Gustave Flaubert
Credit: Wikimedia. Commons

Last summer it became more and more clear that while investigative reporters were telling us what hadhappened inside the Nixon White House, political journalism in general had failed to convey how and why the style of presidential government had evolved to its current point. As we looked back for sources of explana- tion, one book stood out as particu- larly prescient. It was George Reedy’s The Twilight of the Presidency, written about the Johnson Administration and published in 1970, but full of the story of the imperial presidency, which is now becoming conventional wisdom.

At publication time the general reaction to Reedy’s book had been tepid, but—we discovered on looking back—one of the most thoughtful and foresighted of the reviews had come from Max Frankel of The New YorkTimes The review showed that Frankel had thought hard and deeply about the changes in the Presidency; he had, it was clear, seen past the press releases and public statements to the world of advisers promoting their own fortunes like courtiers and protecting the President from the reality of unpleasant news. This was an astonishing thing to find, for in all his years as Washington bureau chief and all-around star reporter for the Times, Frankel had never given a sign that he was other than an extremely capable give-me-all-the-facts-ma’am reporter.

What was it that kept him from writing the story until Reedy’s book gave him a peg?

As one example of what Frankel might have been writing, we have Ward Just’s new book, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories. Just, a former Washington Post reporter who turned to fiction several years ago, has written a series of nine stories, some good and some not so good, about life in the different parts of the federal government. In one of the two really first-rate stories in the book, “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D. C.” (the other is the title story), Just gives us what Reedy attempted to give and what all the journalists like Frankel never put in their stories: a demonstration that he understands the complexity and motivation of human beings in political situations. In his story, a WhiteHouse aide, facing a change of administrations, is preparing to leave but trying desperately to stay. This is a familiar political situation: Frankel must have written about ones like it, and the political theorists have, too. But Just adds a dimension missing in the other accounts, and in so doing comes much closer to telling the truth about this part of government.

He remembered the black Mercury sedans, with the telephones and the reading light in the rear seat. He was up every morning at seven sharp, swinging into the big circular lobby at quarter to eight. He remembered the silence of the lobby, and the wan light from hidden lamps. In the early morning there were always one or two visitors seated on couches, nervous men waiting for appointments, who put down their newspapers when they saw him. It was as if they felt newspapers were an unnecessary frivolity, a sacrilege in his presence, something profane… .

Then, safely inside the sanctum, he’d relax and stroll down the hallway to his office and the morning’s business. Before he did anything he checked the appointment book to see what was scheduled. What was public, what private, and what personal. Then he checked the Oval Office to see if the old man was in. To see if there was anything special that day. Anything that needed doing. Anything at all.

This is not just nice detail; it has as much to do with understanding the way decisions are made in government as anything the political reporters and theoretical analysts can say. The facts, an ability to analyze the facts, and a human understanding are the three ingredients for telling the truth about government. Without the third, the truth is obscured because it is hard to understand how real people could make the mistakes government often makes. There is no reason why political writing should not include much more of the kind of awareness Just’s fiction displays, which for conven- ience I will call cultural understanding of government, a sense of the way its cultural rules affect its members’ behavior.

In one of his previous books, Ward Just himself has shown how cultural understanding can be combined with hard factual reporting in a non-fiction format. His last book before Flaubert was Military Men, published in 1970, a masterful examination of the armed forces preparing to think about its world after Vietnam. In the dozens of personal encounters that make up the book—with West Point cadets, generals in the Pentagon, rebels in a coffeehouse—Just gives the reader the, benefit of all his insights; not just what the man said but what he looked like, what he seemed to be thinking. In this passage, for example, he is talking with an officer about the dumb soldiers, “those with IQs of 80, the ones called Shitkick and Fuck- head, the clumsy ones”:

“Well what the hell, you have got to have those guys who will go out there when no one else will,” a major at Leavenworth told me and when I didn’t say anything but just sat looking at him he colored and half apologized and said that he didn’t mean it quite the way it sounded. But he did.

Just, of course, cannot be the only person to possess this ability. But what other writers, and in what, circumstances, have added to their work a sensitivity to culture? Murray Kemp ton’s columns in The New York Post during the 1950s are certainly a place to start, for Kempton was one of the first to combine strong factual reporting with a human under- standing of his subjects. The combination brought him much closer to a true vision of what was happening politically than either the straight reporters or the rest of the editorial page analysts. In 1952, Kemp ton was traveling with Eisenhower at the time of the Jenner rally in Indiana. That was when Eisenhower, in effect, abandoned George C. Marshall to the demagoguery of Senator William Jenner by taking the stand to support Jenner. This is what Kempton saw:

The luncheon was ended, and Eisenhower walked off the platform, stopping a minute to catch his breath and raising his ring hand to lean on a friendly shoulder. He reached for Bill Jenner’s shoulder, then he saw who it was, and he let his hand drop. Let it be said for Dwight Eisenhower that he did what he did not utterly without shame.

