- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

By Leonard Downie Jr.
Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages

Take one influence-peddling Washington lobbyist-cum-political operative who launders millions through a series of shell companies and nonprofit organizations to buy congressional votes and insinuates dozens of his operatives into a new administration. Add a Congress largely made up of venal politicians who like to fly on corporate jets and ride in corporate limos and whose political PACs enjoy those laundered funds.

Throw into the mix a retired general turned defense-industry mogul whose company enjoys Pentagon contracts worth billions and who sluices some of the laundered money to fund private “black-ops” assassination and rendition programs on behalf of shadowy government agencies. Then include an intelligence community run by an individual who has unilaterally decided the president doesn’t need to be told what’s really going on at Langley and a government bureaucracy so big and unwieldy that the left hand seldom knows what the right hand does.

Toss in some whistle-blowers, a couple of spooks, an ambitious editor, a dogged reporter, and a researcher who can spin gold from dross, and voila: You’ve got … no, no, no, it’s not another Bob Woodward book about Bush 43.

But you’re close. It’s “The Rules of the Game,” the debut novel by Mr. Woodward’s boss, Leonard Downie Jr. For 17 years, Mr. Downie was executive editor of The Washington Post. Now retired, he has followed the dream of so many other journalists and tried turning his hand to fiction.

Obviously, he knows Washington. The corporate villain of Mr. Downie’s book is a company called Palisar, a fictional amalgamation of such real-life multinational punching bags as Halliburton, Bechtel, SAIC, KBR, Blackwater (which now calls itself Xe), Triple Canopy and other big-time contractors who have made billions through overt Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts, and more billions through their access to the covert “black” budgets of defense and intelligence agencies.

The book’s chief bad guy is Trent Tucker, one of Palisar’s lobbyists and a consummate Washington insider. The grandson of a Georgia governor and son of a one-term Georgia senator, Trent “took to politics as his birthright. But &# to avoid the pitfalls and relative penury of elected office” he works behind the scenes as a political consultant, lobbyist and fixer.

“He collected, as many consultants did, a percentage of what each campaign spent on the advertising, polling, and fundraising he directed. He then collected still more from the business clients he had acquired over the years, buying influence with the same politicians he had helped to elect to office.” There are several real-life Washington fixers (both Democrat and Republican) earning six and seven figures who could have been the role models for Mr. Tucker. To see who they are, just visit the Palm Restaurant on 19th Street NW and look at the caricatures on the walls.

Another positive: When Mr. Downie takes readers to a White House Christmas reception, you can almost smell the pine and cherry wood in the fireplaces. “A Marine Corps string ensemble was playing Christmas carols in the entrance hall, which opened onto the red-carpeted Cross Hall. Brightly decorated Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands filled the mansion.…” Yup. That’s exactly how it is.

And Mr. Downie knows newspapering. His editorial meetings ooze verisimilitude. He also accurately creates the unsettling and ulcer-provoking sensation that good journalists go through when they’re about to publish the sort of story that will affect people’s lives negatively. The best editors know that at a great newspaper, you want to be first, but you also want to be right. Mr. Downie’s Washington Capital and its editorial hierarchy consistently presents us with this sort of nobly Utopian journalism. That’s OK: Mr. Downie is, after all, writing fiction.

Mr. Downie also illustrates effectively how political operatives can manipulate the press to further their own political goals, and inoculate their candidates against unfavorable or embarrassing stories. A damning story about Monroe Capehart, the 69-year-old Pennsylvania senator and democratic presidential candidate, is leaked to Mark Daniels, the Capital’s top political reporter. The paper, after confirming the leak, sits on the story. Before it can publish, Susan Cameron, the 42-year-old freshman California senator and the democratic vice-presidential candidate calls a press conference. “Someone,” she asserts, “has been trying to plant derogatory stories in the media about Senator Capehart’s private life.” She then describes her running mate’s “one private indiscretion more than a quarter century ago” and condemns the leaker.

“Please join with me,” she pleads, “to help this loving couple protect their life together against whoever is trying to smear them for political gain.” What Mr. Downie makes apparent is the fact that neither candidate knows that the leak was intended to shut down any further investigations into Sen. Capehart’s character. The ploy succeeds — and no one in the press follows up to uncover the motives behind this cynical bit of political trompe l’oeil. Of course not: Uncovering those motives would reveal what dupes the media had been.

Mr. Downie’s newspapering experience has also allowed him to create an ideal protagonist. When we meet her, Sarah Page is an attractive thirty-something Maryland Statehouse reporter who has just been picked by Ron Jones, the political editor of the Capital, the city’s pre-eminent newspaper, to investigate presidential campaign fundraising.

Like so many of her peers, Sarah’s entire life revolves around her work. She owns one sleeveless “little black dress”that she wears to all formal functions because she’s never taken the time to shop for more. Indeed, Sara’s schedule, writes Mr. Downie, “had little time for much more than her morning workouts and runs and late-night reading. In that way she was not very different from other ambitious journalists in Washington who put in long hours and were deeply absorbed by their work. They socialized mostly with their colleagues and often wound up marrying them.”

How true. And paragraphs like that one are both the book’s strength — and its major weakness. Mr. Downie has accurately portrayed the world of these driven young Washington journalists. But he doesn’t lead the reader to reflect on how those ambitious, mostly upper middle-class, private school and Ivy League or Big-10 educated youngsters, whose incestuous social lives seldom extend past newsroom, congressional, or government relationships, see the world.

Sarah Page is a perfect case in point. She is a D.C. native whose parents are involved in Democratic politics. Private-school educated (Georgetown Day), a graduate of Columbia University, her past romantic liaisons include Trent Tucker, one of her Capital editors, and currently, a congressman who is one of her sources. Another flaw: Mr. Downie’s novel is yet another in a long line of books written by Washington insiders whose Weltanschauung is based on the largely liberal assumptions that all big business is inherently bad and that all whistleblowers are inherently good.

But here’s what: If you suspend your disbelief and accept Mr. Downie’s imperfect ideological foundation, you’ll have a good time. His book moves quickly, develops nicely — in some creatively unexpected directions too — and its characters enjoy the red-blooded authenticity that Mr. Downie’s real-world experience has allowed him to create. His first effort deserves a headline above the fold.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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