A president who rages in private about conspiracies against him by the news media and his political opponents. A controversial alliance with a ruthless Russian leader. A key Supreme Court justice named Kavanaugh.
Well, in “Night of Camp David,” the justice’s name is spelled “Cavanaugh,” but close enough.
The political thriller, a best-seller when it was published in 1965 but long out of print, has enough eerie parallels with today’s political debate that it has gained new attention from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and others.
Vintage Books is reissuing the novel as an e-book, an audiobook and a paperback wrapped in a stark, black-and-white overwrap that asks: “WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.A. WENT STARK-RAVING MAD?”
That was the tagline for the original book. The story by the late journalist Fletcher Knebel wrestles with the debate, never fully resolved, over how the nation’s political system can and should respond if there are suspicions that a commander in chief has become mentally incapacitated.
The 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, established a procedure that relies on the initiative of the vice president and the Cabinet.
Even that solution is imperfect, the novel’s most admirable character, Defense Secretary Sidney Karper, admits. Six pages from the book’s dramatic conclusion, he declares, “Nobody in this country can tell a president of the United States that his mind is sick.”
The book is dated in its portrayal of women and its jokes about race. Still, it does strike chords that seem remarkably current.
Here are three:
1. The president and Russia
The crisis at the heart of the story is sparked when President Mark Hollenbach announces a summit with his Soviet counterpart, Premier Zuchek. “Who knew what fantastic secret agreement might emerge from such a meeting?” the protagonist, Iowa Sen. Jim MacVeagh, worries. Zuchek was “a patient steel-nerved negotiator, utterly devoted to Russia’s self-interest” and capable, MacVeagh fears, of taking advantage of Hollenbach.
The fictional president is willing to spurn U.S. alliances with Great Britain (“effete, jaded”), France (“flighty and defensive”) and Germany (“arrogant and domineering”) to forge a coalition with Moscow.
2. Fake news and the press
Long before Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the invention of the Internet, the novel broaches today’s debate over #FakeNews. When an activist accuses MacVeagh of being “ignorant of the true facts,” he rebukes her: “Facts are facts, Mrs. Byerson. There are no such things as true facts, because then we’d have to have false facts, wouldn’t we?”
The president seethes about skeptical questions and snide commentary by reporters and vows to cut off an annoying columnist’s sources, then calls for something like decorum: “Freedom of the press is one thing, but unbridled license to degrade and ridicule officials who devote their lives to this country is something else again.”
3. Seeing conspiracies everywhere
Inside the White House, the fictional president rages against critics, viewing every comment and controversy as a personal attack. That’s similar to the portrait painted by some books that depict the Trump White House as dysfunctional.
When the fictional vice president is ensnared in a minor scandal, Hollenbach accuses him of doing it to embarrass “me in an election year” and accuses MacVeagh of being in league with the veep “and the rest of that cabal” fashioning “the plot to discredit me and disgrace the administration.”