First read: 1988
Owned since: 1988
Hurray, it's the New Hampshire primary! It's true that I have my moments of cynicism and despair about American politics, but it's also true that I just love the democratic process. Humans are flawed and not always intelligent or kind, so why should our governing institutions be any different?
Walk into any Capitol Hill watering hole at 7:00 on a weeknight and you will find dozens of 20-somethings talking about the crucial roles they are playing on such important policy matters as animal rights (traditionally one of the first issues given to baby staffers) or beekeeping subsidies. Go a little further west, to the K Street corridor, and you will find 30-somethings complaining about the unreasonable demands of their clients or their associations' members, or arguing about the internal office politics driving some obscure provision of a new regulatory proposal. What distinguishes everyone in Washington is a complete lack of perspective on the size of their own role in the giant machine of self-governance, and this lack of perspective is what Buckley nails in The White House Mess.
The White House Mess, written halfway through Ronald Reagan's second term in office, is a joyful satire on Potomac fever. It's the fictional memoir of Herbert Wadlough, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff to the newly-elected President Thomas Nelson Tucker. Its tone is a deadpan imitation of countless real memoirs by minor historical figures: "It was a giddy, busy time of state dinners, weekends at Camp David, and battleship decommissionings." Wadlough is given the task of Metrification, and his career spirals down from there.
This book is a timeless reminder that even the President of the United States is a human being like anyone else you know. On his first day in office, the new President sits in the Oval Office surrounded by Presidential memoirs, and President Tucker muses on the oddness of his new status.
"I told a joke this afternoon," said the President. "There were about eight people here. They all laughed."
"So?" said Feeley.
"It wasn't funny. That's why I told it. To see if they'd laugh. They all did."
As the late-afternoon sunlight played on the bare branches of the oak trees outside, the President was philosophical.
"Who knows?" he said as his eyes scanned the curve of the Oval. I sensed it was a historical moment, a man reflecting on the immensity of power and on the implacable forces that would come to bear on him in the years ahead. "This place could turn us all into assholes."