The sensation that Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent caused when it was published in 1959 can be taken as a sign of how hungry the nation was at that moment for some sense of the texture of modern Washington. Today it seems incredible that Advise and Consent could have made the earth move—it’s terribly dated, a routine procession of silver-maned senators and cynical reporters—but that just shows what a terra incognita its subject matter was. Drury’s book had the immediate effect of loosing an avalanche of material—fiction, nonfiction, even movies and television shows—seeking to reveal the soul and the processes of Washington. Just in the fiction division of the sweepstakes, a wide range of talents has entered over the years—national security chillers like Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May and many other books), literateurs like Willie Morris (The Last of the Southern Girls), first-rank novelists like Joseph Heller (Good as Gold), even disgraced government officials like John Ehrlichman (The Company). There is a vast and forgettable middle range, too, to which every year are added new Washington thriller and love stories, sagas and soap operas, filled with sober presidents, ambitious aides, and crafty spies. Yet most of the whole oeuvre seems wooden and one-dimensional, and the great Washington novel remains an unattained Holy Grail.

I can think of three reasons why. The first is the notion that Washington is glamorous—an idea common among Washingtonians, but one on whose shoals many a Washington novel has foundered. Literary depiction of the high life is difficult to begin with, and because the essence of Washington actually resides in well-educated, blue-suited, upper-middle-class workaholics, it is impossible to explain the workings of government through the depiction of extravagant leisure.

The second problem of Washington novels has to do with how Washingtonians perceive each other. Richly drawn characterization lies at the core of most great fiction, but people in Washington tend to view one’s job title as the alpha and omega of the human character. So when a novelist of Washington, wishing to illuminate public affairs, brings on stage a character who is a member of Congress or a White House adviser, everything else about him becomes fuzzy and inconsequential—his family, his history, his deepest secrets. One of the most successful Washington novels of the last decade, Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, is populated solely by minor civil servants, never mentions politics, and perhaps as a result brings its characters fully to life.

Finally, as a city of transients, lacking its own small-culture (Washington-style food, a Washington accent, Washington music, Washington architecture), Washington can’t give a novel the depth and pungency of a distinctive setting. Small-time, out-of-the-way corners of the country, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpah County, Steinbeck’s canneries, and Lewis’s town of Zenith, are vivid and tangible in the mind of anybody who has read about them. Yet through a hundred novels, Washington as a place remains a blur.

If you were to contemplate these three problems in the abstract, one simple way around at least the first two might present itself: comedy. Does Washington misperceive itself as glamorous? Then hold up for fun-making a set of dull and conventional characters who go through life thinking they’re the glitterati. Are Washingtonians title-maniacal? Show them dancing and scheming around their obsession with rank. Such thoughts apparently occurred to two first-time Washington novelists, Larry McMurtry and Judith Martin. McMurtry is best known as the major chronicler in fiction of Texas’s transition from rural to urban, though he has lived in Washington for years. Cadillac Jack (Simon & Schuster, $15.95) is his first Washington novel, although it isn’t quite fair to call it that; its true genre is the American frontier picaresque, as written in the 19th century by Mark Twain and many lesser talents. Judith Martin is The Washington Post’s Miss Manners. Gilbert (Atheneum, $14.95) is her first novel, a self-proclaimed comedy of manners roughly in the manner of Evelyn Waugh. If the goal of Cadillac Jack and Gilbert is to be funny at Washington’s expense, they are successful—Cadillac Jack more so. If they also are intended to be funny literature, like Don Quixote, they are failures, precisely because they are so singlemindedly determined to seat Washington on a whoopee cushion.