No one else can really say what George Marshall meant to Dwight Eisenhower; he himself said it three weeks ago in choked and angry terms. The man who said that must know better than anyone what it means to pass the gates to glory by kicking your father in the stomach.

Kempton has since stopped writing these columns. Since then another newspaper writer has carved out a similar role for herself. When her editors at The Washington Star-News sense that the juices of an event will not come through in the “President Nixon announced yesterday” main story, they send Mary McGrory to write what she sees and feels. This type of story has created among editors the undefined awareness that there is another category of article besides straight news and editorial page analysis.

They know that the articles present part of the truth about an event, a part which the news and analysis stories seem incapable of including. What the McGrory-type stories contain is a feeling for the human beings and their culture. What they too often lack is any hard- minded analysis, since under the division of newspaper responsibilities that is left to Joseph Kraft and the rest of the editorial-page thinkers.

Apart from newspaper color stories, another field of political writing which has occasionally admitted the novelist’s touch is current history. Academic historians have long acknowledged that a keen cultural sensitivity can help build the truest historical portrait; Thucydides placed fictitious speeches in the mouths of his characters to more fully explain their actions. Among con- temporary historians, the progenitor of this approach has been Theodore White, who in his Making of thePresident books has above all else demonstrated an ability to put himself in his subjects’ shoes. In his 1960 book White gave all the easy glamor of the Kennedy victory, but he was also nearly heart-breaking in describing the equally real side of the campaign, the collapse of the Humphrey forces in West Virginia. There is real pathos in the portrait of Humphrey, out-spent by Kennedy, snapping at his aides, and then hating himself because he realizes they can’t do anything more about the situation than he can, writing out a personal check to a television station which has threatened to cancel its telethon unless he pays immediately, Muriel Humphrey watching this with great sad eyes and giving you the feeling, White Says, that it was her grocery money being signed away, and at the end of it all, in the shambles of his campaign and the disappearance of his dreams for the presidency, Humphrey stopping to console a sobbing guitar-player who had accompanied him through the campaign, patting him on the shoulder and saying, “Aw, Jimmy.” When White gets into trouble it is because he does not temper his good-heartedness with any firm analytical standards. Thus in 1972 he could sit with Richard Nixon and agree with him about the structure of peace and the importance of the Presidency, and not ask what any of the words meant.

The Novelist’s Eye Is Not Enough

The importance of personalities in understanding political campaigns is obvious, and White’s approach has transformed election reporting, even in the newspapers. That type of contemporary history which attempts to explain how a certain institution functions has, like election writing, been fortified by cultural understanding. Ward Just’s book on the Army, which concentrated on the individuals involved, is one example. Stuart Loory’s new book, Defeated: Inside the American Military Machine, is another. Loory approaches the same topic from a much more theoretical angle than Just, but he has not given up a feel for the nuances of the world he is describing. Indeed, the real subject of his book is the military culture, whose emphasis on yes-men and unsoiled records means that most officers are rated by their supervisors, “the best officer I have ever seen,” and anyone who is rated merely “excellent” or “superior” has lost his chances for advancement. In one of the more memorable passages in the book, Loory describes an admiral’s life aboard an aircraft carrier fighting in Vietnam:

From the flight deck below, dozens of aircraft took off each morning, their bellies and wings laden, as the expression goes, with death and destruction. Admiral Ferris could witness this spectacle from picture windows in his quarters, or he could tune it all out. “Tune out” means he could retire to his study, a windowless room obviously appointed by an interior decorator. . . .

The admiral’s dining room—it was to a mess what the private dining room in the White House is to a government workers’ cafeteria—could seat 10 comfortably around an oval table covered with starched white linen. The silverware was heavy and glisten- ing. The meals were served with painstaking etiquette by white-coated attendants. . .

Belowdecks, the crew was jammed together, 150 men to each open, window-less, poorly lighted, ill-ventilated bay. They lived one atop the other, three bunks high, with no privacy and little storage space, with the constant noise of the ship’s operations jarring them. They took their meals in windowless, low-ceilinged mess spaces that doubled as warehouses for the bombs and rockets the airplanes would use.

The difference that a novelist’s eye can make in the current histories of the White House is suggested by the two in-house books on the Kennedy Administration, A Thousand Days, by Arthur Schlesinger, and Kennedy, by Theodore Sorenson. Understandably, neither of these is a work of hard- biting analysis, but there are signifi- cant differences. In the one first-class section of his book, on the Bay of Pigs, Schlesinger shows an acute awareness of the cultural rules under which each of the people involved was operating. Sorenson’s version, by contrast, is not only starchy and dull, but also far less accurate in registering the full truth of the encounter.

