We live in a time when the dark side of politics is becoming increasingly visible. The Accomplice by Charles Robbins is a political thriller that gives readers a keen sense of what a presidential campaign is like and what can happen when it goes awry. Critics say that it offers cunningly accurate descriptions of top political players’ characters beyond the reach of even veteran observers. It is a book that could have only been written by an insider. Rightly so, because Robbins lived the stuff of The Accomplice for over 20 years, running press offices for both Congressmen and Senators, and as the Communications Director for a gubernatorial campaign and for a presidential campaign. Here is his take, on how his work inspired this political thriller:
Shortly after I signed on as communications director for Sen. Arlen Specter’s 1996-cycle presidential campaign, the campaign’s media maestro, hardboiled genius Chris Mottola, gave me some advice, which I later adapted for The Accomplice:
“Next November and December, life as you know it will end. It’ll be a pressure cooker that’s going to claim half the senior people. There’ll be terror in the office. This is the national press corps, not just statehouse hacks, and they’ll be howling for blood, some of them looking to make their names by taking down a presidential contender.
“The competition is for the most powerful job in the history of the world. If you screw up, it’s there for the world to see. But if you succeed, if you make it through the early primaries, you get your boss’s picture on the cover of Time, you’ve got it made for life. You can walk into anybody’s office with a résumé and say, ‘Where’s my desk, motherfucker?!”
Other operatives also had gifts for imagery, calling to dispatch opponents by such methods as castration and flame-broiling. I reveled in the game, and read what I could about it. But I found few books or press accounts that captured the campaign crucible in all its cynical grit; its raw, primal, atavistic drives; its blood lusts and death writhes; its reflexive deceptions, both simple and elaborate. Few works offered the revealing moments that the public or even embedded journalists never witness – the “uninventable details” that you recognize in a novel. In a Capitol men’s room, a senator once advised me to wash both before and after I urinated. Would a senator ever give an uninitiated novelist or a reporter such advice, or let them overhear it? It’s not the same second-hand, recounted. Ultimately, I found few political novels that offered intimate insight on a process and its players that shape our world and our lives. The paragon, maybe, remains Billy Lee Blammer’s classic The Gay Place, based largely on Blammer’s experiences as aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
While running the press shops for Specter’s presidential run and earlier for Congressman Fred Grandy’s 1994 Iowa gubernatorial campaign, I watched, listened, and made extensive nightly journal entries, recounting material for future fiction. When the time came to craft what would become The Accomplice, it seemed a minor leap of imagination to translate some of those passions and outbursts to action.
Political novelists, I found, face obstacles but also enjoy advantages over the scribes who try to render the political world on news pages and crib sheets. On the downside, political novels must compete with front-page realities: Client Number Nine, a thong-flashing White House intern who saved her soiled dress, a senator taking a wide stance in an airport men’s room, a surly veep shooting an old hunting buddy in the face, a congressman Tweeting photos of his privates, a conservative senator whose name turns up in a DC madam’s little black book, and so on.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that’s largely because in fiction, characters must act in character, or the reader will toss the book as unrealistic. There’s no such obligation in life. As the British paper The Guardian wrote: “When it comes to U.S. politics, the most outlandish plots are still on the nightly news.”
Some of those newscast plots forced me to rewrite whole sections of The Accomplice, or leave the book looking like a pale ripoff. When Congressional intern and mistress Chandra Levy turned up dead in Rock Creek Park, I had to promptly kill a character in her car, rather than lead state troopers days later to her body in the woods. When Senator John Edwards contrived an elaborate scam to claim that his campaign aide had sired Edwards’s illegitimate daughter, I had to excise an entire plot element about a senator’s aide marrying the boss’s pregnant mistress and raising the child. When Obamacare passed, I had to draft my health care experts to help revise a key pharmaceutical stock scam. Largely to avoid such change-as-you-go pitfalls of contemporary political fiction, I’ve set my next novel in the 1930s Senate.
On the upside for political novelists, Americans seem far more tolerant — even intrigued – about foibles in fictional politicians than in the real animals. And a novelist can take extensive license in adapting a politician’s dark side. After all, short of an indictment, a pol is unlikely to publicly inveigh that the character of a sociopathic skunk senator who forced himself on his pregnant scheduler is clearly based on him.
Novelists also enjoy an enormous advantage over press hacks by the nature of their forms in the digital age. As Christopher Lehmann wrote in the Washington Monthly in 2005: “Technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues — reflection and depth of character chief among them — that our political fiction should be delivering.”
During Grandy’s gubernatorial campaign, I referred to his job as part acting. I meant it as a compliment; after all, Grandy had been an accomplished stage and TV actor before running for office. “Performing,” he corrected. “Acting is when you play somebody else. Performing is when you play yourself.” In Congress and on the campaign trail, he said, he performed.
Politics is kabuki, and even political reporters and don’t see all of it, can’t see all of it. The initiated political novelist can exploit vast openings, to both entertain and enlighten.