A Comedy of Miss Manners

Gilbert is a novel in two parts, the first establishing Gilbert Fairchild as callow, rude, quasi-beatnik lady-killer at Harvard in the fifties, the second bringing him forward to a moment of hollow triumph 15 years later as the right-hand man of a just-elected president. The first half is written in a spirit of pure malice. It is deadly accurate on the air of world-weariness worn by Harvard students and its success at getting Radcliffe students out of their black leotards; Gilbert is wonderfully despisable. But then, when she gets him to Washington, Martin inexplicably softens on Gilbert. She marries him off to a woman so shallow and unpleasant that you can’t help feeling sorry for him, and has him go through agonies about his purpose in life.These agonies are utterly lifeless, and not just because she has established Gilbert as nothing more than a little snot. Martin’s true passion, which keeps bursting through the seams of the book, is not to explain Gilbert but to show that she’s smarter than he is, that she knows exactly what the game is in his world. Digressing into lavish demonstrations of her familiarity with all the right Washington signals is too tempting for her to resist. In one scene, Gilbert’s wife, Wanda, engages in a war of one-upmanship with one of Gilbert’s old college girlfriends, Erna, who is merely a foreign service wife:

“Erna tried again when she met Wanda Fairchild for lunch. She wore an ankle-length skirt with two Western shirts, one open to reveal the other, and $180 boots; Wanda showed up in a sweater-suit of nubby, natural-color wool, with a knitted beret to match and spectator shoes. Erna ordered a Lillet, instead of a Martini, which was what she usually drank; Wanda asked for Saratoga vichy water. Then Erna got cautious and ordered the pike souffle, after Wanda had pointedly recommended it—but Wanda explained to the waiter that she wanted to have a broiled rockfish without any butter used in the cooking, and a fresh lemon with it. When Erna bragged of her husband’s career, Wanda pointed out that Gilbert’s job threw her into dull company. Erna switched and complained that she was bored with her roles as wife and mother and anxious to find deeper fulfillment; Wanda confided that she loved nothing better than to lounge at home, doing nothing.”

Martin is on the money here, and also very clever, but in a way this works against the success of the novel. How can Gilbert’s soul-searching be convincing when it concerns his role in a city where it is not possible for anything of meaning to take place? Martin’s Washington is the city at its trendiest and most superficial, a backdrop against which even Hamlet wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to agonize over. When in the end Gilbert redeems himself by finding a Serious Issue, one can’t imagine that he really believes in it. Only in the last few pages, when Gilbert begins scheming like in the old days (in service of the Serious Issue, of course), does he reemerge from the fog. Martin has established her credentials as an in-the-know observer at the expense of Gilbert’s establishing his as a grown-up.

The sins of Cadillac Jack in portraying Washington are easier to forgive because it is clearly McMurtry’s intention to use Washington as a foil rather than to get inside it. “Well, this town’ll get you down, if you ain’t used to it,” he has one of the legion of irresistible coots who populate the book say, speaking also, I suspect, for the author. “It’s fine for spies and newspapermen, but it ain’t everybody’s cup of tea.” A little later, and a little more seriously, the same fellow expands on the theme: “Now you take Washington. It’s old. People in old places get picky. They run out of energy so they make do with taste, which is not so good a thing.” Washington in Cadillac Jack is meant to be what St. Petersburg, Missouri, was in Huckleberry Finn; it’s the stifling, overcivilized base camp from which its hero, Jack McGriff, a former rodeo star and professional antique scout, ventures forth periodically to have comic misadventures, fall in love, and find himself.

Up to a point, McMurtry is quite good at lampooning Washington—really two Washingtons. The first is high-Georgetown society, a world of stuffed shirts and predators (Spud Breyfogle, Cunard Cotswinkle, John C.V. Ponsonby, and others similarly named) that it would be difficult to take less seriously than McMurtry does. “I don’t suppose anyone here has read my Monday column, have they?” a self-adulatory journalist asks the assembled guests at one dinner party. “So hard to tell them apart,” complains the Margaret Dumont-ish hostess.

The second Washington is the fantastically gray world of the bureaucracy, which, if this is possible, McMurtry loves even less. The cafeteria of the Department of Transportation sends Cadillac Jack into a near frenzy: “Pretty soon I was following a stream of people which was pouring down into the basement of the building, toward the cafeteria. The stream was not exactly meandering aimlessly, either. I felt like I had wandered into an ant colony, or perhaps a beetle colony. The people around me had an insect-like quality, though it would have been hard to name the insect they suggested. Wood lice probably.”

