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The Write Stuff: Members’ Prose

These days, Members of Congress write more than ever: Quickie autobiographies and ghostwritten campaign books line the shelves of Washington bookstores.

But novels? That’s a different story.

Only a handful of current and former politicians have dared to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and Cather. For each, it was part of a lifelong dream.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski wanted to write a novel ever since she read Nancy Drew as a young girl. Rep. Peter King  got his start writing for a local paper before moving on to thrillers. And Sen. Jim Webb turned down a job with the Reagan administration to write.

Most have stuck to the sage advice of writing what they know, penning political or historical fiction that is based, however unrealistically, on their day jobs.

Mikulski’s opportunity to write came through her political connections. At the 60th birthday party for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, she met author Marylouise Oates.

“I told her I wanted to write a book, and she suggested we collaborate,” the Maryland Democrat recalled in an email. “We met for writing sessions but mainly wrote on our own. We sent pieces of the book back and forth in the mail.”

Between the daily grind of lawmaking and constant campaigning, it’s not easy to find time to write a novel. King, who wrote out each of his three novels longhand, would block out time to write on weekends or between votes on the House floor.

“Rather than go out and hang out in a bar, I’d sit in the office and just write,” the New York Republican said.

Mikulski’s experience was similar. “Sometimes, during a long filibuster, I would go back to my office and write on legal pads,” she said.

Lawmakers’ writing processes were as different as their politics. Webb took a disciplined and careful approach to plotting his novel. King said he never knew where his characters were going to take him.

“Almost every day I would have things come up that I’d never even thought about before,” King said. “I was almost like a witness to it, an observer.”

One of King’s novels stirred up controversy this year when he held hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. Sections of his novel dealing with terrorism and the Irish Republican Army were quoted in media reports.

“I wish they’d have done it 10 years ago. I’d have sold more books,” he joked. “I don’t think it had much impact, but I got a kick out of it.”

Still, the hardest part is writing. Webb rewrote his first novel cover to cover seven times and spent a great deal longer than most trying to find a publisher. Despite the intensity, however, the Virginia Democrat said nothing gives him greater pleasure than putting the polish on a particularly strong passage. King agreed.

“The most rewarding moment is when you finish the book,” he said. “It’s a really great feeling to have it done.”

We’ve compiled a list, with excerpts, of some of the novels written by current and former Members of Congress. 

Blood of Patriots by Former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), now governor of Hawaii, and Richard Hoyt
Abercrombie’s debut thriller opens on the floor of the House of Representatives, where terrorists unleash a massacre that kills 124 Members of Congress and sends the president into hiding. Before long, a cynical former CIA agent is on the case, uncovering clues to discover who perpetrated the horror and why. The book reads like many of Hoyt’s other mysteries, although it’s clear that Abercrombie added a slew of insider details. 

“Luisa retrieved an Uzi machine pistol from under her trench coat; Oscar pulled a Model 29 Smith & Wesson .44 magnum revolver with an eight-inch barrel from under his trench coat. Oscar shattered the skull of Speaker Jim Purdy at the Republican leadership table and picked off Representative Barbara Laine next to him. Holding the monster pistol with both hands and moving it in a smooth sweep, he then quickly picked off the guards just inside each door of the gallery. He squeezed off each shot with dispatch, yet each was deliberate and well aimed. Not once did he break his lethal rhythm with a miss.”

Blind Trust by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Boxer’s second novel follows a liberal Senator who faces off with an old foe while juggling a media scandal and a chaotic personal life. Reviewers complained that the characterization is too partisan — nearly all the Republicans are evil while the Democrats are angelic.

“She bent her head, spent a very long time meticulously spreading a thin coating of butter on her muffin, and suddenly he lost his patience. ‘Listen, ever since I saw you across that room, fighting for your children’s bill with every nerve in your body, I’ve loved you and wanted you and I can’t stand the thought of losing you. But this is it, lady! This is the end of the line. I’m not just some colleague asking you to co-sponsor a bill. I’m asking you to marry me!’

And at last, finally, she said yes, and he vowed she’d never regret it.”

The Double Man by former Sens. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.)
Authored by two Senators from opposite sides of the aisle, this spy novel deals with the CIA, the KGB, the Kennedy assassination and terrorism, among other state secrets. The story follows Thomas Chandler, a Connecticut Senator with White House ambitions who ends up tangled in a Soviet plot and in love with an aide.

