My first novel was published 34 years ago under the title The White House Mess, a wordplay on its Navy-run dining rooms. I’d spent two years as vice president George H.W. Bush’s speechwriter and had read a number of White House memoirs, all of which had two themes: 1) it wasn’t my fault, and 2) it would have been much worse if I hadn’t been there. The novel was a satirical — in today’s terminology, a ‘fake’ — White House memoir by a clueless but loyal chief of staff of a future administration that would be sworn in on January 20, 1989.
In the prologue, the new president’s motorcade pulls up at the north portico to escort President Reagan to the Capitol, only to be informed that President Reagan is still in his pajamas and ‘won’t leave’.The president-elect tells chief of staff Herb: ‘He told me his back was bothering him, that he was feeling tired, that it’s cold outside and that he just doesn’t feel like moving out today.’ In 1986, this turned out to be a saucy scenario. The idea of Reagan going gaga and not wanting to leave — in a book by his vice president’s former word-wallah — got attention. I confessed in an interview to being worried Mr and Mrs Reagan might not be as amused as everyone else. Four days later a handwritten letter arrived from Mr Reagan saying that he was ‘tickled to have played a small part in your book’.
In the mid-1980s Mr Reagan (born 1911) was having the odd senior moment but he was in fine voice in Berlin when he implored Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’. In 1994, he penned his farewell to the American people, announcing that he was ‘one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease’. Note how Mr Reagan was at pains to say he was but unum among pluribus. With millions of other Americans, I read his letter with moist eyes.
My new book, published on July 14, is titled Make Russia Great Again. It’s a companion piece: another ‘fake’ White House memoir by a clueless but loyal chief of staff, also named Herb. Reviewers will doubtless say that in 34 years I have run the gamut from A to B. Or A to A.
I gave up political satire some years back on the grounds that American politics had become self-satirizing. But we seem to be in a 24-carat golden era of satire. Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Sarah Cooper, J-L Cauvin and others are hitting every slow, low Trump pitch over their plates out of the ballpark. When the President of the United States fulminatingly tweets that you should be banned by the government, as he did after one Alec Baldwin impression on SNL, you’re batting 1,000. Satire-wise, Mr Trump is both a low-hanging fruit and a challenge. Drinking Clorox? Putting a light stick up your bum? Just ‘inspecting’ the bunker? ‘President of law and order’? ‘MAGA loves African Americans!’? ‘Slow the testing down, please!’? And to heck with the pandemic and coast-to-coast rioting, let’s focus our outrage where it belongs. How did Joe Scarborough get away with murdering a member of his staff while he was 800 miles away?
Mr Trump is now signaling that if he loses in November, it will be because the election has been ‘rigged’. The embedded threat in these tweets has sent scholars and pundits scurrying to the Constitution to see what it says about this OMFG scenario. Writing in the Atlantic, a former US attorney says not to worry: ‘If Trump were inclined to overstay his term, the levers of power work in favor of removal.’ Phew! So…he wouldn’t have the authority, say, to order his Secret Service detail to open fire on President-elect Biden’s Secret Service detail? That would be the end of it? Right? Hello? In his many years of inaugural coverage, Walter Cronkite of blessed memory unfailingly remarked that in America the transition of power is done ‘without tanks’. Following the unpleasantness in Lafayette Square, we learned that Mr Trump had in fact asked the military about deploying tanks. That would have made a photo op for the ages. Meanwhile we’ll have to settle for Mr Trump standing there looking like a clueless parent playing crossing guard on School Swap Jobs Day, holding up a Bible like a ‘Walk’ sign.In my novel, Herb Version 2 frets about what will happen if the boss loses in November. It’s giving him chest pains. ‘I saw tanks clanking up to the White House. Heard a military voice on a megaphone: “President Trump! Sir, you have been defeated in a legitimate election. You must vacate the White House, or I will have no choice but to…”’ Let’s hope for the best. When reality in DC reads like a comic novel, we are, as my boss Mr Bush would say, ‘in deep doo doo’.