What Would Happen if the President Went Stark Raving Mad?

It’s Not Like That Could Ever Actually Happen, Though

Fletcher Knebel had been in the newspaper game for more than thirty years by the time he wrote Night Of Camp David in 1965. From the Eisenhower to the Civil Rights Act, Knebel published a sort of pre-Twitter short daily syndicated column lampooning the day’s news. If it had not been for the recent reprint of that book, he’d be most remembered for the witticism “Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.”

In this book, Knebel presents a classic Constitutional conundrum. The President of the United States asks Jim MacVeagh, a first-term senator from Iowa, to be his second-term running mate. The only problem is that in private the President seems to be coming apart at the seams. Everyone thinks the President is kidding when he says he wants to tap every phone in America. But he’s dead serious. If Jim keeps his mouth shut he’ll be Vice President in 4 months. But if the President’s condition gets any worse then Jim has a duty to the American people to speak up. Even if it ends his career.

His first thought is of his girlfriend, Rita, but not his wife. In this recently-reprinted Mad Men-era political thriller, Rita could be a stand-in for Joan Harris, the secretary who knows everybody’s secrets and has a few of her own. With her “broad bottom and cushion breasts that always made men look a second time,” Rita must have sold a lot of copies of this book when it first came out in 1965. Knebel describes her breasts nine times in two hundred or so pages.

New Life For A Strange New Political Era

People had all but forgotten this book until Bob Woodward namechecked it in the New York Times in the pre-pub press for his book Fear: Trump in the White House. “This summer I reread ‘Night of Camp David,’ the 1965 novel by Fletcher Knebel (co-author of ‘Seven Days in May’). A United States president is thought to be mentally unbalanced; the book ends with some compelling twists.”

Rachel Maddow talked about it on her show earlier that same week and musty old thrift store copies started selling on Amazon for $100 each. Prior to that only a handful of Watergate-era journos mentioned it on Twitter over a year before the Maddow segment aired.

Penguin pushed out the reprint in November, in time for the Robert Mueller fan on your holiday shopping list. But it’s actually a more enjoyable read now that the Mueller report has dropped with a redacted thud.

As an author, I can’t help being jealous of how publishing must have worked back in 1965. Knebel wrote, edited, and debuted this book in a little under a year. It took that long for me to get back the copyedits on my first book. Fiction then was a living art, the way Law and Order seems to fictionalize crimes that happened barely six months ago.

We just don’t have a working journalist who can do that today. This book would be like if Bill O’Reilly were still on TV and his books didn’t suck. Or if Aaron Sorkin still cranked out political dramas and weren’t incredibly bad at Twitter.

It’s a testament to the Constitution that this dated story–with the men’s-only universe of smoky backrooms and drunk driving–reads like it could have been written today with a borrowed 1960s backdrop. If you had stumbled across this volume at a used bookstore in the Obama years it still would have read like an enjoyable political tale of yesteryear. The mechanisms at work, the U.S. government, the procedures in place, the tension between the parties and the changing alliances in Washington: we didn’t invent that when we got cable TV.

The President IS Nuts, Maybe

As the story continues, the President starts acting very strange. At no point does he seem any more stressed out than anyone else’s boss. In private he does start telling Jim that he wants to form a union with Canada and Scandinavia, by invasion if necessary.

MacVeagh wants to be Vice President, but the President is going mad. The only one he can tell is the current Vice President, but he’s a political landmine. If he reaches out across party lines they will crush the entire administration and MacVeagh’s career is over. If he goes to the President direct he’ll be a dead  man in Washington from the first term of his career. And if they do nothing at all they still have a lunatic with the launch codes.

All of this might be easy to ignore, except this is the height of the Cold War. The Soviets might park a missile off the coast of Miami at any time and the guy who holds the launch codes is convinced that there is a secret cabal out to get him.

In addition to which: the 25th Amendment is still up for debate during the course of the book. Senator Birch Bayh–who died only two weeks ago–wouldn’t get it ratified by the states until 1967. Presidential succession is just an agreement made on Inauguration Day between the Commander in Chief and the Veep.

In the pre-Google era this means Jim has to make some phone calls. But only to sources he can trust. He tries the Legislative Reference desk at The Library of Congress. They have a folder on it. But unbeknownst to MacVeagh, Sidney Karper, the Secretary of Defense, has checked it out as he struggles with the same succession question. They seek similar answers  to the ones that get debated on TV and wrung out on Twitter today.

Just like MacVeagh and Karper, I have a theory that all media is social media; it gets better when you can talk about it with someone else. And at a certain point that ends up ruining the story. It’s better to read a book you can talk about than to just give your brain a constant-drip of fiction. Is this a good book? Yes. Would it be fun to have read this when it was on the bestsellers list for 19 weeks in 1965 and everyone you bumped into had started the first couple chapters? Oh yes. Remember when Serial came out and everyone you knew was somewhere in the middle of the story? It was fun. Books should be fun, or else they’re just homework.

A Grown Woman In Washington

Which brings us back to Rita. In another page-turner of the era she might be the damsel in distress or some floozy looking to get her husband whacked. But the Rita of Knebel’s pages is a fully-drawn human being and maybe the only one left in Washington. She and Jim have grownup sex the way human beings do. Not full of duplicity and misuse but out of honest want and need.

Their mutual respect makes them the two characters who hold the story together, and the two keys to the President’s alleged madness. They’ve separately seen the President act erratically and both of them have nothing but motive for brushing it off. But they don’t.

Witness this actionless description of their relationship in Knebel’s spare prose:

“With another woman in Washington, relaying a conversation with the President would be the act of an innocent. A man might as well make an announcement at a press conference, for the word would be all over town in twenty-four hours anyway. But Rita was a political pro. She knew everything Joe Donovan knew and sometimes more. She was full of political gossip, much of which she shared with Jim, and her discussion of past events helped him to store away the small miscellany of people, dates and places that enable a politician, like a squirrel in autumn, to prepare for an uncertain future. But Rita held her tongue, never repeating what Jim told her in the intimacy of her O Street apartment. In return MacVeagh honored her confidence. The compact was unspoken. Even to mention the necessity for secrecy would have been a rebuke to their code. In a word, they were politicians.”

Knebel wrote 14 books in his day and this is the only one still in print. You can see why. Another story from this time might be full of the politics of the day. But this is a story of humans in a jam that just happens to be set on the Potomac.

Will this harmless book of escapism help you deal with your feelings about the 21st-Century White House? Probably not. But will you have a feeling for its inner workings today? Absolutely. Knebel’s storytelling is about as immersive as Veep or The West Wing. Nobody’s here for the politics. You can tell it’s a good story because you could switch the parties and it wouldn’t change a thing. We to watch Washington like a nature documentary. Who’s going to get eaten at the first sign of weakness? And how, exactly, does this species find a mate?

Like all the best books about madness, the story starts to drive you mad by the end. The President thinks that there are men out to get him, when he thinks MacVeagh has turned on him he summons the Secret Service and the FBI. When MacVeagh tells his wife that there are men following him everywhere, she worries her husband has lost it. In the absence of proof, how do you show that a person has lost their mind without acting a little cuckoo yourself?

By the end of this book, you’ll wish that there were a Presidential head exam to go along with the annual physical. And this book is a page turner until the very end.

Books get written for all sorts of reasons, but they get printed because of a perceived demand. Nobody would have gone to reprint this book if Hillary Clinton had won. But the Trump Presidency is a good enough reason to give it another day in the sun.

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Brendan Jay Sullivan

Brendan Sullivan is a writer, producer, and author of the memoir Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side, and the Prime of Our Lives.

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