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What if the US President went mad? A far-fetched political thriller from the Sixties rings some bells today

Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty

Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty

April 18, 2019   5 mins

For our predictive texts series, we have asked our contributors to select a book which sheds eerily prescient light on our lives today. We weren’t after HG Wells or George Orwell, we wanted something less predictable. Here is the foresight so far.

What if the President of the United States of America – a teetotal man of German immigrant stock – went completely off his rocker? Fantasised, say, about a deep-state conspiracy to do him down, sought to shut down a hostile press, used the FBI to do his political bidding and tried to end-run Congress to install a stooge as head of the CIA?

A President who wants to turn his back on his European allies, cosies up to Russia and scorns the “paper ramparts of NATO”? A President who, advisers worried, wasn’t safe to have his finger on the nuclear button, and who was up for a one-to-one pow-wow with the head of a hostile nuclear power? Far-fetched, right?

That, nevertheless, is the premise of Fletcher Knebel’s political thriller, Night of Camp David, first published in the innocent days of 1965 – when it caught the national mood enough to spend 18 weeks in the bestseller lists. The New York Times’s reviewer called it “a little too plausible for comfort”, and said it “raises the story to a level of belief not ordinarily achieved by novels of this genre”. Anyway, for some reason Vintage chose to reissue it in November last year.

The story centres on Jim MacVeagh, a youngish first-term Senator from Iowa, who is summoned by the President for a nightcap after the annual Gridiron dinner in Washington DC. It turns out this nightcap, as he discovers when he presents himself at the White House, involves his being driven two hours in the middle of the night to Camp David for a private pow-wow.

This pow-wow is held in near complete darkness, and President Hollenbach is mad as hell. His Vice President has been mired in a relatively low-key corruption scandal (favours for donors) and the President has no intention of keeping him as a running-mate for his forthcoming campaign for re-election. What’s weird, though, is that he regards the VP’s disgrace not as a political misfortune but as a deliberate attempt to damage the President’s reputation (it’s all about him): “He’s out to grind me down-… all right, I’ll say it… to destroy me.”

And, quite out of the blue, the President indicates that he’s considering tipping the nod to MacVeagh himself as a candidate for Vice President in the forthcoming election. At a further meeting, he reveals that he has conceived of a secret plan for a global superpower drawing the US, Canada and the Scandinavian states into a single giant country to be ruled (if he must) by him. All this gives our Jim much to think about on the long journey home.

“Warm waves of air blew over him from the car’s rear heater, but he found himself shivering, and he knew it was the clutch of fear. Jim MacVeagh had reached the conclusion that the President of the United States was insane.”

Mind you, the thing that really tips the scales – that turns suspicion into certainty, at least for the reader – is that he gives 15 minutes of private conference to a member of the public campaigning to make the chrysanthemum the national flower.

So, chrysanths aside, what’s this mad President like? He’s secure enough in his approval ratings with his base that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. As one character remarks, “Hell, I think we can run an Ay-rab with a goiter for second place, so long as we got Hollenbach on the head of the ticket.” He has a Messianic vision for making America great again: “Together, Jim, we can save this country and change the course of history for centuries to come.” And he’s jolly proud of signing stuff: “He held it out, and in the flickers of firelight Jim saw that it was a silver fountain pen. ‘I used that to sign the last nuclear treaty,’ said Hollenbach.”

He angrily slaps down a call for environmental protection legislation, and his attitudes to civil liberties are distinctly questionable: “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers and the dope peddlers we’re after.”

Oh, and he doesn’t like the press:

“‘Something has to be done about those irresponsible newspapermen,’ said Hollenbach. He bit out the words. ‘Freedom of the press is one thing, but unbridled license to degrade and ridicule officials who devote their lives to this country is something else again. I know we can’t legislate responsibly, but one thing I can do. I can cut off Craig Spence’s sources at the White House.'”

 Jim Acosta and Kaitlan Collins, both of whom had press bans from the White House, might wince at that one.

There are, of course, differences. President Hollenbach, for a start, is not only a Democrat but a decorated war hero and a figure of great honour and popularity. He is a man of indefatigable energy, who sleeps less than six hours a night, never finds time to go golfing, has no “executive time” in his schedule and is consumed by politics. He firmly disapproves of extra-marital rumpo, even as a young man refusing to sleep with the local seductress on the grounds that he wasn’t yet married, and even now “gets as much loving as a Tibetan monk”.

Plus, he’s not quite an isolationist, and his admiration for the, er, Nordic states goes hand in hand with a very un-Trumpian enthusiasm for union with Canada. And among the signs of his madness are his enthusiasm for a nationwide network of surveillance and interception of telephone calls – where the current occupant of the White House, for all his faults, is a pretty strong opponent of such measures, memorably asking: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process.”

So, the crystal ball is a little cloudy. Anyhoo… The first effect of Jim’s attempts to get at the truth, unfortunately, is that most of the people he speaks to about it think that he himself has gone mad. Hollenbach Derangement Syndrome, you could call it. Indeed, at one point our hero is himself carted off to the psychiatric ward by a pair of secret service agents. But eventually he gets a handful of senior Beltway figures onside. And most of them agree, it’s paranoia – indeed, early on in the book we are given a textbook definition, noting that “although ideas of persecution predominate in paranoid reactions, many paranoids develop delusions of grandeur in which they endow themselves with superior or unique ability”.

There our heroes have a problem. At the heart of the book is something much discussed in our own time: the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which provides for the Vice-President to take over in the case of presidential incapacity. This was timely in the year of the book’s publication: the text of the 25th was only submitted to Congress in the summer of 1965, so it’s referred to in embryonic form as “the disability thing in the amendment we put through a few years ago”, with a shout-out to its begetter Birch Bayh.

But, as one character glumly notes:

“A heart attack, a stroke, some obvious and apparent physical accident, sure, then anybody can see the President is disabled. But this mental stuff is something else. It’s all too hypothetical, too sticky. It’s like trying to find a dime in a pot of glue.”

And as others also realise, with an election coming up there are political problems too: “This is bigger than party.” “That’s easily said by a man who doesn’t have to face the voters.” Plus, since you need a Cabinet majority to activate the amendment, you have a press problem: “Cabinet leaks like a sieve. We might as well phone all the newspapers.”

So how does it all turn out? Ah. No spoilers…

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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