The most impressive of the con- temporary histories is undoubtedly David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. From the first, Halberstam was shoved in the direction of looking inside the characters of his story; it was, after all, their very brilliance that provoked questions about their failure. Halberstam carried out the study in a remarkable way, showing for his dozens of characters how the forces that led them to a certain point in their careers and the rules they played under once they reached that point virtually dictated their deci- sions. One of the best examples is his portrait of John McNaughton, the McNamara advisor who came across as Mr. Death-from-the-Skies himself in the documentary record of the Pentagon papers, but who was privately dissenting to McNamara.

In 1964, McNaughton was very unsure ofhis relationship with McNamara, he was newer in his position than McNamara was in his. He was almost mesmerized by McNamara; he had never seen anything like him and admired the Secretary without reservation, being almost slavish in his subservience. That, and being extremely ambitious, and wanting, now that he was operating in Washington, to remain there. So he became at once the man in the govern- ment where two powerful currents crossed: great and forceful doubts about the wisdom of American policy in Vietnam, and an equally powerful desire to stay in govern- ment, to be a player, to influence policies for the good of the country, for the right ideas, and for the good of John McNaughton. Although he was a Harvard law professor, there was no more skilled player of the bureaucratic game than John McNaughton, for he understood the bureaucracy very quickly and how to play it, and he learned this, that his power existed only as long as he had Robert McNamara’s complete confidence and as long as everyone in government believed that when he spoke, he spoke not for John McNaughton but for Bob McNamara. That, with its blind loyalty and totality of self-abnegation, meant bureaucratic power, and John McNaughton wanted power. Any doubts he had were reserved for McNamara, virtually alone, or one or two other people that he knew and trusted, who would not betray him withgossip, so that the word would not go around Washington that John McNaughton was a secret dove.

The problem with this book is that at the end Halberstam, too, failed to apply the toughest analytical stand- ards. He seemed not to grasp Daniel Ellsberg’s brilliant insight about the men in the several administrations which continued the war. They were not fools, Ellsberg said (this was Hal- berstam’s final judgment on Mc- Namara); their decisions may have been wrong, but they were not deluded, for all along the way they were conscious of the choices involved and never felt they could afford the short-term risks of quitting the war. The irony is that Ellsberg, in his Papers on the War, lacked what Halberstam had in abundance: the understanding of how human beings could make these decisions.

Pulling the Strings Together

From the conjuction of these two books, an exciting prospect emerges. Political writing which combined the strongest parts of both—Ellsberg plus the humanity, Halberstam plus the hard analysis—would come far closer to telling us the truth about public af- fairs than most of what we now read. It is cause for wonder that, in a time when writing of all sorts about politics grows more voluminous, the sense of public incomprehension is also rising. Decisions come from the Congress, the White House, and all far-flung agencies, decisions which neither ide- ology nor devil theories can explain. Specific questions seem unanswer-able—why is Congress so slow to impeach? what sense can we make of our energy policies? And more general trends are left unexamined. As we look back into our very recent his- tory, we can see at least two distinct developments that clearly affected events: the rise of the imperial court in the Kennedy-Johnson White Houses (whose importance has been realized. only in the Nixon era) and the sexual element in the Kennedy-Johnson- Nixon foreign policy. Two other ongoing stories—the culture of the Congress and the culture of bureaucracy—are too rarely communicated in their full dimensions.

The reason for these omissions is that there is really no genre of writing that pulls all the strings together, which sits back and says here are the characters and this is what they did, and this is what they thought they were doing, and this is what they overlooked. Now the threads are left separate. Newspapers are the most extreme example, in which everything has its place: facts on the front page, analysis—too often without facts—on the editorial page, gossip on the soci- ety page, and “color” floating some- where in between. If “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D. C.” were to be told through the news- papers, the front page would carry a story on the aide’s resignation, the editorial page would discuss the change of administration, the society page would report that he was putting his house on the market and taking a new job, and the color reporter might have noticed the reading light in the back of the limousine. It’s never all there at once, which it must be if the real meaning is ever to come across.

This is no modest hope, a type of writing which would start with “A Guide to the Architecture” and go on to explain what this means for the decisions made in the White House, a type which gives fact and analysis andhuman understanding.

No reporter could do this very often; stories like this cannot be pro- duced on a daily or weekly basis because the writer will not have that much to say that frequently. But they can be produced with some reasonable regularity—perhaps once every four weeks, as a rough estimate—and need not be reserved for the books written after years of reflections, if the re- porters are constantly looking for all the parts of the story, not just the “facts.” Anyone who has ever stepped inside the White House, even as a reporter, has had a dim glimmer of how it must feel to be one of the bosses there; if a reporter covers one of the bureaucracies for any length of time he develops a sense of what its officials expect from life and their jobs. If the writer’s responsibility is to help us understand the truth about his subject, the truth in its fullest dimensions, then he should pull all these details together.

