” Everyone talked about the cover story, a masterpiece of the journalist’s art, the inside-out account of a legal warrior who sought nothing more than single justice from Washington’s pig-stubborn bureaucracy and image-addicted political class. When the lambs were thrown to the wolves, Alec Behl who defended the lambs, with no sanctimonious hocus-pocus, only a belief that leaders were accountable before their followers; and nothing was it as seemed in the federal city. ” [7:270]
Equal parts a fairy tale and a satire, Echo House is an epic chronicle of three generations of Washington power brokers whose birthright is politics. The book, my first by Ward Just, flashes a gimlet eye for the cunning way the capital operates, for its culture and the secret codes of conduct its citizens obscure.
In Washington they lived by words, each métier with its own tongue, rules of syntax and grammar. They were all romance languages and collaborated at the margins, becoming a patois of their own—the language of the law, the legislature . . . [7:251]
Taking reader through eight decades of U.S. history, the novel begins with Senator Aldolph Behl, who is denied the Democratic vice-presidential nomination he was promised early in the 20th century. Wounded pride and ego had done him in, as he became embittered at the thought that family’s greatness is tainted. Humiliation gives way to rage. But the book focuses largely on the careers of Adolph’s son, Axel, and Axel’s son, Alec. Neither of whom are elected tribunes, but behind-the-scenes fixers-sans-portfolio, operating with precision and discretion. Returning scarred and crippled from wartime OSS exploits that are sealed with strict confidentiality, Axel, determined to devote himself to the national good, continues to work clandestinely for the CIA.
. . . intelligent work, its subtleties and crude hazards, its many demands and slender rewards in a world when secrecy defined success and publicity defined failure . . . [7:240]
In Washington a man was wise to seek the shade, to dwell in the dark seven-eighths that supported the sunny eighth. The hard, dangerous work went on in the shadows. That was where it belonged, away from public view, because so much could be misunderstood. [3:126]
Motivated by patriotism and moral fervor, and urged also by a superiority are these men, arrogance also corrupt them. The gentlemanly codes of duty and loyalty are subverted to expedient ends. As lawyer, Alec Behl deals with mostly procedures and regulations, pursuing the sense of mission that runs in the family. During John F. Kennedy’s term, he also wields power behind the scenes, playing politics as a pragmatic game with an indifference to inconvenient laws and a cynical skill for manipulation on a national scale, but always with the best intentions. His marriage repeats the mistake and mishap to his father, as their hidden lives cost familial happiness.
Longfellow’s bank, the one Axel bought and the government used when it was necessary that there be absolute secrecy, private transactions that were in the national interest and for the national security. When you had to get money to someone very quickly and without red tape and fifty pieces of paper. [6:207]
Echo House offers ironic and resonating insights into the culture of power and into the minds of men who attain and manipulate it. I especially love the part when Axel suffers a fatal stroke at his own party with the President being the guest of honor. The agents shout to one another and wave their ugly weapons, telling everyone to stand clear or to lie down, because the President’s life is in danger. When everything revolves around the presumption of a conspiracy, and that danger is a constant threat, one has to be up on guard in the most discreet manner. Truth becomes just a perception of truth. Daylight gives the “secret” a different shape and significance, and it’s difficult to see the thing as it was originally. That is why politics is cunning. This is a good political novel, but will be par excellence if it is not bogged down by the occasional abstract reveries. That said, I still enjoy the book and will continue to read Ward Just because his writing convinces me to read novels on politics.
328 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]