2. Fake news and the press TUR­MOIL AT THE TOP

How a 1965 novel about a pres­i­dent in cri­sis seems eerily timely to­day

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - BOOKS - BY SU­SAN PAGE

Apres­i­dent 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.

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.”


Fletcher Knebel’s 1965 best-seller wres­tles with the de­bate over how the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem can and should re­spond if there are sus­pi­cions that a com­man­der in chief has be­come men­tally in­ca­pac­i­tated.

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