When Senators Wrote Terrible Bipartisan Spy Thrillers

While in Maine I found a small tchotchke shop in Deer Isle that was selling, among other things, a used copy of The Double Man, a 1985 spy thriller written by then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) and then-Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) that had been obtained as discarded surplus from the local library. Applying the Page 69 test, we can swiftly determine that the book is terrible. One of the key conceits of the novel is that if a major spy caper were to occur, then work on the Senate Intelligence Committee would be an interesting and important element of the caper. In our excerpt, Sen. Thomas Chandler, a member of the committee, is struggling to contain his urge to flirt with a female member of the committee staff:

Chandler felt the temperature rising. He searched his uncooperative brain for a safe topic of conversation, something to bring them back to a professional footing. At last: “How are you liking the job, Elaine?” He felt like a fool. Now there’s a clever conversational gambit. But it served to bring matters back to the impersonal.

“It gets tedious at times, of course,” she said. “Some of the Committee’s work is routine. But I can’t think of another job that would be as interesting, especially now, with the task force. Working as an analyst for an investment firm, with a company picnic once a year, didn’t exactly give me a lot of exciting entries for my diary.”

Chandler was surprised. For Elaine even to suggest that she might be keeping a private record of her observations as a Committee staff member could lead to her exclusion from sensitive meetings and, ultimately to separation from her job.”

“Do you keep a diary?” he asked warily.

Elaine laughed. “Not since I turned ten. But I must confess, there are times when I wish I still had that innocence—thinking that my experiences would somehow matter to posterity. I gave up that fantasy a very long time ago.”

The evident low quality of the book raises the question of how it is that on the back flap we have both Dan Rather and Bob Woodward arresting to its merits. Rather tells us it’s “a double score: entertaining and informative,” when it’s neither. Woodward calls it “an expertly crafted thriller,” when it’s turgid and amateurish. What would lead two esteemed newsmen to praise a most unpraiseworthy book?

Well, it seems simple enough. High-level journalists benefit from having good relationships with U.S. senators, and senators who have a new thriller out benefit from good book blurbs. So why not let one hand wash the other? The genius part is that nobody has to do anything as sordid as engage in a quid pro quo. There’s no “scoops for blurbs” arrangement. Instead it’s a form of gift economy. Hart and Cohen had doubtless helped Rather and Woodward out with stories in the past, so Rather and Woodward are indebted to them. Then Rather and Woodward help out, so now Hart and Cohen are indebted to them. It’s all just people helping people and being grateful for it. It’s how things work and, as Larry Lessig has recently argued, this kind of thing rather than crass exchanges of campaign cash for favors is how the bulk of political corruption takes place.