These are send-ups to be savored, but they could have been more than that. In Huckleberry Finn, the figures of civilization and pretense—Aunt Sally, Tom Sawyer, even the Duke and Dauphin—are presented in a way that makes you understand and love them without any sacrificing of laughs; Twain’s empathetic power is large enough to get him within the rhythms of the antebellum Mississippi Valley petit bourgeoisie while producing a novel of escape from them. Granting McMurtry that he didn’t set out to write a novel about public policy formulation, he spends enough time on his Washington characters that a similar degree of empathy, applied to Cadillac Jack, could not have helped but produce a fuller understanding of government. A brief scene in Texas, which he loves, is very funny, but also illuminating of the feel of the late oil age in the barren reaches of ranching country, where rich kids devote their lives to drugs and TV-reception satellite dishes. The Washington scenes are very funny, too, but McMurtry’s guard is always up.

Just’s Desserts

The failings of Gilbert and Cadillac Jack suggest that taking Washington seriously has more to recommend it than would at first be apparent. The fallacy of Washington’s glamour could be avoided by populating a Washington novel with somber folks; the problem of characterization-via-title could be handled through deep and concerted empathy of the sort that Gilbert and Cadillac Jack lack. In his latest novel, In the City of Fear (Viking, $14.95), Ward Just takes that approach, as he has throughout his career. In the last ten years Just has done the best job of getting Washington down in fiction, producing a body of work that could be described as Allen Drury for grown-ups: he presents the middle- and upper-middle-level people who actually make government function, and makes vivid the way they go about their lives and their work. In the City of Fear is in this vein and is vastly serious, a complicated examination of why the Washington establishment was drawn into the war in Vietnam and how the war tore the establishment forever asunder. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite chords—battle, manhood, death, doomed love—boom loudly in the background.

Certainly, Just is successfully empathetic. Other than a president who sits through his scene like a lump of dough, his title too overwhelming to allow for characterization, every figure in In The City of Fear is deep: a Midwestern congressman and his wife, a rising Army officer, a CIA man, the foreign editor of a newspaper, and on the fringes a White House aide and a fixer-lawyer. In fact, if there’s a problem with the characters as believable people, it’s that they’re too deep. In conversation they quote Clausewitz and Stendhal; the quotidian details of life never impinge on them. In one nice scene, the host at a dinner party sends his maid out to negotiate the mine-strewn bus ride home to Southeast Washington—he can’t give her a ride, foreign policy is being discussed. Just doesn’t give his characters many tweaks like that, though. While he conveys their self-regard, he buys the justice of it, too. Here he is describing the kind of living room his heroes—you’ll see the word is used advisedly—inhabit:

“This is a room whose occupant is at ease with conflict and discord, Marx touching Mark Twain; a Baedeker between The History of the Jews, volumes I and II; the diaries of Ickes, Forrestal, and Virginia Woolf; the memoirs of U.S. Grant, Sherman Adams, George Kennan, and Nan Britton; the parliamentary novels of Anthony Trollope and the Dreiser canon…. There are books from floor to ceiling, on coffee tables, framing fireplaces, obscured by ferns and screens. Unoccupied, the room looks somehow restored, as properly historical as the morning rooms at Mount Vernon or Monticello. It is redolent of history, though the newspaper on the hassock and the television set in the corner remind the passerby that this Washingtonian is not an academic or a scholar, remote from the common culture. This is the room of a native, not a businessman in from Chicago for a tour as secretary of commerce or an academic down from Cambridge for a spell with the National Security Council.”

