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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.

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