Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tracing the moral decay of politics (Books - Echo House by Ward Just)

Ward Just is justifiably ranked among the top writers on American politics in fictional form.  Some consider Echo House (Houghton Mifflin, 1997) his masterpiece.  It follows a family of Washington insiders, as they are now affectionately called, from the 1940s to the 1980s.  It is not my favorite of Just's books, that place would have to be reserved for Forgetfulness, but it is a solid novel partaking of a solid tradition chronicling succeeding generations of a family.  The Washington Post characterizes Echo House as the story of the "decline" of the Behls and certainly they don't maintain their grip on power through holding office, but I would frame it as their evolution, as they adapt to a morally decaying political context.

Curly placed the call himself.  He waited, then spoke a few words and extended the earpiece to Adolph.  And in that gesture and the worldly smile that went with it was the essence of their politics: compromise and magnanimity.  Magnanimity in defeat, magnanimity in victory, each requiring largeness of spirit and practical knowledge of the way the world worked.  As Curly had said, the usual mumbo-jumbo. The gesture announced: We are not bitter-enders.  We do not whine or bang the spoon against the porridge bowl.  We do not take revenge in the heat of battle or its aftermath.  We struggle, and if we lose, we give way.  We congratulate the winner and we pledge our loyalty because there will be other struggles on other days and our opponent today may be our ally tomorrow.  Above all, we do not burn bridges.  This is the government, after all.  
Really?  That isn't the government I know.  If you enjoy reading about the human side of being inside the shift in the game of government that has occurred during the last 30 years, this is the book for you.  I was reading it just as reviews of Robert Caro's latest in his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson were released and was struck by the parallels, immediately wanting to add Caro's books to my list. This novel has the feel of a Shakespearean history - complexly drawn characters in great and powerful positions interact in the throes of war and then live out the consequences of those battles.  In Shakespeare's plays as in Echo Park we also see these great characters interact with their advisers, wives, and children, in which contexts they are much the same as everyone else.  While Shakespeare created fictional characters to embody the forces motivating the well known acts of real historical characters, for example, Falstaff to explain the transformation in young Prince Hal's character to the more statesman-like Henry V, Just's creates fictional characters to interact with actual figures in recent American history to embody the changing currents in politics.

Just is unforgiving on the role that the message makers have had in this metamorphosis.
The difference between then and now: much was withheld in the old days when there were only a hundred people in the world and they all knew one another.  Inside information was similar to a precious stone; its value depended on its purity and scarcity.  It was obvious that where there was smoke there was fire, and the ones at the highest elevations of the city disregarded the smoke and investigated the fire in order to extinguish it.  It seemed to Sylvia thirty years later that it was the smoke that mattered, the fire be damned; and in the clumsy efforts to scatter the smoke, the fire raged out of control.  
I found the characters in Echo House richly drawn and memorable, and the way Just relates the gradual change in politics from an era motivated by the depression and World War II to one motivated by Vietnam, social change, and message management  to be compelling, if a little melodramatic.  This book will not be the cure for jadedness around politics but it will help you appreciate the human beings inside what made a certain kind of Washington tick.  I was left wondering how Just would have continued the drama in the present day?


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I am always happy when one of the blogs I follow posts something about Ward Just. I've read many of his books and have really liked most of them. He does such a good job writing about Washington (or at least old Washington) in a really realistic way. I have Nancy Pearl to thank for turning me onto Just in her first Book Lust book. It was great seeing Robert Caro on The Daily Show a few months ago and amazing that he is still writing such huge, well written histories.

Ted said...

I find him a really solid writer, in an old school sense. I come to him expecting strong plotting and characterization, like reading Henry James, or someone... What's your favorite of his?

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Hmm. I think Echo House might be my favorite.

Ted said...

I can see that with your love of classic English novels!