January 28, 2023

Politics and the Great American Novel

The Thomas Mallon article about going to Thomas Dewey’s hometown of Owosso, Michigan made me think. He wrote the article in the summer of 1992. In the article, he writes of finding a poetic and disturbing threat scrawled on a rail, this graffiti writer “praying my bullet find its mark.” The graffiti writer also signed his name. The guy probably never thought a writer from Washington D.C. would sit near the wood rail in Owosso and notice the graffiti. This was also before Google and a snoopy person like myself could type in the guy’s name to find out if there was any more intrigue. Nothing came up on Google when I typed in his name except for a Facebook comment in December asking for his whereabouts. He has a 20th high school reunion. His high school pals can’t find him, either. He could be hard at work on the great political novel. Or he could be…. In the 1992 presidential campaign, President Bush campaigned in this area only a few months after Mallon wrote the article. While nothing came up about the graffiti writer, there was someone in the Thumb area with the same last name. It’s the same area where the plot was devised for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Thomas Mallon’s new novel is about Watergate, curiously titled Watergate. His next one should be about Camelot. I have a theory why the Great American Novel is rarely about politics, with the exception of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. There’s the political saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Media coverage can also corrupt and absolute media coverage ruins everything. A great story requires mystery, intrigue, and curiosity.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate speech, written for the media and millions of voters :

“I looked at my own calendar this morning up at Camp David as I was working on this speech. It showed exactly 1,361 days remaining in my term. I want these to be the best days in America’s history, because I love America. I deeply believe that America is the hope of the world. And I know that in the quality and wisdom of the leadership America gives lies the only hope for millions of people all over the world that they can live their lives in peace and freedom. We must be worthy of that hope, in every sense of the word. Tonight, I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my Presidency to be worthy of their hopes and of yours.

God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”

Nixon and the speech writers put on a public face. Now returning to the words of someone writing alone, in front of no audience but his own demons:

A sovereign soul: despised…Creation damned, psychotic…American dream: demised…Assassin embryonic…Through the sniper’s scope I see…This intruder oligarch…The perfect society…Pray my bullet finds its mark.

These are not the words you’ll read from a William Safire or Peggy Noonan or Thomas Mallon. To find the source of these dark thoughts you must go where Shakespeare and the FBI intersect. The Washington Post and New York Times have written volumes celebrating their role in Watergate while succumbing completely to the Kennedy Camelot myth. So have most novelists and historians. Nixon gets it from everyone. Robert Penn Warren created a fictional image based on Huey Long and Louisiana politics for All the King’s Men. There was another Louisiana governor who once boasted he could only lose an election if the media found him in bed with a dead girl or live boy. John Kennedy could have said it. Writers could use a What Would Shakespeare Do wrist band and snap it when a story seems to good to be true.

While autocrats in the Middle East fight to their last bullet trying to save themselves, their email is hacked and leaked, revealing craven lust from admirers in the West celebrating their power and might. Power is an aphrodisiac. Groupies are found in more places than sports and music. I was always amused by the girls in high heels stumbling in the grass after pro golfers playing the tournaments. The groupies in capitals around the world make it hard on the rest of us.

A friend showed me a sample of a novel that a friend of hers had written. She was revolted by the darkness of it. She gave me the pages like she was giving me a bag of dog poop. “Ewww!” she said, grimacing. The writer was also from Owosso. It read kind of like the graffiti. I kind of liked it, a lot more than the Secret Service would.


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