The 1966 novel, Night of Camp David, deals with the presidency of Mark Hollenbach.
Mark Hollenbach is an old school Democrat, the type of old-fashioned liberal who would probably not have much of a place in today’s party. Hollenbach is known for his competent and loyal staff and his demand that everyone around him be just as morally upright as he feels that he is. Therefore, when Hollenbach’s Vice President gets caught up in a minor scandal, everyone knows that Hollenbach is going to eventually pick a different running mate when it comes time to run for reelection.
But who will Hollenbach pick? The Speaker of the House is viewed as being too much of an old-style political boss. The Secretary of State might be the smartest man in Washington, D.C. but Hollenbach is convinced that the voters are not ready for a Jewish vice president. After a night of lukewarm jokes at the Gridiron Dinner, Hollenbach invites Sen. Jim MacVeagh of Iowa to come talk to him at Camp David. During their conversation, Hollenbach reveals that he’s planning on naming MacVeagh to the ticket.
This takes MacVeagh by surprise because even he realizes that he’s not really qualified to be president. He’s too young and, as more than one character points out over the course of the book, he has a reputation for being rather lazy. An even bigger problem is that the married MacVeagh has a mistress named Rita and there’s no way that Hollenbach would accept an adulterer on his ticket….
(Okay, I heard that. Stop laughing. This book was published in 1965. Obviously, it was a more naïve time.)
Of course, there’s an even bigger problem than Jim MacVeagh not living up to the president’s moral standards. It also appears that Mark Hollenbach is losing his mind. MacVeagh soon discovers that Hollenbach has decided that Europe can no longer be trusted and that it’s time for America to make peace with Russia! As well, Hollenbach feels that the media is trying to sabotage his presidency and, as such, it’s time to maybe rethink that whole freedom of speech thing. MacVeagh realizes that the pressures of the office have gotten to Hollenbach and that he’s becoming dangerously paranoid. But only MacVeagh knows it and how can he reveal the truth without destroying his career and his marriage?
Today, of course, the idea of the President being a paranoid buffoon is not that shocking. For that matter, a lot of Hollenbach’s delusions are today pretty much a part of the standard political discourse. One gets the feeling that there’s quite a few people who would happily embrace Hollenbach’s desire to destroy the First Amendment. (“YoU cAn’T yElL fIrE iN a ThEaTeR!” someone is tweeting at this very moment.) But again, this book was published in 1965. Joe Biden wasn’t even in the Senate when this book was published, that’s how old it is. In many ways, Night of Camp David feels prophetic. Today, of course, it’s interesting to read a book like this and marvel at the idea that people were once shocked by the idea of a paranoid president.
Though it gets off to a slow start, Night of Camp David picks up steam once MacVeagh discovers that Hollenbach is using the FBI to investigate anyone who he perceives as being either a potential ally or a potential threat. (Hmmmm, imagine that….) Fletcher Knebel was the co-author of Seven Days In May and he obviously knew how to put together a political thriller. Jim MacVeagh and Rita are both interesting characters, especially Rita. She can do better than Jim MacVeagh and she knows it. The book ends on what seems like a note of wishful thinking but, again, it was 1965.
Paul Greengrass has apparently been developing a film adaptation of this book. I don’t know if that project is still happening, though Greengrass seems like he would be able to do the story justice. Personally, I would suggest Tom Hanks as Hollenbach and Austin Butler as MacVeagh. I mean, if it worked for Elvis….