Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Behind the Scences: Ward Just's Washington

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Behind the Scences: Ward Just's Washington

Article excerpt

The zone [Vietnam] ... was the place where modern American History begins.

-American Blues

Ward Just's 1982 novel In the City of Fear, part political allegory, part satire, delineates the self-centered, self-protective nature of the self-proclaimed "Movers and Shakers" inside the beltway whose moral inertia allowed the Vietnam War to continue for eight long years. The use of reverse chronological order, revealing two decades of life as usual in Washington, does not hide the fact that influential Washingtonians are rewarded when most cautious; discretion, clandestine activities frequently the better part of valor. In 1981, when the novel begins, Piatt Warden, a most circumspect congressman for the last eighteen years, can expect to earn the title of Senate Whip, while the insider's insider, the ultimate problem solver, Henry Costello, is the President's choice to chair the party. The ethical price that both men have paid for success is outlined in the long central section of the novel, set in 1970 or 1971, at a Washington dinner party where striking revelations outnumber the courses. The novel concludes in October 1963 (one month before, as Senator Ralph Yarborough depicted the Kennedy assassination, "Excalibur sunk beneath the waves") with a suspicious and fatal car accident of a young White House staffer, Dennis McDonnough, who advised John F. Kennedy to withdraw from Vietnam. Ward Just's usually grim vision of the best and the brightest is rarely compassionate, frequently knowing.

Ethical Context

Obliquely, Just establishes an ethical lineage, as one person after another, at an exclusive dinner, party either reminisces about the past or narrates stories that unveil it. Hosting the function are Teddy Carney, a journalist, and his wife Jo; attending are various spokespersons for the CIA, government, and military: Max Cather, a cynical covert operations analyst, and his spouse; Piatt Warden, a U. S. Representative, and his wife Marina; Sheila Dennehey, a CIA staffer specializing in psychological profiles, and Sam Joyce, a colonel in the Army. To understand the ethical shortsightedness of Washington insiders, Just implies, one must see how it derived from the postwar period of the late 1940s.

Late in the evening Sam reminisces about that "old pirate" (189), his father, "living proof of the continuity of events" (189). Already in his nineties in 1971, old Ben Joyce is both a transition figure as well as an inspiration. Even at the time of this party, "an invitation to his apartment . . . was considered to be second only to one to the White House itself" (191). As if to underline his revered reputation among insiders, Henry Costello confides to Sam, "An endorsement from Ben Joyce is like an endorsement from God" (206). In the immediate postwar years old Ben was a visionary:

he quickly saw that Washington was mysterious to a businessman; it was as mysterious as Hollywood. And the secret was not to demystify, it was to present oneself as a necromancer, a magician. He was the first to see that the government would become the nation's greatest corporation, a great sea of money, greater even than DuPont or General Motors; he was the first to see, and the first to act. (191)

His rise from hanging judge to Senator, sage, and finally counselor, seemed both "effortless and inevitable" (190). Because of his wealth, "his knowledge of the secrets of the men in power, as well as his personality and will and sheer longevity" (190), he is the envy of many a Washingtonian.

Yet there is something not quite genuine about old Ben. "He forgot," we are told, "that which was inconvenient" (190). Also, he is "a man rather attracted to dark corners, and pleased to find so many of them; and so much company when he got there" (195). Especially benighted is that neglect of duty easy to deny, which old Ben labels "Misprision: passive misconduct, benign neglect" (194). With knowledge of misprision comes fortune and power. …

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