How power is really exercised in Washington, DC

It’s a commonplace that what transpires “inside the Beltway” that rings Washington, DC, is at best a poor reflection of American views and values. Over the years, scholars, pollsters, and pundits have attempted to understand this contrast, but the mechanistic tools of science and the biases of political analysts fail to grasp the nuances of the way things get done in the nation’s capital. Reading fiction is a better route to understanding the peculiar character of Washington’s insular community. For example, the work of Thomas Mallon (Finale, Watergate) offers more insight into the scandal-plagued years of the Nixon and Reagan Administrations than anything else I’ve read. But the reigning master of American political fiction is Ward Just. Echo House, the eleventh of his eighteen novels, is a brilliant portrayal of three generations of Washington deal-makers.

The real world inside the Beltway

Every second year, the population of Capitol Hill changes a little, and every fourth often witnesses a dramatic shift in the upper reaches of the Administration. But the hundreds of individuals who account for these changes are a tiny fraction of the city’s population. Life goes on, essentially unchanged, for the hundreds of thousands of other citizens — not just the janitors, taxi drivers, housemaids, and others who constitute the city’s working class but also the bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists, lobbyists, spies, consultants, and assorted deal-makers who make government work. In Echo House, Ward Just drills down into the lives of three generations in a family of Washington power-brokers. The picture he paints is troubling even though it’s illuminating.

Where real power lies

Presidents habitually complain they have far less power than the public might think. In fact, scholars and political observers alike have explored the difficulty of bringing about significant change in American policy from the top — sometimes even just making what might seem to be straightforward decisions. Old-school political scientists argue that this is a result of the competition among the many special interests that converge on government. While this is certainly a factor, the power of the permanent bureaucracy and of the private citizens who wield influence from one Administration to the next may be even greater. These are the people who remain in place, regardless of which party or which President is “in power.” Echo House demonstrates the subtle ways the most powerful of these people operate behind the scenes and dictate the course of events.

A saga of three generations

Echo House traces the history of the rich and powerful Behl family from the time just after World War I until close to the end of the twentieth century, when the novel was first published. Senator Adolph Behl is his party’s presumptive nominee for Vice President. Then the presidential candidate reneges on a promise and names someone else. A young boy at the time, the Senator’s son, Axel, takes it all in, resolving to aim for the White House himself. Axel, much like John F. Kennedy’s big brother, Joe, seems destined to achieve his ambition. But, like Joseph Kennedy, his plans are derailed during World War II. Serving as an OSS officer in Occupied France, the Jeep Axel is driving hits a land mine, horribly wounding him and leaving him in great pain for the rest of his life.

Leaving aside the dream of winning the White House, Axel builds a power base through the intelligence community, becoming a confidential adviser of every president and becoming widely acknowledged through the capital as one of the most influential people in town. Axel’s son, Alec, a close observer of his father, takes up the mantle himself in due time. Eventually, he too arrives at the pinnacle of influence, portrayed on the cover of TIME Magazine as “The man to see in Washington.” Along the way we witness the turbulent Roosevelt years, the hard-fought battles under Harry Truman, the years of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Joseph McCarthy, and all the presidents who follow. The tale is rich with detail and well-informed with insight about the seminal events of all those years. Politics in the nation’s capital looks much different from the perspective the author conveys.

About the author

Ward Just’s eighteen novels include some of the most remarkable political tales of the twentieth century. Echo House is one of those. Just published his first novel in 1970 following a career in journalism. His most recent book appeared in 2014.