One of Washington’s mysteries is how powerful people behave. Bob Woodward’s books give readers insight into how decisions are made, and he reports some conversational back and forth, but the reader never gets much feel for emotions or mood. It’s not something that Woodward—or journalism—does well.
The best at the game was Ward Just—a journalist turned short-story writer and book author—back in the 1970s. Read one of his stories, such as “A Man at the Top of His Trade,” and you begin to feel what it’s like to be in power in Washington.
Just, a former Washington Post and Newsweek writer, now has largely forsaken any examination of Washington in favor of novels about life in Berlin or his home state of Illinois.
But pick up The Power Game, Joseph Nye’s first novel, and you get a good feel for what happens to a Princeton professor who takes a job in the State Department and runs into bureaucratic buzzsaws at the White House and Pentagon.
Nye—who was at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and until recently was dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—isn’t Ward Just, and he’s not Tom Clancy, but his novel gives readers a very good sense of how things really happen in Washington.
The Post, which should give its readers a much better feel for what happens inside the White House and other power centers, pretty much panned the book, headlining its review “A Wonk’s Tale.” The review called Nye’s book “a middling novel” and said “no one should confuse it with high literature.”
But it is a good novel—there’s tension and drama to keep you turning pages until the end. The tension comes out of the possibility that Pakistan might sell nuclear technology to Iran. Nye focuses on the exercise of power—he is a soft-power (persuasion and alliances) advocate, not a believer in “let’s invade first and ask questions later.” There’s also a strained marriage, an old college sweetheart, and some sex, but that’s not what’s important.
What Nye really delivers is sophisticated insight into what kinds of issues matter in Washington and how people in power battle them out. He takes us inside the State Department, Pentagon, and White House and gives us a chance to watch and listen.
We need more writers like Nye to tell us what it’s really like in Tommy Boggs’s law offices or the Washington Post executive editor’s office. The Power Game is a valuable book, and Nye should tell more stories. He could be the next Ward Just.
Joseph S. Nye Jr.