Night of Camp David reads as a quaint mid-20th century political thriller, one whose impact barely registers in our post-Trumpian society.
The idea of a mentally unstable individual holding the highest office in the land is nothing special in 2019, three years after a large percentage of the country decided to place just such an individual in the position of President of the United States. There’s very little even the most fantastical of fictional thinkers could concoct that would rival the reality of our day-to-day in the age of Trump. His neuroses, petty grievances, vanity, narcissism, paranoia, xenophobia, racism, classism and operating principle of hating any and all non-white, non-rich individuals are fully on display on a daily basis. Whether presented in his rambling, non-sensical “speeches” conducted in front of his brainwashed masses or in his Twitter-based tirades that have given us more memes in the last several years than any of the previous presidents combined, he has shown time and again that he is not of sound mind.
All of this has combined to make it hard to find Fletcher Knebel’s political thriller Night of Camp David, with its “What would happen if the President of the U.S.A. went stark-raving mad?” tagline, as disturbing as it no doubt was when originally published in 1965. Of course, back then, presidents were generally revered public figures who operated with an unerring sense of decorum and, almost to a fault, were virtually infallible within the public eye (just look at how quickly Kennedy was lionized in the wake of his assassination). This was, of course, pre-Watergate, pre-Iran-Contra, pre-Whitewater, pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War and pre-whateverthefuckisgoingonrightnow.
Knebel, a former D.C.-based journalist-turned-novelist whose other works include the Kennedy-heavy Cold War saga Seven Days in May, brings an inside-baseball approach to his fictional account of President Mark Hollenbach and the junior senator from Iowa-turned vice-presidential contender Jim MacVeagh. Given the oversaturation of news coverage in the wake of the 24-hours news cycle, none of this is particularly revelatory or shocking in terms of the backhandedness at work within Washington circles: Hollenbach’s original vice president found himself in hot water for getting involved in a sports-facility-based scandal! The straightlaced family man MacVeagh has a lady on the side! Hollenbach doesn’t have a sense of humor when it comes to others questioning him in a public manner!
Beginning with a late-night summons to Camp David, MacVeagh finds himself being subjected to Hollenbach’s increasingly delusional tirades, all delivered in the darkened recesses of the presidential retreat. MacVeagh slowly becomes horrified to find that Hollenbach seems to be under the impression that everyone and their brother is out to get him, to bring him down and make him the fool. This, coupled with his delusions of grandeur involving plans for a “better’ world, is designed to create a sense of creeping dread not only within MacVeagh, but the reader as well. Only now, very little of the book’s plot offers enough to warrant even a second glance.
Indeed, reading of Hollenbach’s grand plan to unite the US with Canada and Scandinavia to create sort of new world order within which he would serve as overlord, something that causes MacVeagh’s blood to run cold and sets the whole plot in motion, barely raises an eyebrow when compared with the reality of Trump’s increasingly insane proclamations. And MacVeagh’s one-man struggle to prove to the world that the president is no longer in possession of all his marbles is downright quaint as we continue to soldier on day after day being subjected to Trump’s “alternative facts,” flag-hugging, fear-mongering, wall-obsessing brand of craziness.
In all, Night of Camp David reads as a quaint mid-20th century political thriller, one whose impact barely registers in our post-Trumpian society. Today, we are truly living in a world that is, compared to Night of Camp David, far stranger than fiction.