‘Bad Publicity’ Hits Home

Ex-Washingtonian Explores D.C.’s Insider Culture

Posted February 9, 2004 at 4:17pm

Jeffrey Frank is a recovering Washingtonian.

By all appearances, since permanently relocating to New York’s Upper West Side eight years ago, his recovery is progressing just fine.

For one thing, it seems Frank’s hit on the perfect therapy for expressing his distaste with “permanent Washington,” as the New Yorker senior editor has dubbed “the think tanks, the lawyers, the lobbyists,” that constitute an immutable layer of the capital city’s ruling class.

First, Frank penned 2001’s “The Columnist,” a satiric glimpse into the personal musings of a solipsistic Washington scribe. Now comes “Bad Publicity,” a sparkling, fast-paced novel released last month, which explores the knotty question of how, as one character muses, “lives [go] awry in Washington.”

“Bad Publicity’s” disgruntled hero is Charlie Dingleman — a once-divorced, twice-married, three-term Pennsylvania Representative, coping with life after Congress in the dreary K Street law firm Thingeld, Pine & Sconce.

It’s 1987, and the city, at least the part which is supposed to matter, hums with pre-presidential election buzz. When word comes that Dingleman is under consideration for a post in the Reagan White House, things finally seem to be looking up for the aging pol. But then an ill-considered remark made to an ambitious female colleague, Judith Grust, hurls the former ranking member of the fisheries management subcommittee into a downward spiral.

The argus-eyed Frank, a native Washingtonian who has worked for the now-defunct Washington Star, Congressional Quarterly and The Washington Post, is adept at capturing what is sometimes viewed as the pompous preening and fatuous banter of the “web of intersecting people, few wishing each other well” that constitutes the capital’s establishment.

“The more time I spent with them, the more creepy it felt and the more uncomfortable I felt,” said Frank. “I didn’t really understand how it was all getting to me until I got this job offer from [then-New Yorker editor] Tina Brown and moved up here.”

For those familiar with the Washington landscape, the jargon will sound eerily familiar. The novel’s dialogue is peppered with references to the need to get “down in the trenches” and work on problems that “affect real people.” Even Dingleman finds himself wearying of repeating the tired phrase, it’s “great being back in the private sector.”

“When people lose in this town it’s like they die,” one character says. “But they don’t get buried and rot like real dead people; they stick around, and everybody hopes they leave.”

In addition to Dingleman and Grust, the novel’s terrain is inhabited by a string of loosely connected has-beens and second-rate climbers, hovering on the periphery of the revolving door of power.

Among these is Hank Morriday, a washed-up, liberal think tank scholar shut out of the Dukakis clique who spends his days feigning work, reading Playboy and masturbating in the confines of an office at an institute “populated by people that the world had lost track of.” Then there is his colleague, the Soviet expert Suzanne Smule, who “although no one could remember what she’d ever said, no one could remember her ever being without something to say”; and Smule’s friend Candy Romulade, a high-strung public relations account executive and former White House press aide, whose “lines around her mouth told … of thoughtless boyfriends, the softness under her eyes of sleepless nights, and the brittle darkness of her tan of attempts to escape both.”

The culmination of “Bad Publicity” finds this assorted cast of characters congregated at a party for a local media star. Here, Frank’s talent for skewering the proclivities of the Washington cognoscenti reaches its high water mark. When a platter of shrimp and oysters is unveiled, the guests, like birds of prey, attack the hors d’oeuvres with such vengeance, they “came away with red sauce dripping from their teeth.”

Despite Frank’s largely dyspeptic take on the Washington insider, he rejects the suggestion, raised by some critics of the book, that he was too harsh on his literary cast. “I don’t think it was too mean at all. To me, they were all very human,” he said.

Maybe too human. When his earlier novel “The Columnist” first appeared, the Washington chattering class had a heyday trying to guess which of its members the title character was modeled after, with potential candidates reported to include George Will, Ben Bradlee and Leon Wieseltier, among others.

“I could see why people saw a number of people in this part, actually. And that says something about Washington, too,” said Frank, emphasizing that his goal with both books was to write a “roman à vérité,” not a roman à clef.

“There’s something always very funny about vanity, about mad ambition, about sort of blind careerism,” Frank added.

But still, there is the question of Dingleman, whose name bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain veteran Michigan Congressman.

“I don’t know John Dingell and … truly it has nothing to do with him. But I’ve always sort of loved the name, and so probably deep in my unconsciousness the name Dingleman came out of that,” Frank explained.

Given the depth of Frank’s simultaneous contempt for and obsession with “permanent Washington,” don’t be surprised to see a third book on the subject in the near future. “I have one more idea, then at least as far as I’m concerned I will have mined it,” he said, declining to elaborate.

As for his dim view of the “island apart from America” — “There’s a period when I would go down during the end of the Clinton years and it’s like being in the South during Reconstruction or something,” he said — Frank’s hopeful that the city’s tenor may one day be transformed.

“By the way, I’m an optimist,” Frank said, noting that he “loved many people in Washington.”

“I like to think that [it] is going to become a better place again.”

Frank will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 7 p.m. today to read and sign copies of his book.