What’s Up, Doc?

E.L. Doctorow inadvertently exalts the White House policy shop.

E.L. Doctorow’s Sweet Land Stories is a marvelous book, and it contains one short story, “Walter John Harmon,” that Chatterbox is tempted to call a masterpiece. By all means drop a copy into your beach bag. Washington policy jocks, however, should be warned that the book sounds one note that is jarringly at odds with contemporary political reality. This discordant note can be found in Doctorow’s brilliantly titled story, “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden.” Chatterbox will devote the rest of this column, princess-and-pea fashion, to a discussion of this false note within Doctorow’s otherwise mellifluous sonata.

“Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” reads, simultaneously, as both detective fiction and as a sendup of detective fiction, so it won’t do to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that it concerns an FBI agent’s investigation into the mysterious appearance of a dead child in the White House Rose Garden. The G-man’s probing runs parallel to, and, at the end, is largely defeated by, a White House conspiracy to hush it up. Chatterbox would never claim it impossible for a real-life White House to conduct a conspiracy. The trouble is where Doctorow placesthe locus of this White House conspiracy. The diabolical functionary turns out to be one Peter Herrick, “a White House deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Domestic Policy.”

The first and most obvious objection to be raised here is that nobody on the White House staff ever has or ever will be called a “secretary” or “deputy secretary” or “deputy assistant secretary” of anything. The title “secretary” and its variants are reserved for people who work in Cabinet agencies, such as the Treasury or the State Department. These are all located outside the White House. The diabolical Herrick could be a “deputy assistant to the president” for domestic policy, but never the “deputy assistant secretary” for domestic policy.

There really is an Office of Domestic Policy; these days it’s more typically referred to by its official name, the Domestic Policy Council. As its name suggests, its purpose is to formulate policy and help shepherd that policy through Congress, if it requires legislation, and through a particular agency, if it requires regulation. The sort of people who work there, in Republican as well as Democratic administrations, are policy dweebs, not political sharpies, and the idea that any such person could boss an FBI agent around is palpably absurd. Bruce Reed, who was director of the Domestic Policy Council during the Clinton administration, informed Chatterbox via e-mail that “the only contact a domestic policy wonk might have with the FBI would be the initial background check that comes with working at the White House.” (“I once let my children’s grade-school classmates play tag in the Rose Garden,” Reed added. “All survived.”)

It’s possible that Doctorow had in mind the decidedly un-dweeblike John Ehrlichman, who oversaw a break-in to the offices of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. In the Nixon White House, Ehrlichman carried the title “assistant to the president for domestic affairs” and served as executive director of the Domestic Council, a precursor to the Domestic Policy Council. Ehrlichman’s deputy, Egil Krogh, was co-director of the infamous White House “plumbers” unit, which carried out the Ellsberg break-in. The fictional Herrick would occupy roughly the same position in the White House flow chart as Krogh. But that was a very long time ago. Moreover, one of the things that made Watergate so uniquely appalling was that the crimes committed by the Nixon White House were much more lurid than anything a reader might ever believe in a work of fiction.

The Bush administration has had no domestic policy to speak of since the “No Child Left Behind” bill was signed into law early in 2002, unless you count its three tax cuts. (The tax cuts were overseen not by the Domestic Policy Council but by the National Economic Council.) Consequently, the Domestic Policy Council has become a bit of a joke. At the moment, it has no director at all, and there are no apparent plans to appoint one. The assistant to the president for domestic policy is someone named Margaret Spellings, who dislikes speaking to the press and probably wouldn’t have much news to impart if she did it more often. Her assistant—today’s real-life counterpart to the fictional Herrick—is the even-more obscure Kristen Silverberg. Silverberg and Spellings don’t even craft domestic policy, let alone mastermind White House conspiracies.

This stark irony made Chatterbox wonder whether Doctorow, who politically is quite engaged, intended some sort of satirical comment by placing his fictional conspirator inside this pathetic White House backwater. But the question only served to irritate Doctorow when Chatterbox phoned him to ask. Doctorow reminded Chatterbox that “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden” was a work of the imagination. “I’m not up on the bureaucratic classifications,” he said. Pressed further, Doctorow said, “I don’t think the kind of question you’re asking has anything to do with anything I’ve written. …You’re not a literary sort of person, are you?” But verisimilitude is surely a literary concept, not a political one, and by that yardstick a “deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Domestic Policy” who occupies the white-hot center of a White House conspiracy does not measure up to contemporary standards.