God meant Just to be a short-story writer, not a novelist. In the City of Fear contains three or four first-rate short stories, including one about a political deal struck over a morning’s duck hunting that is fully in the league of the Nick Adams stories. But as a novel it’s hopelessly overcomplicated in structure. The last scene shows his characters, circa 1962, mourning the death of a friend—they are grieving, but are also cocky, self-confident, captivated by the sex appeal of Camelot, and just beginning to be touched by Vietnam. The first scene shows them in the early seventies, with the war in its final stages and their own camaraderie shattered. The heart of the book is a description of a Washington dinner party, in perhaps 1967, that goes on for 213 pages, replete with interlocking flashbacks. It captures one of the last moments at which there were still hawks and doves in respectable Washington, and the sense of mixed hubris and desperation behind the war effort is nicely drawn. Even the hawks are well aware that it isn’t their kids who are dying in Southeast Asia; even the doves object to the war only on practical grounds (that is, its unwinnability), never ideological ones.

Woven into the book are moments here and there that capture some nuances of Washington life perfectly: the officer’s ancient and powerful father’s ruminations on why the younger generation is losing the war (“The sons had not wanted it badly enough…. They’d lost their nerve…”), a Midwestern businessman’s Taftish contempt for the New Frontier (“Washington was where you were summoned to serve, not an end in itself, not a place to which a businessman aspired as a matter of ambition, but a place he submitted to as a matter of patriotism”). Every note like this makes one’s now-I-understand-Washington geiger counter click and rattle in a way that it never does in Gilbert and Cadillac Jack.

Yet there is a persistent feeling of vagueness, of missed connections, in In the City of Fear. In part it’s a technical problem—the flashbacks keep one’s full understanding always a shade out of reach—but it also stems from Just’s lack of distance from the Washington he is writing about. Read the passage describing the Georgetown living room again, and you’ll see that there exists in Washington an extremely sophisticated form of Babbitry, in which smugness, self-satisfaction, and boosterism lurk just underneath the lovely veneer. Just somehow floats around the edges of this state of mind, never quite successfully outside it. He wants to brag about his characters, to be kind to them, to believe that their vision of themselves is essentially true. He permits their prejudices to set limits on his power and range as an artist—you can’t imagine Just creating a believable fiery ideologue to go with his gallery of super-intelligent pros, who are committed above all to playing the game.

More specifically, by tying himself to the perceptions of his characters, Just also ties himself to Washington’s lack of a clear sense of what difference all the high talk of policy makes. At one point in In the City of Fear the endless dinner party discussion turns to the subject of a reporter, and the CIA man says, “Connoisseur of losing battles, he’s like a wine snob at a fancy tasting. Algeria and the Congo, good nose, thin body; Korea, no character; Cyprus, no finesse. World War II, the European theater of course, the Haut Brion of wars, even though we didn’t lose it. But Indochina, voila! Superb! Best in a generation!” Leaving aside the pretentious talk, what is striking is its complete, almost theological abstraction. What about what is actually going on in the war? Does the CIA man care? Does the reporter? Or is the assumption of the proper attitude—chosen in the spirit of wine snobbery—all that matters?

Just clearly knows that it isn’t, but he has no way of showing that he knows. As in a drawing room comedy, the action takes place offstage, so there is never a kicker in which the consequences of the theories the brilliant men and women of Washington are constantly spinning out come clear. I longed for Just to follow the officer to Vietnam to see him carrying out the new policy hatched in the course of the novel; instead, we see him briefly on his return, his mind half gone, but we don’t know what happened to him, what the fatal flaw in the policy was. Maybe to be truly successful a Washington novel has to venture outside of Washington.

The best Washington novel published last year, to my mind, was Robert Caro’s The Path to Power (Knopf, $19.95), and I say this not as a dig at its veracity but as praise. With the by-now-ritual caveat that the book has its problems—it is overwrought, it stretches its reporting too far in places, it presents its main subject too simply as a schemer—it does what a good novel should do. Its characters are richly detailed from birth (and sometimes before), with an eye to revealing the obscure hurts and dreams that propel them through life. Its settings, Washington and Texas, linger in the reader’s mind as memorable, sweaty places. Through his mania for accumulating small facts and for following strings of events to wherever they end, Caro also has made it clear how politics and government work.

