On the Peculiar Art of Presidential Fiction

April 30, 2007 | 10 books mentioned 4 3 min read

As Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit… in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.

coverFrank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I’m joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book’s major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.

coverNixon’s belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I’ve been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, “historical fantasia.” (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth’s Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.

coverStraddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly’s O. Henry Award-winning story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” was said to explore the life of…an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.

And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with “Lyndon,” (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.

coverBut the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon’s strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America’s writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld’s arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you’ll forgive the plug, published a monologue called “The Love Song of Ari Fleischer” in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt – preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who’s reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. We get “Stuff Happens” and “Guantanamo” – bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration’s moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I’m not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I’m not holding my breath.

See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy’s favorite fiction, Clinton’s favorite books.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I arrived at this site from a link by Andrew Sullivan (just wanted to give credit). I must say that I found this post fascinating. I have two thoughts/comments.

    First, I am from Chicago, and currently being staged here is a play called the Strangerer, which is an adaptation of The Stranger by Albert Camus, which depicts one of the early debates by George Bush and John Kerry in 2004. I have not had the opportunity to see the play, but it strikes me that this may be getting closer to what you were thinking.

    Second, to the extent the President Bush has an effect on literature, such effect will probably be limited to satire. As you point out, his fundamentalism and his certainty in his correctness does not provide any grounds for a complex character study.

  2. I think you've put your finger on something here. I always felt that Nixon (as well as a few in his administration – e.g., Kissinger) at least possessed enough wits to know that what they were doing was wrong and/or evil and/or duplicitous, etc. They still, of course, did the horrible things which (I somehow believe) set off a evanescent flicker of shame, and for which they should always be held in contempt, but I'll give them a modicum of credit – if my speculation as to their true natures holds – for appreciating, deep inside, that their behavior was, when you got right down to it, really quite deplorable.

    In contrast, I do not perceive that the Bushies have the slightest idea of how embarrassed and ashamed they should be. (Perhaps Colin Powell, with his regrets over his performance before the U.N., is the exception that proves the rule.) It's quite remarkable, really – and yet not especially interesting, I imagine, to an artistic sensibility. Maybe something from Ionesco might do. I don't know.

  3. I've seen Mickle Maher's THE STRANGERER several times, and it is a deep literary piece about said administration. In a way, the absurdism that makes the play literarily juicy comes from juxtaposing an invented internal anguish of W with the sickly shallowness of, not just W and his cohort, but of the system by which collective political decisions are made in the USA.

    I think you should reconsider your easy dismissal of CHECKPOINT. There's an absurdism there as well, which gets its power from the very good/evil dichotomy evoked by the W regime in both its defenders and its critics. And I find that the absurdist anger of the character who wants to assassinate W is an invitation to delve beneath the surface of the dialog. But I guess if you're predisposed to believe literature is impossible in a given situation, you're unlikely to find it.

  4. Breach of Faith by Theodore White is an examination of Richard Nixon which leaves no doubt as to his complexity.
    Once a rabid Nixon-hater, after reading this book, I felt a sympathy and respect for Tricky Dick that I carry with me to this day. Not so of Dubya.I never got into the Greek scene in college exactly because of stupid jerks like him.

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