Power, Lust and Politics Dominate Editor’s Novel

Posted January 26, 2009 at 4:13pm

As a veteran of the Washington Post newsroom, it’s likely that Leonard Downie Jr. has given this advice to more than a few junior writers: Write what you know.

And that’s exactly what Downie, who served as executive editor of the Post for 17 years, does is in his first novel, “The Rules of the Game.”

The novel follows the winding path of a young political reporter, Sarah Page, as she investigates a crooked defense company with ties to national political figures.

The novel’s strengths lie in its realistic plot details: Page’s investigation is plausible enough for both political insiders and a mass audience to understand and enjoy. What’s more, many of the characters appear familiar, even though Downie apparently started writing the novel years before the 2008 elections.

Page is rumored to resemble Post reporter Dana Priest, who has been nationally recognized for her own investigative work at the newspaper. Page’s promiscuity, however, would likely make Priest blush.

Downie’s realistic plot details don’t carry over to a knack for character development. Although Page is a solid protagonist, her personality and dialogue often fall flat when she is faced with exciting or tragic circumstances. Page never evolves as a character enough to draw the reader in past her escapades and adventures.

Speaking of promiscuity, however, Page’s reporting colleague Mark Daniels is a more compelling character — and Roll Call would love to know which Washington Post reporter he is modeled on.

Daniels chronically sleeps around on his wife and two children, but he meets his romantic match early on in the book. Unlike Page, Daniels’ character evolves over the volume and eventually leaves the reader, well, satisfied.

A female vice presidential candidate, Susan Cameron, also plays a prominent role in the novel — although she is no former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Cameron comes onto the political scene after her husband, a former Silicon Valley millionaire-turned-Senator, endures a widely publicized cheating scandal and the governor then appoints her to the seat in his stead.

“Rules” gives the reader a more intimate portrait of a prominent female candidate: Cameron is vulnerable but determined. While some of her actions in the book are completely unrealistic for today’s politics — for example, Cameron elevates one of her former Senate press secretaries to be a senior aide in her White House — her character’s fallibility presents a unique middle ground between Clinton’s severity and Palin’s inexperience.

Downie’s work is weighed down by an overuse of foreshadowing. The narrator often suggests what is to come for a certain character or overstates the meaning of a moment in the greater context of the plot. Yet, in most cases, these statements keep the novel flowing at a digestible pace for a political thriller marketed at a wider audience.

Along the same lines, Downie also tends to overplay the title and theme in the book — leaving readers little to figure out on their own.

Washington, D.C., readers will enjoy the novel for its geographic references about the city — from the tree-lined Palisades at the edge of Georgetown to the grandeur of the Pentagon. Downie describes local landmarks in authentic detail but picks well-known locales so that average Capitol tourists can reminiscence about a meeting in Union Station’s upstairs cafe.

Downie likely struggled with how he might market his novel to a wider audience.

On the one hand, Washington, D.C., readers and newsroom insiders would find some of the discussions between Page and her editor to be simplistic. This reporter, for example, would have liked to know in more detail what conversations between Page and her editor about the journalistic merits of a candidate’s affair would have been like.

On the other hand, a wider audience will be able to relate to some of the more generic plot twists, even if they seem cliché to most political insiders.

Above all, Downie’s book serves as a wild ride for anyone with an insider or surface knowledge of politics or Washington, D.C.