- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Political scientist Joseph Nye has an illustrious career in government and academia. He is dean of

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and held high-ranking jobs in the Pentagon and the intelligence community under Bill Clinton. You can expect to hear his name the next time the Democrats have high executive offices to fill.

In the meantime, it seems Mr. Nye wants to be a novelist too. Lately he has told audiences he wrote his first novel, “The Power Game,” to explore ethical questions. Among the questions, as he explained to a Boston Globe reporter, are: “How do you keep from being swept away and using power for immoral purposes? What does the struggle for power do to friendship?”

Mr. Nye reports that he’s been taking fiction-writing classes to get the hang of exploring questions like these. Thus it’s no surprise that “The Power Game” is an attempt at philosophical reckoning first and literature second. The plot goes like this: Peter Cutler, a well-intentioned Princeton political scientist, leaves a comfortable scholarly life and sets out for the hurly-burly of Washington politics. He’s lured by the prospect of fixing the country’s broken foreign policy, which strikes him as overly cowboyish and buccaneering. Once arrived, Cutler learns the ropes, becomes a lord at the State Department and exerts a moderating influence on the White House.

The better Cutler gets at the power game, however, the more power proves to be seductive. Treacherous politics and illicit sex conspire to bring him down. When Cutler compromises a covert operation in Pakistan because of personal conflicts, it kills several CIA commandos, gets him fired, estranges his two best friends and causes the death of a third. Oh, and his marriage was already ruined when news of a torrid affair with an old flame spread around town.

The book ends with a shotgun, a suicide note and Cutler on a canoe in the backwoods of Maine. No suicide takes place: A forlorn and broken man tosses the shells into the deep. Each paddle stroke home is “a small act of engagement,” he vows, and the novel ends.

As literature, “The Power Game” is at best airport reading. Character development — to cite one shortcoming — is practically nonexistent. Cutler the man seems a near clone of the real Joseph Nye, with Princeton subbing for Harvard and the State Department for the Pentagon.

It’s never explained why Cutler, the son of a Maine preacher and a right-thinking WASP, could hop into bed remorselessly with the libertine feminist who ruins his otherwise staid existence. Nor does the author explain why Cutler’s wife appears only for a few pages to foul up his career and act as a foil to the vixen.

Another problem is that the plot contorts to fit Mr. Nye’s philosophical experiments. The revelation, for example, that a close Cutler friend from graduate school, a Pakistani, is the head of the very Pakistani nuclear weapons facility Cutler’s foreign policy team must order the CIA to destroy is a bit much to swallow.

The president — it is worth noting — is the one bright spot in the novel’s literary turns. President Wayne Kent is charismatic and enigmatic, a Democratic clone of George W. Bush, and the only appealing political figure in the book. The book is better philosophy than it is literature, but only marginally so. “The Power Game” is mostly a preachy yarn about an idealist’s tragic end. And where it’s not a preachy yarn, it is a would-be thriller that can’t hold a candle to a Tom Clancy novel.

The philosophical questions are the shopworn: the “problem of dirty hands,” as academics call the imperative to do odious things for a greater good; the “tipping point” where the pursuit of power as a means yields to its pursuit as an end; the competing demands of family and work; and the claims of aging parents and the guilt that comes when they die.

“People change,” the vixen tells Cutler prophetically. “We both want the same things in life. Power and love.” With forced dialogue like this, Mr. Nye’s philosophical intentions don’t amount to much, despite those Harvard fiction workshops.

Ultimately, though, you can’t blame Mr. Nye for being a mediocre novelist. The simplest reason is that not everyone can be an accomplished novelist and a successful politician. Mr. Nye is the latter, and he is a star of the academy. Besides, maybe it’s actually a virtue to write a mediocre Washington novel. Or, more precisely, maybe it’s a virtue of the culture that only our politically engaged minds seem to have much interest in writing either good or bad Washington novels.

There are no great Washington novels in our literary tradition, after all. Our best literary minds seem to train their attentions elsewhere, like New York City or New England or the deep South. Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent” (1959) comes the closest, but is rarely on a college reading list.

There have been recent Washington novels of merit lately, like Jeffrey Frank’s delicious satire “The Columnist” (2001), but these seem to have more in common with, say, Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” (2001), a darkly funny view of American society today, than with Frank Capra’s innocent and beguiling film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

The truth is, our great national political literature doesn’t consist of Washington novels. It’s mostly either testimonials like Frederick Douglass’ autobiography or practical works like “The Federalist Papers.” To be sure, Americans have written great political novels — Robert Penn Warren’s “All The King’s Men” (1946), for one — but these are not Washington novels. They’re local ones. Maybe that’s a sign of a healthy political culture — one that looks askance at the power politics that so preoccupies Joseph Nye. So, Mr. Nye, keep the Washington novels coming. You can leave the rest to folks outside the Beltway.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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