This is the story of a fictional 1950's congressman who gets pulled into McCarthy-era politics – sort of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its sex appeal is supposed to be the historical characters that recur throughout – the up and coming Senator Kennedy, who conveniently lives a few doors down from the freshman congressman, Senate minority leader Lyndon Johnson who conveniently rides the tram to the Capitol and deigns to explain Democratic politics to the new congressman's intern, and so forth. Actually, the name dropping isn't as egregious as it could be, and it largely stops shortly after the book gets going other than McCarthy and his associate Roy Cohn, both of who may get the emphasis they do because of their similarities to and relationship to Donald Trump. A bit of speculation on my part, but not much of one.
The plot is okay, but I had an enormous problem with the original thesis for the book – a prominent New Yorker pulls strings to get his son appointed as a congressman to fill a vacant seat. Because that can't happen – there are no appointments to vacant House seats as there are for Senate ones. As Barbara Jordan was proud of saying when I was in her Policy Development class – it is the "People's House" – no one gets there without an election. (This happened on Sept. 30, 1987 – my note reads:
HOUSE – "People's House"
and I can still hear the pride in her voice at the requirement that every Member must have been elected.
Now this is explained in one of the first Notes at the end of the book – Tapper states that for purposes of getting a naive House freshman as a protagonist he deliberately ignored this rule. And he tweaked other indicia of reality as you'd expect in a piece of historical fiction – the new rep wouldn't have been named to Appropriations in 1954, for example, because freshman weren't eligible until 1970. Historical incidents get different years, and so forth. All of which are fine and help him tell a story. It just struck me as odd that he'd violate such a basic rule in a book that is about inside politics without a wink to it for those familiar with the way appointments work. For example he could have claimed that there was an obscure workaround to the rule in New York, and I'd have recognized "okay, this is for plot purposes." But having had BJ impress it on me, it was a false note throughout the book.
The book itself is not what I'd call well-written. It's never bad, but at least to my eyes it stumbles frequently in ways an editor should have caught. For example, it would have benefited considerably from being read aloud, where the clinks in the dialogue would have become clear. An example – our hero and his sidekick meet at the White Horse Tavern, and then rush off, during which our hero says "why didn't you show me X?" Sidekick says "I was going to show it to you at the White Horse Tavern but …"
Seriously? No one would say that. They'd say "I was going to show you at the restaurant, but …" Or when a husband and wife refer to someone they both know by first and last name, or (to a lesser extent) using a title. Those are easy mistakes to correct. Otherwise, the writing is serviceable. (I would have corrected where he notes that at D-Day he rode in a landing craft from his "battleship" but that's my problem, not most readers').
The name dropping with appearances from Jack, Jackie and Bobby is actually not poorly done. Much of it has a historical basis, and at least the principal legislative characters in the book aren't Kennedys, Johnson and Nixon – they're either fictional House committee chairs or the now-forgotten Sen. Estes Kefauver.
One other thing. It is an automatic F to have a fictional rubber company named "Goodstone" (get it? As in Goodyear and Bridgestone?). Also, a letter grade down which a major company is "General Kinetics." Come on – you can do better than that.
Anyway, not a bad read, but Dan Brown doesn't need to be looking over his shoulder any time soon.