Tales From the Dome

Capitol Hill Has Set the Scene for Its Own Subset of Fiction Books

Posted March 29, 2004 at 3:05pm

In the realm of story writing, few settings conjure up such an immediate and intense image of power and intrigue as that of Capitol Hill. It’s a ready-made world of larger-than-life characters and everyday high stakes that, in some ways, has spawned its own subset of fiction writing.

This classic platform for fiction has drawn the artistic eye of authors since at least the mid-19th century, and since that time the Hill novel has taken many forms. But whether it’s murder-mysteries that take place in the halls of Congress or satirical novels that poke fun at thinly disguised real Members, the Hill seems to be a subject that continues to provide fresh material for generation after generation of story writers.

And if you’re still confused as to what makes a novel fall into the realm of Capitol Hill fiction, here’s a simple rule of thumb — just look for the book with a picture of the Capitol Dome on it.

“The Dome is always on the cover, people always recognize it, they just assume you are going to focus on power and politics,” said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie, who has read and studied his fair share of Hill fiction stories over the years.

‘The Stuff of Good Fiction’

According to Ritchie, Capitol Hill fiction can trace its roots back to the post-Civil War era and one of America’s first great authors, Mark Twain.

But what is it that continues to draw authors to Capitol Hill? And how do they manage keep their stories fresh and interesting after 150 years of literary study?

According to Brad Meltzer, the best-selling author of “The Zero Game” — a thriller about a deadly gambling scheme in Congress which was released in January and, yes, has a picture of the Capitol Dome on its cover — writing fiction about the Hill “gives you instant high stakes and an instant interesting locale, but people forget it takes more than that to make the Hill come to life.”

It’s easy for books in the genre of Capitol Hill fiction to lapse into cliche, Meltzer said. He said the really interesting aspects of the Hill lie not in the all-powerful Senators and Congressmen but in the low-level staffers and everyday people who actually keep the country running on a day-to-day basis.

“The best books written about Capitol Hill are written by someone who loves the place and who loves the details of the place,” he said. “Find any Hollywood movie about Capitol Hill and if you’ve ever worked on the Hill you roll your eyes … the honest truth is that it’s hard to understand what goes on up there, and if you’re not taking the time to figure it out then you’re just lazy.”

According to Ritchie, Twain figured out a lot of those less well-known details in his time as a reporter covering Congress, and it was those details that helped his story come to life and made his book, “The Gilded Age,” so popular.

Published in 1873, “The Gilded Age” takes aim at the corruption in Congress and the naivete of the American people. Twain’s popular satirical novel was notable in its attempt to not-so-subtly reference a few notorious Reconstruction-era Senators and expose some of the less-appetizing parts of the democratic process for what they were. Twain’s story was a smashing success, and his style caught on.

Henry Adams’ popular book “Democracy,” published seven years after “The Gilded Age,” capitalized on Twain’s successful novel. It tells the story of a young widow who comes to Washington to understand the workings of government.

“These two novels got it started,” Ritchie said.

In his four-volume study on the history of the Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) paid tribute to both “The Gilded Age” and “Democracy” in his chapter on the portrayal of the Senate in popular culture.

“The line between reality and fiction can be quite thin, and political novelists have regularly based their characters and stories on actual individuals and events,” Byrd wrote, referencing “The Gilded Age” and “Democracy.”

“Indeed, part of the fun of reading this type of novel comes from trying to guess which well-known figures served as the book’s models.”

And novels as a forum for political commentary are a type of Hill fiction that is still around today.

“I don’t necessarily take seriously a lot of the fiction that’s written about the Hill,” said author Richard North Patterson, who has written a few novels set on the Hill, including his most recent, “Balance of Power.” “It’s not what really happens.”

“The drama of politics for me is how polarized [Capitol Hill] has become and how vicious it’s become and how the media is involved,” he said. “It’s a particularly sort of Hobbesian environment, and that reality is also the stuff of good fiction.”

‘The Acme of It All’

Perhaps the most famous novel of Capitol Hill fiction came more than 80 years after Twain’s “Gilded Age.” Allen Drury’s 1959 novel “Advise and Consent” spent 102 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and remains a novel that many feel defined Washington politics in popular culture. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a play and a movie.

In a plot that may sound somewhat familiar to today’s political watchers, “Advise and Consent” deals with a controversial presidential nomination that touches off a furious confirmation battle. The book moves behind the scenes to reveal some of the shadier sides of the political process and is filled with contemporary problems and issues.

“That was the acme of it all,” said Ritchie. “Because he was writing fiction Drury could write stuff that the newspapers didn’t cover,” he said.

“Everyone else has tried to duplicate that. … It’s the model that everybody else tries to live up to,” Ritchie added.

Author Paul Theis said his interest in Hill fiction dates back to his reading Drury’s “Advise and Consent.”

Theis, an 81-year-old former Hill staffer , was public relations director at the National Republican Congressional Committee for 14 years. His recent book, “Devil in the House,” involves a Congressional chief of staff who covers up his boss’s death to maneuver his way into succeeding him as a Congressman.

Theis said that one reason he thinks Hill fiction resonates so well with the public is because people really want to understand the often-shadowy world of politics. It appeals to more than just people who work on Capitol Hill, he said.

“There’s a general curiosity about how congress works,” Theis said. “I think people who read novels about the Hill are looking for some insider information about what’s going on up there. They want to see what they can learn about Capitol Hill that they don’t know. … I think particularly in election years, when the focus of media attention is on campaigning, it heightens the interests of people about what’s going on on Capitol Hill.”

More Thrills

Since “Advise and Consent,” Capitol Hill fiction has tended to shift away from the political and focused more on the thrilling, Ritchie said. Spy novels and murder mysteries have become more dominant in recent years.

“A lot of the more recent stuff tends to be more sensationalistic,” Richie said.

“Nearly everyone loves a good mystery as an occasional diversion,” Byrd wrote, acknowledging this other style of Capitol Hill fiction writing. “Not all mystery stories take place in English country houses or on isolated islands. The Capitol building has housed many a foul and treacherous crime, according to certain mystery writers, and senators have been likely suspects as murderers — and victims.”

Author Brian Haig is one writer who has shifted away from the political commentary side of Hill fiction. Haig is a former career military officer who has written four books since he retired from the Army in 1997. In his latest novel, “The Private Sector,” the former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff writes about an Army JAG lawyer who winds up in the middle of an intricate and deadly chase against a powerful Washington enemy — all class components of the Hill murder mystery.

“There’s not much of a market for political books anymore,” Haig said, adding that the everyday world of Washington politics is something that doesn’t grip the general public in today’s world of high-speed entertainment.

“It’s not an interesting process,” he said. “It’s a lot of people doing a lot of hard work … [but] it’s just too tedious and boring to put into a book.”

And so Haig’s novels have focused more on the thrilling. His next book is due out in February and involves a bounty put out on the head of the president. Haig said that 10 years ago, Capitol Hill fiction was more about political scandals but today, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, novels are more about intrigue and high-ranking officials abusing their power.

But from political critique to Congressional thriller authors seem to agree the ever-changing world of Capitol Hill and its political battles are realities that will never get old for story writers — and the reason why is actually very simple. Like everything else, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.