Dear Partners in thought,
As we are now well into the summer, I decided to turn yet again to the world of novels which has always provided us with a way to escape, a feeling that is very welcome.
I wanted to tell you about “The Hellfire Club” by Jake Tapper, the very Jake from CNN’s State of the Union. This novel has nothing to do with today’s politics (directly at least, but indirectly who knows?) so friends of Fox News and the like can enjoy a break without the fear of so-called liberal and radical fake news. The action takes place in the DC of the 1950s where America and its leadership were rebuilding the world and where the “swamp” we hear about was getting perfected. Whist a novel all the protagonists and general background are real and the research very thorough. As an aside, Jake could easily be a main character with his Gary Cooper’s 1950s good, clean, looks (No, I am not gay).
We are in 1954 and Joe McCarthy, working with Bob Kennedy (indeed, how do we forget), is at his fifth year of eradicating the red threat from all walks of American life, having no qualms of breaking careers and doing away with otherwise good people. We run into Joe Alsop as well as Richard and Patricia Nixon, him the current VP and of course Ike, the D Day mastermind, who has been in the White House for two years. We have a chat with LBJ then Senate minority leader and running Texas for the Democrats, in a time, long ago, when they did. The hero is Charlie Everett Marder, a Columbia academic, specialist of the Founding Fathers, turned Republican congressman when asked to take up a seat after his predecessor died in mysterious circumstances (we know something is afoot early on). Like many of his peers he is a war veteran who saw the horrors of the former world conflict, him in France. He is married to Margaret, a very independent lady, zoologist by trade, whom he met in college and was not just studying “for her Mrs. degree” to borrow from a well-know line of the times. He is an idealist do-gooder and wishes to change things for the better, but learning fast he has to compromise to survive and still matters in his new career in DC.
Bipartisanship is a reality in American politics then, mainly through weekly poker games among veterans that form a class transcending parties and where policies are promoted or killed in a late night, smoke-filled, atmosphere of camaraderie forged on the battlefields of Asia or Europe. As an observer says: “It’s both reassuring and disconcerting to see them all friendly-like” but the bond is there nearly ten years after the war as they share humble memories, knowing that their main achievement was to survive. They all drink like fish (“Political life seems to require new levels of drinking”) as if alcohol was a fully accepted cement of policy- making. We witness the first black congressmen – again two veteran Tuskegee airmen – at a time when the civil rights movement is not yet at full speed. Clubs rule the day, some more known that others like the Alfalfa or the Gridiron, some far more obscure, not to say secret like the Hellfire Club that has its roots in 17th century England and an infamous history of debauchery by its then aristocratic members. Fights take place when companies that manufactured military goods during the last war wish to get funding from the Appropriations Committee in an effort led by its prominent Chairman and a fight ensues, led by Estes Kefauver, a leading Democratic Senator (who – trivia time – won the New Hampshire primary in 1952 before being sidelined). Investigations are launched into the pernicious effect of comic books on the American youth. We learn that a boy thought he was a super hero and could fly). It is reminiscent of today’s articles and the young’s (and no so young’s) addiction to their iPhone. In a famous line, we learn that via a book pushed by the crusaders that “Batman and Robin were like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Superman was a fascist, Wonder Woman a lesbian dominatrix”. Good people do prevail as in all good novels that wish to et us to read more.
It is America at its best (with funny quirks) and at times worst – even then – running the world, setting up the Western Alliance, telling us why it makes sense. And I bought it. And still believe in it.
As it is a novel I shall stop here and not return like MacArthur. Enjoy this great book.
Serge Desprat- July 2018 (Paris)