Spin­ning one for the Gip­per

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr. was di­rec­tor of pres­i­den­tial speech­writ­ing for Ron­ald Rea­gan (1981-83) and has writ­ten widely on pol­i­tics, history, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

As a cap­i­tal na­tive and White House vet­eran, I am usu­ally al­ler­gic to Washington-ori­ented nov­els, movies and tele­vi­sion se­ries. They sel­dom get things right. Ev­ery once in a while, how­ever, there is an ex­cep­tion, and I am happy to re­port that “Fi­nale,” Thomas Mal­lon’s fol­low-up to his widely-ac­claimed ear­lier his­tor­i­cal novel, “Water­gate,” is a splen­did ex­am­ple of the genre at its best.

Most of the ac­tion — although with fre­quent ref­er­ences to pre­vi­ous events and with a short, mov­ing epi­logue — takes place dur­ing a few months in the au­tumn of 1986, lead­ing up to the Rea­gan-Gor­bachev sum­mit in Reyk­javik, the Novem­ber mid-term elec­tions and the build­ing Iran-Con­tra scan­dal that, while largely for­got­ten to­day, nearly wrecked the Rea­gan pres­i­dency in its last two years.

Mr. Mal­lon isn’t just a gifted nov­el­ist; he also has a sound work­ing knowl­edge of Washington ways and he is old enough to re­mem­ber first-hand most of the char­ac­ters he writes about with a wicked wit and fine Ital­ian hand. At least one of them, the late Bri­tish literary-po­lit­i­cal gad­fly Christo­pher Hitchens, was ac­tu­ally his close friend. But even char­ac­ters he never met are por­trayed with both mer­ci­less ac­cu­racy and sym­pa­thetic imag­i­na­tion. Mr. Mal­lon has a way of chan­nel­ing the public fig­ures he writes about, and an as­tound­ingly good ear for di­a­logue. Lim­it­ing my ex­am­ples to char­ac­ters in “Fi­nale” that I have ac­tu­ally known and had lengthy con­ver­sa­tions with — in­clud­ing Richard Nixon, Ron­ald Rea­gan, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, Adm. John Poin­dex­ter, Ol­lie North, the afore­men­tioned Christo­pher Hitchens, Bill Buck­ley and his for­mi­da­ble wife Pat, and even Kitty Carlisle, the widow of play­wright Moss Hart, who makes a cameo ap­pear­ance — the words Mr. Mal­lon puts into the mouths of his non­fic­tion char­ac­ters are vir­tu­ally pitch per­fect. His own writ­ing style is ironic with­out be­ing sadis­tic, more An­thony Pow­ell than Eve­lyn Waugh to use an English anal­ogy. If there is one crit­i­cism to be made of “Fi­nale” it, too, is ironic. The prob­lem with most his­tor­i­cal nov­els is that the fic­tional pro­tag­o­nists tend to be more plau­si­ble and fully-formed than the ac­tual his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters who of­ten fail to make it past the card­board cutout stage. In “Fi­nale” the op­po­site is true; Mr. Mal­lon does such a good job with his his­tor­i­cal fig­ures that it is hard for the reader to re­ally en­gage with his main fic­tional char­ac­ters, An­ders Lit­tle (a thor­oughly de­cent but pro­fes­sion­ally and sex­u­ally con­flicted NSC staffer in his late thir­ties), and Anne Macmur­ray (an older, sym­pa­thetic di­vorced woman com­ing to terms with both death and what re­mains of her life). The same ap­plies to the fic­tional part of the plot, in­volv­ing dirty money, Iran-Con­tra, po­lit­i­cal in­trigues, in­ge­nious twists and turns that are fine in them­selves but less in­ter­est­ing than what the au­thor has go­ing on in the lives and heads of dozens of real-life char­ac­ters from the Rea­gans on down.

The late Pamela Har­ri­man, a much­mar­ried mi­nor English aris­to­crat who may have been the 20th cen­tury’s near­est equiv­a­lent to a great cour­te­san and who started her public ca­reer as the wife of Win­ston Churchill’s scape­grace son, Ran­dolph, re­ceives rough but well-de­served treat­ment, as in the fol­low­ing fic­tional ex­change with Christo­pher Hitchens.

Hitchens: “They say you slept with what­ever gen­eral he [Prime Min­is­ter Churchill] asked you to. In or­der to gain in­for­ma­tion, of course.”

Har­ri­man: “Well, I cer­tainly didn’t bother with any colonels. I left those to Nancy Mit­ford.”

Per­haps the most in­sight­ful pas­sage in the book comes when Mr. Mal­lon has Vigdis Finnbo­gadot­tir, Ice­land’s pres­i­dent, who has just had a pleas­ant chat with Rea­gan on his ar­rival in Reyk­javic for the arms talks, re­flect on the en­counter:

“[She] was al­ready think­ing that she’d never be able to tell her friends what he was like. He seemed all at once very close and far away; rather silly and a lit­tle mys­ti­cal ... he was com­posed of two el­e­ments that seemed to al­ter­nate but never to add up. She could hear her­self telling those friends that he might be the most deeply shal­low man she’d ever met. It would not be a wit­ti­cism, and she would mean it, she thought, more as a com­pli­ment than crit­i­cism.”

The Ron­ald Rea­gan I re­mem­ber was some­thing like that, puz­zling un­til you re­al­ized that the real man, enig­matic to so many, was hid­ing in plain sight all along. Smil­ing, kindly and op­ti­mistic — but ex­tremely self-con­tained — he was di­rected by an in­ner com­pass that al­ways seemed to kick in just when you thought he’d gone hope­lessly adrift.

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