The title says without Sex and Fun but with this runaway train, I say Stay tune!
So it’s a few days before the election last November — just a few more days, surely, before Donald J. Trump would return to his golden tower to start a niche TV venture and fill a sagging Twitter feed with exclamation-pointed despair — and a book agent goes to his client with an idea: How about something on the Trump White House That Wasn’t?
The writer — Steve Israel, then a Democratic congressman from New York, now at work on his third political satire — whips up a proposal, “Trumplandia.” Plot lines include a furtive meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, overnight social media rockets fired from Mar-a-Lago and a top administration post for Ben Carson, now the secretary of housing and urban development, who once suggested through a surrogate that he was not qualified to run a federal agency.
“Highly implausible,” the agent said of the pitch then.
“My pen name could have been Nostradamus,” Mr. Israel says now.
Many classes of Washingtonian have struggled with these first six months in President Trump’s thrall: senators, fact-checkers, people who enjoy sleep. But in a city so enchanted by its own history, so practiced in projecting a seen-it-all nonchalance, it has been a particularly trying time for a certain kind of storytelling swamp creature.
Novelists linger over blank pages. Historians grope for precedent and shrug. Even past participants in scandal strain to follow the narrative arc.
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“It’s early. We’re getting introduced to the characters,” said John Dean, the White House counsel and Watergate supporting player during the Nixon administration, who has become a frequent author in the decades since. “We’re not quite sure how this story is going to unfold, as comedy or tragedy.”
He does have a guess. He pleaded guilty to a felony once.
At present, though, the elements for either genre are slotting into place — an Allen Drury novel crossed with Shakespeare, with final touches entrusted to producers for the E! network.
Foreign intrigue. Strained alliances at the Capitol. A blundering son. Face-lift tweets.
There are nits to pick, and self-appointed editors to pick them. Where is this going? Which act are we on?
Representative Steve Israel of New York at the White House in 2015. Credit Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Associated Press
“It’s like a soap opera without the sex and fun,” grumbled Matt Latimer, an author and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. (He is reminded that the administration is young.)
Some have chafed at the pacing and repetitive story lines, like Republicans’ halting efforts to pass health care legislation.
Others wonder whether some elements are a bit on the nose, like the subject line on Donald Trump Jr.’s email chain about meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer last year: “Russia - Clinton - private and confidential.”
Chekhov’s gun is not supposed to be fired skyward like a flare.
“The Great White Shark has been jumped, indeed, pole-vaulted,” said Christopher Buckley, the author of politically charged send-ups like “Thank You for Smoking.” “American politics has given the satirist pretty much nowhere to go. But away.”
And still, the writers try, reaching for analogies that can manage to mangle past and present in equal measure.
It’s Iran-contra with a spray tan, Lewinsky with a grande coffee.
It’s “The Godfather,” but this time there’s a silent son-in-law in charge of Middle East peace for some reason.
Sometimes inspiration springs from odd corners of the mind. William S. Cohen — the former Clinton administration secretary of defense, Republican senator from Maine and occasional novelist — was stirred recently by the memory of a poster on the back of a Senate Armed Services Committee bathroom during his tenure. It depicted Soviet soldiers on the march, he said, with a tagline that read, “Come visit us before we come visit you.”
“Well,” he said by phone, “the Russians have come to visit us.”
Late-night comedians have leaned most often on the Nixon age for comparison, with mixed success. In March, John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” described the Trump-Russia affair as “Stupid Watergate” — a prospective scandal “with all the intrigue of Watergate, except everyone involved is really bad at everything.”
He has found that the framing device is aging distressingly well.
“Unfortunately, it was supposed to be a self-contained joke,” he told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” last week, “but current events are making it more and more relevant. Which is not normally how jokes work.”
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The label seemed to offend Mr. Dean, of Nixonian infamy, by implication.
“Most people don’t appreciate how stupid Watergate was,” he said. “It was ham-fisted all over the place.”
No question. But rarely has the ham-fistedness felt so all-consuming, infusing even the simplest of tasks from a president who, seeing little need for subtext, tends to read the bracketed stage directions aloud.
For a moment this week, it seemed that the Senate health bill would be imperiled by a blood clot in Arizona, found in a war hero senator, John McCain, whom Mr. Trump once disparaged for being captured in combat.
The president appeared eager to play narrator this time.
“He’s a crusty voice in Washington,” he said of Mr. McCain, in something approaching a compliment. Then came the bottom line: “Plus, we need his vote.”
The Republicans did not, as it happened. By Tuesday, they needed his and several others they did not have. No one said Mr. Trump was a reliable narrator.
But there it was again, a sharp detour in this most peculiar chapter, sending the capital lurching down a cul-de-sac so unfamiliar that Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas — Senator Jerry Moran! Of Kansas! — played a decisive role in felling Republicans’ signature legislative promise of the last seven years.
Maybe the tale will continue thus, hurtling forth in serialized chunks before a finale that may or may not arrive before January 2025.
Mr. Israel, the congressman-turned-novelist, saw another ending once upon a time — liberal fantasy stacked upon liberal fantasy.
New York Times
By MATT FLEGENHEIMER