I was half a generation younger, just starting in journalism in the early 1970s, in my early 20s, and there were no two people whose work I studied or respected more than Ward Just and Bill Greider. Some of the reasons were evident then; others I have come to appreciate all the more in retrospect. Both men set examples in how to portray public life through their writing, and in living a life of principle as well.
By his mid-30s, and no doubt hastened by his physical and emotional ordeal in Vietnam, Ward Just had begun to shift from newspapers to writing novels and short stories. Not all of his fiction concerned politics or public affairs, but his work in that field was revolutionary at the time. In 1973, he published a collection of short stories called The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories. At the time I was starting my first magazine job, at the Washington Monthly. The impact of Just’s work was such that I wrote an article about its implications, called “Will Editors Ever Love Flaubert?”
In those days the three main conventions of political writing were: (1) the straight “Congressman X said today” dispatch, which these days we might call the C-SPAN approach; (2) fantastical roman à clef fictionalized accounts, which back then meant novels like Seven Days in May or Advise and Consent, and these days might mean a series like House of Cards; or (3) the omniscient-toned “informed sources say” D.C.-based column, a staple over the years. The journalism of the very early Watergate era had not yet developed what a decade later had become a cliché: the snarkily “observational” profile or column. “Candidate X looked exhausted. Over eggs and sausage at the Holiday Inn Des Moines, he glanced wearily at his aides and obviously wished he were anyplace else.”
In his stories, Ward Just applied a fully novelistic (rather than satirical or polemical) sensibility to public figures. With allowances for the hyper-certainty of someone fresh out of graduate school, here is what I noticed about Ward Just, at the start of his career in fiction. (The reference to “Reedy” in this passage is to George Reedy, a press secretary for Lyndon Johnson who had recently published a book called Twilight of the Presidency—and “Frankel” is Max Frankel, at the time a hugely influential reporter and bureau chief at The New York Times. Sic transit ...)
In one of the two really first-rate stories in the book, “A Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D. C.” (the other is the title story), Just gives us what Reedy attempted to give and what all the journalists like Frankel never put in their stories: a demonstration that he understands the complexity and motivation of human beings in political situations. In his story, a White House aide, facing a change of administrations, is preparing to leave but trying desperately to stay. This is a familiar political situation: Frankel must have written about ones like it, and the political theorists have, too. But Just adds a dimension missing in the other accounts, and in so doing comes much closer to telling the truth about this part of government:
“He remembered the black Mercury sedans, with the telephones and the reading light in the rear seat. He was up every morning at seven sharp, swinging into the big circular lobby at quarter to eight. He remembered the silence of the lobby, and the wan light from hidden lamps. In the early morning there were always one or two visitors seated on couches, nervous men waiting for appointments, who put down their newspapers when they saw him. It was as if they felt newspapers were an unnecessary frivolity, a sacrilege in his presence, something profane... .
“Then, safely inside the sanctum, he’d relax and stroll down the hallway to his office and the morning's business. Before he did anything he checked the appointment book to see what was scheduled. What was public, what private, and what personal. Then he checked the Oval Office to see if the old man was in. To see if there was anything special that day. Anything that needed doing. Anything at all.”
This is not just nice detail; it has as much to do with understanding the way decisions are made in government as anything the political reporters and theoretical analysts can say.
I think (and argued 25 years later in another Washington Monthly piece) that the skills and insights Ward Just brought to his Washington fiction are ones that all public-affairs writers, plus historians and people in general, should develop as well. For more about Ward Just’s accomplishments as a writer and person, see David Stout in ArtDaily.com; the New York Times obituary, also by Stout; a Washington Post obituary by Harrison Smith; and a 1999 profile-interview, by Roger Cohen, in The New York Times. Plus “Why America’s Best Political Novelist Is Required Reading in 2018,” by Susan Zakin, which came out during the Kavanaugh hearings of that year.