When a dam is built or an electric line strung, Caro finds out everything: the theory behind it, the lobbying and politicking required to make it happen, and then—what most Washington novels never tell you—how the thing was actually done and how it changed the world. Caro’s desire to impress is confined to demonstrating his perspicacity as a reporter. He isn’t out to prove that the world of politics is glamorous—if anything, he is out to prove the opposite. His research solves the difficulties of presenting Washington as a place, by making it possible for him to show how politics flows upward to Washington from other places and then flows back out again.

If any chapter deserves singling out, it’s the one on Sam Rayburn, whom a generation of reporters found irresistible to portray as just another Southern politician. Here he is an iron-willed, uncorruptible populist, desperately poor as a boy, desperately lonely as a man, used expertly by Lyndon Johnson. The passion that Caro brings to Rayburn is solely to explain him, to make him live, and to provide a context for understanding his political career. Caro does it so well that, purely from a literary standpoint, you feel that if Rayburn had ended up as just another congressman instead of the speaker of the House, he would have been no less interesting a man. In Washington, that’s the ultimate compliment.

In a way, a book like The Path to Power—and other.memorable works of nonfiction, like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff—represents a coming full circle from the days of Advise and Consent. In the fifties, and for years before that, journalists felt they had to turn to fiction in order to tell what they knew from experience to be the real truth about the political world. In nonfiction it would be impossible to get down the moments in which all is revealed, because government officials would never let a reporter witness them firsthand; and anyway, there was the enormous weight of journalistic convention resting solidly in the path of such material actually being published. One of the many journalists whose work gave no hint that the material that made Advise and Consent a hit existed was Allen Drury himself, in the long period that he covered Capitol Hill for The New York Times.

With Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960, that began to change. He proved not only that a reporter could get the material necessary to write nonfiction with character, scenes, and even snatches of dialogue (how did he get in the room with Kennedy, everyone wanted to know), but also that such work could attract a large and respectable audience (remember, The Making of the President was published by a tiny, newborn book-publishing house, and everyone involved expected it to sink without a trace). In the ensuing years reporters began to steal more and more from novelists in terms of technique, and to venture more and more into places where journalists had never tread in order to get the necessary raw material. When they were able to bring to bear on their research the rich forms of exposition that had previously been the exclusive province of fiction writers, the resulting work could raise readers’ interest in and understanding of the workings of government to a new level.

Meanwhile, the novelists were most assuredly not stealing from the reporters. Read The Grapes of Wrath or U.S.A and you know that they could not have been anything but the product of extensive travel and research by the author; but with the passing years, American novelists began to get out and about less. After World War II came the absolute enshrinement of American modernism, with its emphasis on the writer’s internal landscape, and the boom in higher education, with its bounty in jobs for novelists on university payrolls. These forces neatly dovetailed to get fiction writers out of touch with the rest of the world. Whereas Charles Dickens in his day used to take well-publicized research trips before embarking on a new novel, in postwar America actual reporting was the province only of novelists like Arthur Haley and James Michener who were completely unrespectable in literary circles. Literary art had to go through the washing machine of the artist’s experience and then the dryer of his subconscious. Even the rare respectable novelist who made enough money to finance research spent it instead on a house on Cape Cod—goodby, creative writing class—and kept on delving into the well-mined adolescent years for his material, or perhaps tackled the agonies of literary fame. So the best novelists were limited for subject matter to the things that happened to have happened to them. They couldn’t—didn’t, anyway—apply their gifts of narrative and empathy to experiences outside their own. A reporter with the same skills, on the other hand, could enrich his understanding pretty much at will, in any area he deemed important.

That’s the great gulf that separates Caro from the best annual crop of Washington novels in quite a while. Caro knows where his anti-hero came from because, in the course of seven years of research, he went and lived there; he knows what consequences followed upon Lyndon Johnson’s machinations in Washington because he ran them down. For a novelist, that’s against the rules—stupid rules, but most novelists today seem to follow them. As long as they do, the fullest portraits of the political world will continue to come from journalists, and fiction will present a version of politics that is as incomplete as a sentence that consists only of a verb, with no subject and no object.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.