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Published: Sunday, 11/6/2005

You'd think Washington is novel enough

WASHINGTON - It's probably all that time on long plane rides. Or maybe it's frustration. The money's nice, too, although there usually isn't much of it. It might be the need for control.

The new "thing" in D.C. among politicians and bureaucrats is to publish novels. Preferably thrillers. A little sex, but not too much or too weird.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) has just done it with A Time to Run, billed as a "suspense novel" and an "inside look" at betrayal and friendship as a senator brings down a Supreme Court nominee. ("Ripped from the headlines.")

Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism specialist who spent three decades in the inner circles of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department, has just done it with The Scorpion's Gate. His "geopolitical thriller" postulates how we could come to the brink of nuclear war in the Middle East.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House thought to be staging a run for president in 2008, has produced a series of novels on the Civil War from the perspective of what would have happened had the South won.

Former President Jimmy Carter, an acknowledged expert at producing books, has written 20 of them (on aging, good times, peace, his memoirs, Christmas, religion). His Revolutionary War novel is The Hornet's Nest, with some stunningly salty language that probably would have delighted Miss Lillian.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) created a fictional female senator-sleuth who solves mysteries. Sadly, from her perspective, if not ours, they didn't become a TV series.

Former Sens. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, and William Cohen, a Maine Republican, contracted the bug while in the Senate and collaborated on a thriller, The Double Man.

Overall, the critics have not been kind. Weak character development seems to be a dominant complaint. Flimsy plotline is another. Tedious dialogue is a third. Like the celebrity-book craze in general, it seems to be less what is written that sells than the prominence of the name on the cover.

Having just finished Senator Boxer's book, which she says took her seven years despite the help of a "writing partner," I think that clearly the senator was bored on those long flights from coast to coast. Her novel is about a children's advocate, her politician husband, and their best friend. She crosses swords with bad guys and is elected senator.

Ms. Boxer reportedly received less than a $16,000 advance for her book (she is now peddling it on TV, undoubtedly hoping to beef up those royalties), so it isn't the money that is prompting all that scribbling on yellow legal pads on red-eyes. She's keeping her day job.

But Mr. Carter says the money he earns from his books, which Simon & Schuster says sell well, is his primary source of income these days.

Counterterrorist expert Clarke says that the Bush Administration's denunciation of him after the 9/11 panel's report quoting at length his criticism of the White House hurt his consulting business. So the money is welcome. But mainly, he says, he wrote his novel to get his dire warnings out to more people.

When he's on a plane to the Middle East, he says, he doesn't want a boring tome or treatise: He wants a thriller. So, to argue that the United States is not taking the right actions to combat terrorism and that the U.S. presence in Iraq is a large part of the threat from Islamic radicals, he concocted a futuristic terror plot. (It's not a prediction, he stresses earnestly.)

His earlier book was non-fiction, Against All Enemies, which lambasted the politicians who, he argues, might have prevented 9/11. But more books in the same vein, he said, would have been bought by those who already agreed with him. Preaching to the choir, he said, got dull.

He could be plotting a sequel. His last sentence reads: "Rusty looked out at Central Park, at the leafless trees, and thought of Kate, of Abdullah, of all those who had died so needlessly. And he promised them that he would fight back."

Perhaps politicians write novels so they can temporarily reorder the world more to their liking. Ms. Boxer's liberal heroine, 15 years younger than she, has sex with her soon-to-be-husband's best friend, but redeems herself with good works and finally derails the nomination of a conservative jurist. If Democrats can't control what happens in the Senate in real life, Ms. Boxer can make the action go her way in fiction.

Clearly, Mr. Gingrich's restless mind loved toying with the idea: What if Robert E. Lee had won at Gettysburg? Perhaps his next novel will be about a disgraced politician who becomes president.

We may now know what the Senate was doing the other day when it closed its doors and locked out the public. The cantankerous members were comparing notes on their novels and putting dibs on who gets to have a Condi Rice character.



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