Advise and Consent, Allen Drury’s intricate story of a Senate confirmation, is a good example. Drury was a New York Times reporter. But as if to underscore how irrelevant journalists are to the action, the reporters in his novel do not even have names. They’re identified only by publication. They ask mostly silly questions. And the poor scribes are given neither physical features nor private thoughts. It is Drury’s backhanded way of conveying how power in Washington really works, and how little of it is in the newspapers.
Instead, the key character in Drury’s novel is Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson, the man tasked with getting the White House’s nominee approved. He is one of the few characters in the drama whom everyone confides in, which makes him a useful storytelling choice. He is also one of the few people who understands and even sympathizes with the motivations of people on all sides, which helps Drury get at the complexity of the story he wants to convey.
Think of the heroes of so much political fiction, and there aren’t many reporters among them; rather, they tend to be people close to the seat of power, with relationships that give them special insight into the motives of other key characters, including the antagonists. In The Manchurian Candidate, the hero is a military intelligence officer and former prisoner of war who realizes there is something wrong with his former friend. In Seven Days in May, it is an army officer who painfully discovers that his former mentor appears to be losing his mind. In Don Winslow’s cartel trilogy about the drug wars, the hero is a DEA agent locked in a blood feud with his old friend, a drug lord. In Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, readers watch Lincoln himself through the eyes of his young aide, John Hay, and much of what makes the book compelling is seeing the president’s skill, intelligence, and subtle grace, which even many in his own Cabinet seem to miss.
Read: A perfectly postmodern White House book
My own new book, The Good Lie—about how Washington reacts to a terrorist incident abroad—includes a lot of the nuts and bolts and challenges of investigative reporting, especially coverage of national-security matters: where and how reporters meet intelligence sources and develop their trust, how they avoid technology that could get them caught, and how the whole process is different from what’s in the movies. There is a good deal about the motives of intelligence sources as well. Many of the journalists in my book are heroic. They keep breaking important stories that reveal some of the lies being told in Washington and help propel the plot forward. But in the end the exposés reveal only parts of the true story—not the whole of it.
Journalists in real life lay out the facts they can ascertain. Yet they rarely have all the facts of a case. And they eventually learn that the facts, on their own, almost never add up to the whole truth. Those of us who work in news can determine the who, what, and where of an event with a fair degree of certainty. But we are always on softer ground when it comes to motive: Why did the president do what he did? Journalists might try to answer, but they will never do so definitively. Yet it’s those very questions of motive that animate political novels, which have the same goal as all fiction: to add the why and how to our understanding of the world.