- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

BAD PUBLICITY

By Jeffrey Frank

Simon & Schuster, $22, 224 pages

REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER JOLMA

Jeffrey Frank’s second Beltway novel can be summed up in the protagonist’s musing, “Washington was a web of intersecting people, few wishing each other well.” Politics is, as they say, a contact sport, and in “Bad Publicity,” everyone gets bloodied.

It’s the fall of 1987, and the denizens of Washington are in the throes of campaign fever. Alliances are forming. Charles Dingleman, former three-term congressman relegated to the private sector after a messy divorce and second marriage to a young law student, hopes to land a place in President Bush’s administration — if only he can stay out of trouble. Judith Grust, a type-A fellow lawyer who gives new meaning to the term “flinty,” is angling for a partnership in their law firm.

Hank Morriday is a welfare expert in a Democratic think tank who has been writing a self-described “ground-breaking” book on welfare — except that he’s bored to tears with it. He hopes a Michael Dukakis win will bring him a White House job, but he’s out of the loop and he finds himself losing faith in Mr. Dukakis anyway.

Teresa Maracopulous is a publicist who thinks “she was missing out on everything that made it interesting to be part of her place and time,” and is depressed about it. Her civil servant husband finds himself increasingly estranged from her, wanting only for his world to return to the pristine days of Washington in 1955.

Around them swirl a group of power brokers, oddballs and has-beens all trying to avoid a sentence of “obscurity without parole.” Charlie remembers what his first wife once said to him: “When people lose in this town it’s like they die. But they don’t get buried and rot like real dead people; they stick around, and everybody hopes they leave.”

When Charlie makes a crude remark over lunch to Judith — something somewhere between a pass and an insult — the bloodletting begins. Charlie isn’t the crude misogynist Judith quickly assumes he is, but that matters little to her. She employs Hank, her potential lover, to help spread a nasty rumor about Charlie and ruin his chance at a White House job. Hank has some qualms about this, but with the prospect of consummating their relationship, he quickly comes around to her point of view.

“You’ve got to tell [Reynolds Mund, an anchorman Hank knows] about Charles Dingleman,” she tells Hank. “It’s actually your duty as a citizen.” She turns Hank’s complicity in her plan into a test of their relationship.

When he finally complies, she rewards him with a tryst. The seduction is more political than animal. As the clothes begin to drop, so do their opinions of who will win upcoming elections or whether they should volunteer for Mr. Dukakis’ campaign. However, Hank suffers from “anatomical treachery,” and botches the “reward.” When she leaves the floor open for another such encounter, it is obviously contingent upon further compliance in her plan.

Charlie begins his downward spiral soon after. His young wife leaves him and moves in with someone she describes as both a “friend” and a “smart classmate,” leaving the age and gender of this mysterious new roommate ambiguous. She frequently returns clandestinely to raid the house for forgotten items, purloining things and therefore chipping away at Charlie’s life one piece at a time. This doesn’t exactly crush Charlie, but he does find himself wishing for the imagined stability he had with his first wife.

When the rumor about him is broadcast on the evening news, Charlie hesitantly enlists the help of a high-powered public relations firm. The relegation of his case to a minor account executive further compounds his feelings of invisibility and despair.

Judith naturally hates to be objectified, but she suffers it when it is useful for her career. Charlie’s greatest offense in her eyes isn’t that he referred to her and “roast beef” in the same breath, rather it was that he had nothing to offer to ameliorate the slight.

She tells Hank about a law professor who touched her inappropriately, yet she did nothing. Later, the same law professor was instrumental in securing for her a prestigious internship. She forgave him. Likewise, when her partnership with the firm is assured, the kindly, lonely old senior partner, her mentor, very casually assaults her sexually, with her tacit compliance. She does nothing. On some level she is aware that she should do something, retaliate, but like everything in Washington, it’s a calculated affair:

“Judith supposed that someday she would have to punish Alfred Schmalz for the truly unforgivable way that he’d sought to amortize her debt, yet she did not want him as an enemy when really it took so little to keep him on her side; she expended fewer calories on him than she would merely climbing onto her exercise machine.”

Mr. Frank’s many years in Washington give his characters a ring of authenticity, especially for those “in the game.” This is a novel about masters of the game and their sycophants, a witty take on the political food chain. He mercilessly skewers their ambitions, but manages to do so without a noticeably partisan blade.

Charlie is a Republican, we learn late into the story, but he is foremost a man who believes he is becoming invisible, a body who doesn’t have the decency to stay buried. Judith could be a right-winger’s left-wing stereotype — the hollow-eyed feminazi who regards the attentions of men with clinical detachment and an eye for opportunity. Mr. Frank’s brisk prose depicts a rich humanity (if on the dark side), where a lesser writer would lapse into one-dimensionality and cliche.

For a novel about politics, there is surprisingly little of it. Mr. Dukakis’ name is frequently thrown around, but he never makes a prolonged appearance. The reader knows how the election turns out, so there is an air of futility about every character’s actions. Mr. Dukakis’ ultimate defeat outlines the enormous expenditure of energy for what is ultimately short-lived visibility.

The denouement, however, leaves several questions seemingly unanswered. Charlie, Judith, and Hank all arrive in unexpected places, but it is unclear what they have learned. They seem to have arrived there propelled by an unseen force, marionettes tugged to a conclusion less of their own making than Fate’s. Each character is richly developed, but subtle; something more than a stereotype, but still, to observers outside the Beltway, fueled by incomprehensible ambitions.

“Someone once said that lies are the lubricant of civilization,” Judith tells Hank at the conclusion. “I’m pretty sure that’s the truth.” “Me too,” Hank says. All in a day’s work in Washington …

Christopher Jolma is a Commentary editor at The Washington Times.

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