Reviews by title
Reviews by author
Onyx reviews: The
Rules of the Game by Leonard Downie, Jr.
The is strong precedent for a political thriller. The bar was set high by All
the President's Men, which recounts the investigation that exposed the
Watergate cover-up and brought down a president. Primary Colors
demonstrated that there was still life in the genre, exposing the inner workings
of a thinly disguised Clinton campaign working to get the governor of Arkansas
elected for his first term.
The Rules of the Game doesn't appear to be a roman à clef, just
a straight-forward thriller written by a retired Washington Post executive
editor who knows the city inside and out. Downie's insight into the way editors and publishers vet stories and
balance the risks in running stories that are bound to ruffle powerful feathers,
along with the subtle negotiations that establish the ground rules (on the
record, off the record, deep background) of every conversation between a
journalist and a politico, provide a fascinating look at the inner workings of
the print media.
The presidential campaign underway at the beginning of the book is a
topsy-turvy version of the 2008 election. In this case, it is the Democrats whose
elderly candidate is manipulated into selecting an unlikely female vice presidential candidate that shakes up the
campaign. Through a complicated series of events, the unthinkable happens, and
Susan Cameron ends up stepping into the Oval Office. Cameron isn't Sarah Palin—she's
too smart and experienced for that—but there is a definite resonance with recent events. She's been
toughened up by her experiences as a junior senator, suffering and surviving the
humiliation caused by her husband's marital and fiscal indiscretions.
Downie's protagonist is Sarah Page, an
investigative reporter for the fictional Washington Capital. Sarah isn't a
rookie, having covered state politics in Maryland, and her reputation isn't
pristine, either, having exercised poor judgment by getting involved with a
coworker. Sarah's big story isn't about the presidential race, per se, or about
Susan Cameron's unexpected ascent to power. Instead, she gets the financial beat
and ends up on the trail of corruption and conflict of interest that infiltrates
almost every level of the government. All roads lead to a retired general, who
is pulling strings on a puppet government that channels lucrative contracts to
his various enterprises. Once Sarah's stories start to
expose the seedy underbelly of his operations and strip away his carefully
constructed layers of insulation, the general goes into damage control mode. As
any student of history should know, though, it's almost always the cover-up that leads
to people's downfall.
Sarah has her own version of Deep Throat, who feeds her just enough to keep
her digging deeper. She suspects her source's motives, but so long as the
information keeps coming she follows his bizarre rules. When another of Sarah's
sources is found dead, Downie invokes the name
of Vince Foster, Hillary Clinton's law partner who committed suicide but whose
death became the source for numerous conspiracy theories. When her roommate is almost
killed by a car bomb that was almost certainly meant for her, Sarah
knows she's getting closer to the truth.
Numerous contemporary issues are fodder for Downie's plot, including the
outsourcing of defense duties and the burning question of torture. The book addresses
the fundamental difference between what is
morally right and what is ethically right. Just because something isn't illegal,
does that mean it's right? Exploiting loopholes is seen as a game, regardless of the
implications for everyone else. People involved in the highest levels of
politics seem to become insulated from reality, with reckless disregard for
anyone who is trampled by their machinations.
Downie clearly knows the character types he writes about, and the political
intrigue is captivating and engaging, but for someone who has made a living in
print, readers might have expected more scintillating prose. The characters are,
for the most part, fairly uninteresting and are cursed with banal names that do
little to distinguish them. A veteran writer probably wouldn't have called two
major players Sarah and Susan.
There is a lot of sleeping around—that probably summarizes the public
perception of the way things are done in Washington—but it offers little
new insight beyond the stereotype. Even Sarah doesn't learn from her mistakes,
falling into one ill-advised relationship after another, all of which
threaten her credibility as a journalist.
As freshman efforts go, The Rules of the Game isn't a terrible book,
but it's not a very good one, either. Given the author's pedigree, coming from
the same hallowed halls as Woodward and Bernstein, one might have expected more
depth. Perhaps now that he's gotten the obligatory first book out of his system,
he'll do better the next time around.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2009. All rights reserved.