Politics & Policy

Righting Fiction

Is conservatism the stuff of fiction writing?

In the dawn of the 21st century, conservatives have risen conspicuously through the ranks of American media. After being catapulted to the top of the ratings charts during the frantic presidential election of 2000, Roger Ailes’s Fox News now thoroughly dominates the cable-news market. Conservative talk radio has continued to grow in popularity and availability, shattering old records and making liberal counter-efforts look laughable by comparison. On the Internet and in the blogosphere, right-thinking minds have joined the political fray with an astonishing intensity. Their piercing criticisms have finally begun chipping away at the hulking bastions of the old liberal media, which have long languished under a stultifying shroud of aloof opaqueness.

But in addition to these arenas in which conservatives have obviously been making gains, there is another major outlet of ideas into which the Right has been quietly advancing: the world of popular fiction. In the past five years, several figures have emerged from the conservative establishment to publish novels–political thrillers–centered on terrorism and national security in today’s hostile world. These fledgling novelists include former Reagan Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, retired Marine Colonel Oliver North, and Joel C. Rosenberg, former speechwriter for Steve Forbes’s presidential campaign. Together they have sold over a million copies, scaled bestseller lists, and deluged their publishers with profits.

So just how and why did these ex-Beltway dwellers ever find their way into the novel business?

Before he started working on The Last Jihad just a few years ago, Rosenberg had no real experience writing fiction. As the now-bestselling author recently told National Review Online, “I had just always wanted to write a novel.”

So one day, during the period of relative calm before the terrorist attacks of September 11, he sat down and began to type up a fictional scenario based on a topic that had been weighing on his mind lately: What might the future look like if an aging Saddam Hussein stayed in power in Iraq and, rather than fading meekly into the oblivion of history, made one final attempt at seizing glory by waging a campaign of destruction against Israel and America, the Great Satans of the West? Rosenberg couldn’t have known how timely his topic would be.

Just as he was putting the finishing touches on the first draft, the sun came up against the blue morning sky of September 11, 2001. Along with the rest of the nation, Rosenberg watched in stunned horror that day as thousands of innocent American civilians were callously murdered in their own cities.

Suddenly, the prospect of a massive American military campaign in the Middle East didn’t seem so outlandish. Rosenberg added some slight updates to his plot line to take into account the events of 9/11, and his book went to press. It hit bookstores by November 2002, and Rosenberg set out on a promotional tour. He made appearances on the big-time talk shows of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Hannity & Colmes.

And the promotion worked: Rosenberg’s first novel hit No. 1 on Amazon.com’s list of top sellers, and went on to enjoy no less than 11 weeks as a New York Times bestseller. His next novel, The Last Days, also made the Times bestseller list. His latest, The Ezekiel Option, was just published in late June and is selling characteristically well.

Rosenberg believes that his novels’ continuing success flows largely from the same cultural currents that have fueled the broader ascendancy of American neo-conservatism. In fact, he admits that his novels are rather purposely crafted to complement our nation’s conservative cultural renewal–imparting, for example, the importance of moral clarity and courage in today’s turbulent world. “Some people in Washington don’t even believe in evil,” Rosenberg says, “and that’s a dangerous attitude.” It’s an attitude that he hopes he can help to combat through his popular novels.

In the same spirit, Caspar Weinberger also told NRO that his fiction-writing exploits have been partly motivated by a desire to convey a message to his audience. “With a novel,” he explained, “you can get across certain issues in a way that you couldn’t with non-fiction.” Indeed his books have been selling well (although it’s still too early to get hard sales numbers), suggesting that he has been successfully reaching lots of readers and holding their attention.

In Chain of Command, Weinberger and his co-author Peter Schweizer spin their message into the twisting tale of an attempted coup d’état executed by right-wing hardliners at the highest levels of the American government. The conspirators are motivated by the urge to wage what they see as an appropriately aggressive war on terrorism at home and abroad–a goal they believe they can achieve only by deploying military “security forces” into American cities and refashioning the government into a quasi-dictatorship.

Such a plot raises questions that, in today’s political climate, might seem surprising coming from a conservative author. But historically, conservatives have always been concerned with the power of the federal government and its potential for abuse. In an interview, Weinberger suggested that Americans would do well not to lose sight of this concern.

Weinberger’s book attempts to illustrate that, as we confront the threat of evil from abroad, we must always take care to maintain the delicate system of limited government that safeguards our liberties at home. When it comes to matters of national security, he says, “We need to find the right balance.” To his credit, Weinberger does not pretend that this difficult balance is easily struck. The last few pages of his novel, in fact, leave the issue dangling in a surprisingly tantalizing fashion.

Granted, the novels of Weinberger and Rosenberg may not qualify as great works of literature. They suffer from spots of stilted dialogue, awkward prose, and a general lack of subtlety. And on occasion, their plot developments strain credulity past its breaking point. The ending of Rosenberg’s latest novel, for instance, brings the term deus ex machina to a whole new level of literalism.

But then these authors make no pretense of being master stylists. They are writing popular thrillers for a general audience. And within this pot-boiling genre, they have engaged some of the biggest issues of our day: the nature of evil, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the danger that our government will abuse the power we entrust to it. The fictional tales they tell are a reflection of today’s reality–and of how that reality is perceived by many conservatives. This fact alone should make them a subject of keen interest for a wide swath of the American public.

Anthony Dick is an associate editor at National Review.

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