One reason more of these stories haven’t been written is that the editors have not asked for them, apart from vague requests for the “color” piece. But this makes us take a step further up to ask why the editors haven’t wanted them and why the writers haven’t been clamoring to do them.

Making a Name

An invaluable aid to understand- ing is Timothy Crouse’s book on the campaign press corps, The Boys on the Bus, Crouse knows that journal- ism, like politics and the stage, has always attracted people who want tobecome something through it. The kind of name and identity they hope to give themselves affects the kind of standards they will apply to their own. work. Joseph Kraft and James Reston don’t keep Henry Kissinger’s con- fidences solely because they are afraid of losing a source. Constant contact with Kissinger favorably alters their own visions of themselves as well; as influential journalists they deserve a seat at the Metropolitan Club, the company of statesmen, the friendship of other influential people. Different journalists have different ideas of themselves. When David Broder strikes a pompous note, it may be because he’s writing with the Richard Neu- stadts and McGeorge Bundy’s in mind, sounding the way he thinks a “re- spected political analyst” should.

Crouse spends a good deal of time in his book on the dissection of R. W. “Johnny” Apple of The New York Times, whom Crouse portrays as the most egregious of those eager to get ahead:

“Take a look at Johnny Apple over there,” said a celebrity-watching politico on the closing night of the Democratic conven- tion. “He practically goes around with a T-shirt saying, ‘I work for the Times;I’mNumber One!’ ” All of a sudden Ted Kennedy, who had just fmished his speech nominating George McGovern, came around a corner a few feet away from Apple. “Hey, Ted,” shouted Apple, and waved him over. They chatted for about a minute. “You know,” said the politico, as Ted left Apple, “Johnny thinks he’s better than the pols he writes about. He thinks they need him. He seems to forget it’s The New York Times they need, not him. If Johnny worked forthe Denver Post and he said, ‘Hey, Ted,’ Teddy would have kept on walking.”

Crouse is excellent in these vignettes, but his book shows the dan- ger of including color without the analysis. Even while reporting the fine detail and the human texture, Crouse does not seriously enough question what he is seeing. While he clearly loathes Apple, he makes Broder look almost saintly. This is perfectly understandable as a human reaction—Broder being a much more modest and likable man—but it overlooks the fact that they’re in essentially the same position. Broder is earning a different kind of respect, but like Apple his view of what he is making himself intoaffects the version of truth he is telling.

Crouse first wrote these articles forRolling Stone, and it may be fair to see some of the difficulty there.Rolling Stone has been excellent in getting its writers to go for the detail and color; sometimes this has greatly enhanced the human understanding of the topic (as with Crouse’s stories) and sometimes it has run the risk of character assassination (as with Hunter Thompson’s reports on the politicians). What has too often been missing is some stress on the meaning of it all—why we should care about Apple’s pretensions except for the fun of seeing a high-rider put down, whether there’s anything besides color to Thompson’s description of Muskie as a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow on next year’s crop. I don’t mean to suggest that Rolling Stone is unique in this conceptual drift, only to say that it has been a striking illustration of the ambivalence many journalists feel about the im- portance of their work. And this, in the end, may be the most important reason that more writers haven’t tried harder to communicate the full truth about what they see: it doesn’t seem to matter. It is an extraordinary effort to make, since editorial requirements are usually satisfied (and editorial restrictions may begin) once the re- porter has done his job of providing either facts or color. To make this effort, the reporter must have a sense that it matters whether or not he truly explains a set of events to the reader. He must have the passion of a novelist like Solzhenitsyn to tell the truth about a situation—not just the facts, not just his opinions, but the whole truth.

While the non-fiction writer needs the novelist’s passion, he cannot simply emulate the techniques of fic- tion. Most good fiction is based on personal experience and observation, but the novelist has the freedom to build from that base with imagination and without fidelity to fact. The non-fiction writer should bring the novelist’s eye to his material, but he cannot afford to depart from the facts as he has actually seen them. When he speculates into character and culture, he needs to separate the facts from the guesses, to say at a certain point, “I can’t prove this in court, but everything I have seen convinces me that this is what’s going on.” He has the obligation to include the incon- venient fact, the detail which would not fit the novelist’s scheme.

The non-fiction writer also needs a set of concerns that will impel him to do more than present the facts. This does not mean that there should not be a place for straight factual reporting; it is even conceivable, al- though on most mornings it is hard to imagine why, that there is still a place for analysis from the columnists. But the single greatest unmet need in journalism is writing which grounds opinion in fact and illumines it with understanding—that is, which at- tempts to convey the whole truth about public affairs. It would have been nice to have had the truth about the imperial presidency explained be- fore the war and Watergate.

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James Fallows, who began his career at the Washington Monthly, is the author of 12 books and writes the “Breaking the News” blog on Substack.