When two tribes go to war in Washington

Patriots, by David Frum, CreateSpace, $16.99

One of the more excitable stages of Washington’s four-year political cycle is near its climax – at least if you are one of the army of Republican apparatchiks dreaming of preferment in a Romney White House. From the Heritage Foundation to the American Enterprise Institute, the colossuses of conservative think-tankdom, to noisy political action committees and pressure groups, activists are starting to dream that years of doughty policy papers and party propaganda will pay off, come November’s election, with a plum posting. On the basis of this wickedly funny book, however, one Republican thinker who will not be among them if Mitt Romney wins is its author, David Frum.

Frum knows as well as anyone the coruscating yet corrupting culture of Washington politics. He was a White House speech writer for the first half of George W. Bush’s first term when he helped to coin one of his former master’s signature lines: the “axis of evil”. He then took up a perch at the AEI, whose monolithic office reflects its dominant place in the Republican firmament of money and ideas. All seemed set fair for a lifetime as a conservative intellectual, with, presumably, stints in and out of office. Then a few years ago he dared to chafe at the positions imposed by the Tea Party movement on his party. His AEI position came to an abrupt end.

A welcome fruit of his experiences as a sometime combatant in Washington’s wars is this waspish satire of America’s tribal politics. It is in many ways the antithesis of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s beguiling television drama of an idealistic liberal president and his quick-talking aides. This in contrast does all it can to strip the romance. Rather, it is rooted in the intrigue, sleaze, dreary fundraisers, insincerities, half-truths, infidelities, leaks, double-dealing, tendentious tweets and, of course, atrocious canapés of a city where all that matters is your proximity to power. It is by far the more accurate of the two portraits. It is also a timely insight into the paralysis besetting US politics.

The plot is set in the early months of a new presidency. A wheelchair-bound general has just led the fissiparous Constitutionalist party to victory over America’s first black president after one term. His party might be expected to be celebrating, but true believers suspect the general is not at heart one of them. So they start plotting to undermine him, backed by the foghorn of Patriot News, a rolling news channel (sound familiar?) and the Constitutionalist Institute (an, er, monolithic think-tank). Enter young Walter Schotzke, whose picaresque adventures begin when he lands a berth in the office of one of the last moderate Constitutionalist senators.

For Beltway insiders there is fun to be had from the not-so-subtle caricatures of leading figures in the conservative moment. (Grover Norquist, the hyperactive godfather of the anti-tax movement, may not enjoy reading the unflattering portrayal of Elmer Larsen, who heads “Americans for Entrepreneurship” – but then again the fictional Larsen has an adamantine grip on the right.) But the real strength of the novel, particularly for non-Washingtonians, lies not in the lampooning but in the dissection of the tribalism of DC.

Early on, Walter meets up with an old friend who had worked for the defeated president. He is aghast at the brush-off he receives. “We’re not just two college pals who happen to work for Coke and Pepsi,” his friend says. “We’re on opposite sides of a wall. We’re officers in armies at war ... You got a TV network to tell lies about me ... I’ll get a TV network to tell lies about you.”

Any outsider who has spent time in Washington will understand. A month or so into a three-year stint in the city, I was asked by a resident newspaper editor to dinner. One of his first questions was whether I was liberal or conservative. He looked rather disappointed when I said I wanted to float between both camps. This city tends to work best for you if you know which side you are on, he said.

It is tempting, of course, to throw up one’s hands in despair at the polarisation. As one of Frum’s characters opines, journalists tend to swoon at a sign of bipartisanship. But ferocious as the combat is, particularly in our Twitter age, is it really so much worse than before, as many contend? When Walter despairs of his party’s values, Senator Hazen, the old-school senator and possibly the only character with integrity, says: “You think it’s any better on the other side? You think it’s ever been better in any political party anywhere? Read about the party that saved the Union. The details will make you sick to your stomach.”

Then at the end, when Walter’s stock is high, who should come up to him, all bonhomie, but his old friend, hoping for contracts for his lobbying firm ... Washington may seem at war, but sometimes it is just theatre, too.

The writer is the FT’s Comment and Analysis Editor

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