American Political Fictions - War on Errorism in Contemporary American Literature

American Political Fictions

Artists and Con-Artists
A Quantum of American History
I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue.

In t States Patent and Trademark O he last year of the nineteenthfcentury, t ce penned a memorandum to President he commissioner of the United McKinley advising him to close the ofce. His rationale? Everything that could possibly be invented has already been invented. Imagine that: a toplevel federal bureaucrat composes an effective suicide note in which he recommends sacking himself and his underlings in the name of reducing redundancy and trimming the budget.

Te story was so good that for decades it made the rounds in the media, frst by word of mouth, then mouse, with everybody milking it for maximum effect. In May 1987 Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters even worked it into an address that the president—a lifelong apostle of small government, except when it came to matters of defense—gave to graduating students in a local high school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Once the story had received a thumbs-up from the Ofce of the President of the United States, it picked up even more momentum, gaining in stature every time it was trotted out as a quantum of American history by amateurs and Te Economist alike.

Except it was nothing of the sort. Te public ofcer who was alleged to have so ill-counseled McKinley was Charles Holland Duell, head of the Patent Ofce from 1898 to 1901, before he moved to private legal practice and then to the federal bench. Te problem is that there is not one shred of evidence that Charles Holland Duell has ever written anything resembling the memorable memo. In spite of a century of endorsements going all the way up to the Oval Ofce, the story has zero basis in historical fact. It is apocryphal. It is made up. It is, in short, a great piece of American fction.


Organized politics is, of course, not the only wellspring of enduring political fction. At a far remove from the White House and the Patent and Trademark Ofce lies a different kind of political make believe: American literature that, instead of practicing art for art’s sake, practices grassroots democracy.

Judging by the number of critical encomiums, to this day the quintessential example of this variety of political fction is the muckraking classic of American letters, Upton Sinclair’s Te Jungle (1904).3 Written by an American and published in the United States, it plots a theme that has lost nothing of its socioeconomic resonance: the plight of immigrant slavewage earners in the turn-of-the-century slaughterhouses of Chicago.

But here problems begin to mount. To begin with, Te Jungle is far from a typical work of fction, having been underwritten by Sinclair’s sevenweek fact-fnding mission to the abattoirs of Armour, Swif, and Morris as an investigative reporter for the socialist magazine Te Appeal to Reason. So fundamental, in fact, was this documentary aesthetic to his conception of art that he made it the cornerstone of his 1903 manifesto “My Cause.” Tree years later, agonizing over the cuts he had inflicted on Te Jungle, he even rued that his error lay in thinking that it is fction that makes life, not
the other way round.

Worse still, even though Sinclair’s classic is typecast as a political novel, in truth it has precious little to say about politics. Tis is especially so in the self-censored book version canonized around the world in more than eight hundred editions. Taking the knife to almost all references to socialism and the Socialist Party of America to make Te Jungle palatable to a commercial press, Sinclair transformed a working-class novel into an exposé of the horrors of the meat-packing industry, testifed by his lament that he aimed for the country’s heart and by mistake hit it in the stomach.

But if equating “political” with “socially engagé” is contentious from the start, so is equating American political fction with literature composed by Americans and published in the United States. Alistair Beaton’s A Planet for the President (2004) is a mother of all satires on the gunboat presidency of George W. Bush and America’s fxation with manifest destiny and world hegemony.

Between partisan flak and demotic vernacular dished out with the flamboyance of Mark Twain in one of his hang-‘em-high moods, this White House burlesque is as American as they come. Yet it was penned by a Scotsman and published outside the United States. Historically speaking, Beaton is, of course, in some choice company.

Tere is nothing new about American literature being written outside the country or, for that matter, by non-Americans. James Fenimore Cooper’s Te Prairie, Ernest Hemingway’s Te Sun Also Rises, and Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s Te Great Gatsby, to name only three timeless classics, were all written in Paris. Conversely, a towering monument of American


letters entitled De la démocratie en Amérique was composed by a nineteenthcentury French tourist and future deputy in the French Assembly, Alexis de Tocqueville. When it comes to equating literary fction with novelistic prose, the mismatch is, if anything, even more pronounced. Rap, the quintessentially American genre of poetic and musical expression, is by its very nature countercultural, oppositional, and—with a regularity that is far from accidental—political.

Yet, no matter how much eliterary conservatives might close their ears to the greatest explosion of black poetry since the Harlem Renaissance, no one could confuse rap lyrics with narrative prose.  For that matter, not even the most successful political fction in the history of American artertainment falls under the heading of literary prose, having ruled the airwaves with a synergy of image, spoken word, and music. Te West Wing liberally steeped itself in contemporary partisan politics, from the chicken-suits episode (“Freedonia”), borrowed from an Arkansas governor’s 1992 election trail, down to the federal government shutdowns during his 1995 standoff against Gingrich-led House.

Week afer week, its high-octane fusion of political soapbox and soap opera cast its spell on umpteen million viewers during a seven-year, Emmy-studded run. With Aaron Sorkin, the creative mastermind, deploying a cadre of researchers, writers, and consultants—including Clinton’s former press secretary Dee Dee Myers, Gore’s speechwriter Eli Attie, Carter’s pollster and policy adviser Patrick Caddell, Democratic senatorial aide Lawrence O’Donnell—and, for a spell, Reagan and Bush I’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and chief economic adviser to both Clintons Gene Sperling—this was one political fction that did its homework.

Truth being stranger than fction, in addition to making television history, Te West Wing even made political history by handing a blueprint to Britain’s Conservative Party for their vaunted 2006 rebellion-by-stealth against Tony Blair. On “A Good Day,” from the show’s penultimate season, Democratic lawmakers pretend to clear out from Capitol Hill to hoodwink the Republican Speaker into calling the vote on stem cell research under the impression that it is in the bag. “Tat’s where the idea came from,” revealed the ringleader of the British MPs who copycatted this stealth tactics. “It was directly inspired by Te West Wing.”

As in the United Kingdom, so in the United States. New York Democratic representative Carolyn Maloney also adopted a real-life political stratagem from the series, although this time from the inaugural season. In “Enemies,” President Bartlet falls back on his executive powers from the 1906 Antiquities Act to proclaim an environmentally sensitive region


in Montana a national monument, and as such out of bounds for mining. Maloney’s 2000 plea to Clinton to evoke the Antiquities Act to preserve Governor’s Island (just south of Manhattan) by declaring two of its forts national monuments had been, as she cheerfully admitted, borrowed lock, stock, and both barrels from Te West Wing. But politics also imitates art in more disquieting ways. Just ask comedian Reggie Brown about his experience straight from Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. In 2011 Brown was asked to do his shtick as an Obama impersonator at the annual Republican Leadership Conference.

Proving himself an equal opportunity offender, he opened with a joke that, with mixedrace parents, the president ought to celebrate only half of the Black History Month, before going afer the bigwigs in the GOP: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty. But he appears to have crossed the line when he segued into a gag about Tea Party stalwart Michele Bachmann. It was at that moment that Reggie Brown met John Doe, as the power to his mic was cut while he was ushered from the stage to swelling music. Satire or misfre? Anti-constitutional suppression of free speech or merely questionable taste in jokes? You be the judge.

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