“The Secretary was a reticent man whose language, like his mind, was direct, uncomplicated by the superfluous. Reserve was a word always associated with his name. No one could recall seeing him lose his temper, even when outrageously provoked at a congressional hearing.

Now that reserve was broken, and he wept quietly in his study. He had demanded to know every detail of the attack, and his mind kept playing those details over and over. He was consumed with guilt for not having been in that car to die with Alicia and Woodie and Natalie.”

To Try Men’s Souls by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and William R. Forstchen
The latest in a series of alternate histories penned by the two authors, “To Try Men’s Souls” details Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and Thomas Paine’s writing “The American Crisis.” Gingrich and Forstchen have also written several historical novels depicting the Civil War era and the attack on Pearl Harbor, and they will soon release another about Valley Forge. The thoroughly researched books have done well on the New York Times best-seller list.
“A man stepped forward, pointing to his bare, bloody feet, features red as he cursed a Congress that could not even provide shoes as he fought, while they huddled warm and fat in Philadelphia. [Washington] looked down at the man, unable to speak, for so many of them were barefoot, and money which had been promised them and shoes that any soldier had the right to expect, had never appeared. They were sick of it, exhausted, dying. The war was lost. They were going home.”

Easy Pickin’s by former Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.)
This Western thriller follows Okie Dunn, a boxer-turned-law student and the new sheriff in Cash County. He’s got a lot on his plate when three strangers turn up looking for an heiress and a body suddenly falls from the sky into an oat field near town. As he follows the clues, Okie finds himself closer and closer to a dangerous enemy.
“She stepped carefully past the tips of my black cowboy boots and sat down on the bed, facing me, making the springs squeak. Our knees were almost touching. She lifted her glass toward me. ‘Well, here’s to motherhood,’ she said.

We drank. The sweet brown mixture gave me little, sickening chills. My experience had been that if you ever woke up with a hangover from whiskey and Coca-Cola, it made you want to swear off and take the cure.”

Vale of Tears by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.)
King’s third book follows fictional Congressman Sean Cross, whose experience is loosely based on the author’s. In the book, even chapters look back to Sept. 11, 2001, and odd chapters detail a future terrorist attack in which al-Qaida attacks trains, joining with rogue elements of the Irish Republican Army, a group King himself has supported. The Congressman’s counterpart saves the day by persuading reluctant witnesses to help him solve the book’s mysteries.

“The conversation in the bus was still solemn, very similar, it seemed, to the expressions of the New Yorkers walking the streets — somber but undaunted. But there was nothing at all somber about the scene along West Street as the bus — now going south — approached the vicinity of Ground Zero.

Hundreds of people lined the streets cheering, waving American flags and holding up signs, thanking and encouraging the rescue workers who’d come from all over the region and country to do what they could. The windows of the bus were shut tight, but its passengers could clearly hear the crowd’s defiant cheers of USA! USA!”

Capitol Venture by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Marylouise Oates
In a sequel to her first political mystery, Mikulski again sticks to what she knows. She writes of a U.S. Senator hoping to win a re-election campaign against a reactionary opponent. Things get tricky when a rally turns violent and a Congressman is found dead in his home. Bodies pile up as the campaign continues and District cops rush to figure out who’s behind the violence. Reviewers praised the book for its insider feel, but many thought it came up short on plot and pace.

“The good thing about the President, I had discovered, was that it didn’t matter much what you said. His definition of conversation was him talking, you listening and, of course, agreeing. I did even better with him in person because I had such a clear, direct, and forceful nod.”

A Sense of Honor by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.)
This novel follows several soldiers at the Naval Academy in Annapolis during Vietnam as they begin their transformation from teenagers into military leaders. In following their experiences at school and beyond, the novel takes a close look at the leadership, discipline, pain and triumph of military life. Reviewers across the board praised the book for its engrossing writing and detail.
“He tried, just for a moment as he nodded off to sleep, to remember a time when he did not view the world as a chimera to be attacked, a progression of moments capable of violent destruction, a painful jungle designed to test his tenacity. He could not think that far back. He could get past first-class year and second-class year and youngster year. He could remember the incredible, unnerving scars of plebe year, as if his memory itself were falling into its own small sea and treading water there, trying to keep from drowning. He could identify each terror-filled event of plebe summer, those weeks that ripped his old self from him like someone reaching inside a plucked chicken and tearing out the guts, then packing in fear where they used to be.”

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