Can I ask for some help? I am trying to write a novel—a futuristic political thriller—but at present, the plot is ridiculously implausible. I would like some advice about making it credible.
This is my scenario. It is 2011. A hugely popular Barack Obama is cruising toward an inevitable second term. He is, however, at daggers drawn with the nation’s military leadership and the intelligence agencies. He has developed friendly relations with the regimes in Iran and Venezuela, and is negotiating an arms-limitation treaty with China. Hawkish critics at home believe that he is sacrificing U.S. strategic ascendancy to the point of giving away the store. Moreover, he is constantly sidestepping the intelligence agencies in favor of new structures run directly under White House control.
At that point, the Obama administration is undermined by a series of devastating corruption scandals. The main conduit for embarrassing leaks is a young journalist—I’m calling him Woody—who has close personal links with senior officers in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another highly placed source in the FBI feeds him critical information. Soon, the torrent of scandal becomes so overwhelming that Obama is forced to resign, to general rejoicing. And the surprise twist in the plot is: It was the military and intelligence agencies who publicized and shaped the whole scandal, to advance their own interests!
Just sketching the plot shows how much work needs to be done. The problem is that nobody with the slightest political awareness will find the ending at all surprising. Everyone would know about the elite disaffection over those foreign-policy decisions. Nobody, consequently, would take Woody’s revelations seriously, and still less so when they knew about his connections with the Joint Chiefs. Worse, the exigencies of the plot have forced me to reveal that, at just this time, the Joint Chiefs were so hostile to the White House that they were using spies and moles to observe its daily doings. And any fool would know that the kind of information Woody was receiving must have come from a domestic-security agency, most likely the FBI.
If this were the real world, as opposed to a fantastic novel, most media outlets, most congressional leaders and policymakers, would give no credence to the alleged scandal—or, at least, they would keep it strictly in perspective. They would instead express alarm that out-of-control military officers and intelligence agents were actively conspiring against an elected administration and go to any lengths to root out the guilty. In reality, no conspiracy like that could ever gain traction within the United States.
My plot, in other words, stinks.
Yet I do have some hope. At the end of last year, we read the obituaries of Mark Felt, the senior FBI official better known as Deep Throat, the insider source who fed such crucial information to Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward. Consistently, the obituaries praised Felt as a true patriot, a warrior for truth who acted as he did out of genuine concern about the misdeeds of the Nixon administration. I have no reason to doubt that Felt was in every sense a patriot and a faithful upholder of law enforcement. Yet it was startling to find virtually no suggestions that his motives might have been less than straightforward.
In fact, the real history of the Watergate affair does offer some striking analogies to my improbable novel. Richard Nixon in 1971-72 was pursuing détente with America’s traditional Cold War foes, the Soviet Union and China, and was seeking a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets. Among senior Navy officers in particular, there were real fears that the Nixonites were in the process of selling out the United States in the face of growing Soviet hegemony. Already by 1970, the Joint Chiefs had a mole in the National Security Council who was copying every document that passed through his hands. So seriously did the congressional investigators who explored this “Moorer-Radford spy-ring” take it that they compared it to Seven Days in May, after the novel about a military coup d’etat.
The “Moorer” in this case was Adm. Thomas Moorer, chief of naval operations from 1967 to 1970, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1970 to 1974. While in his former position, Moorer’s courier was Lt. Bob Woodward. It was in this capacity, while working for Moorer in 1970, that Woodward first met FBI official Mark Felt, with whom he would have such an enduring relationship.
And yet despite all these intriguing linkages—and we could point to a great many more—so few people have ever suggested any deeper dimensions to what we call the Watergate scandal. So who knows, perhaps people might even be gullible enough to believe my book. Stranger things have happened.