative history and political thriller. In many ways, of course, this invented political history is his most relevant, insightful and true fiction.
Norman Mailer—along with Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and others—pioneered the nonfiction novel. Miami and the Siege of Chicago, subtitled An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, is a combination of vivid reportage and exaggerated, comic autobiography. 1968 was a fraught, protean year for American politics and many of today’s divisive issues can trace their origins to that time. Anti-Vietnam protests and civil unrest were in full swing, throughout the country. Chicago, DC, Baltimore, Kansas City. Mailer describes, from the front row, Johnson’s abdication, Eugene McCarthy’s Democratic bid, King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy’s victory in California, his assassination, the riots of Chicago, the Republican election of Nixon—a has-been and never-was-beloved-in-the-first-place. The Democrats eventually go with Humphreys, a nice guy who never had a chance of winning. Democracy, according to Mailer’s account, is a clogged, intricate system in which everyone has a voice but no one gets what she wants. The major party candidates represent comprise, not leadership.
The more we examine the history of US presidential elections, or their portrayal in American fiction, the more we note how similar each race is. The controversy, the backroom wheeling-dealing, the foul words and dirty deeds, the rickety platforms and hollow promises. Little has changed since 1789, except for the stockings, breeches and powdered wigs.