Wag the Dog by Larry Beinhart

wag the dog by larry beinhart Publication year: first published in 1995, with a different title
Genre: (Wikipedia says it’s) Satire
Time and place: mostly US in the 80s
Narrated in: first-person/third-person omniscient
First sentence:He believed that he was Machiavelli incarnate.
Verdict: Had some good bits.


Summary
As one of George Bush‘s strategists laid dying, he came up with the ultimate idea to help his boss, then president of the US, gain popularity: he should fake a war. A war that America will win, a victory that will turn the president into a hero worshiped by the masses.

At first everyone thought his suggestion way overboard. And yet the more one thought about it, the more it seemed like it made sense. And after a while, faced with the possibility of not being reelected, Bush Senior decided that they might as well try it.

This is the story of the steps they took to cover up their traces. This is the story of a man (and a woman) looking for the truth.

General impression
Very predictably, I added this book to my to-read list after seeing the movie made after it. What I liked there was the media manipulation bit, the way the war does not actually exist but is in fact a movie presented as actual news footage, and I was interested in discover more about the story. It turns out that, as the author puts it, “the movie is exactly like the book, all they changed was the characters and the plot“.

The movie is about a fictional president and a made-up war. The book is about a real president and a real war. And the very bits I was looking forward to were missing (as the media had no reason to be manipulated into believing a war existed since it was right there and obvious for everyone to see). This being said, it wasn’t a bad book. I have enjoyed it, most of the time. However, at times it seemed to me to drag on for too long, as now and then the author has gone into too much detail. And then there were the footnotes — I generally love footnotes and I have loved Beinhart’s take on them1, but many of them are very politics oriented, details about this or that person, and they failed to hold my interest after a while. It’s not necessarily the book’s fault though; the fact that I am not particularly interested in 80s’ US politics probably didn’t help matters either.

Setting
The story develops on two different timelines: a part of the story deals with Bush and his decision to have the movie made, while the other takes place at a later date, after the main characters (a famous actress and the guy she hired to solve the mystery) have noticed there is something fishy going on, a secret that everyone goes to great lengths to hide. The setting then is a mixture between the political world, the movie world, and the workings of being a private investigator. Something I found pretty impressive was the way the book doesn’t seem dated (if we leave aside the fact that the events in it happened many years ago), despite being written almost two decades before.

Characters
The author has gone to great lengths (scenes upon scenes unrelated to the main plot) to make his characters stand out from one another. Each have their quirks, things they enjoy doing, and a past. A great thing to do, in theory; what actually happened was that my interest sort of faded after one too many such unrelated scenes, and I ended up losing track of the details and of who did what. By the end almost all the bad guys were more or less combined in my head. Even now as I write I remember various details about them, but I couldn’t
say exactly who did this or that to save my life.

The exception to the multidimensional rule was the main female character — we get to know very little about her. Maggie is a big movie star, recently divorced. Maggie is not above using her sexuality to her purposes. Yet Maggie does not want to have sex with the hero until later on in the book (although she does come very close to having sex to a fellow actor she may have known even less than she knew Joe). I didn’t quite get what makes her tick (other than her willingness to bend the moral rules at least a little, for her career’s sake), and as such I didn’t care too much about what happened to her.

I did like Joe Broz, however, our narrator and the guy she hires to do her snooping around. In his 40s, stocky-looking but combat-trained and with a lot of muscle, Joe thinks himself as an average guy. A Vietnam vet whose wife-to-be was killed in a surprise attack, Joe has built his life around his job at an important security firm. He’s very good at what he does, and my favorite bits were those involving his investigation. He’s honest and raw, and at times he seems to good to be true (albeit not perfect). And for some reason I really liked him, despite the fact that his world and mine have almost nothing in common.

A character that surprised me was the US president himself. I am of course taking everything with a grain of salt, as this is before everything a fiction book, but still I was somewhat surprised at the way G. Bush was portrayed. Admittedly I knew nothing about him other than the fact he was once president, so I am not sure how much of this is common knowledge and how much is the very opposite of things that are common knowledge. Some quotes about him:

Bush picked up his glass. The 747 cut through the night sky, huge and steady, easily able to keep the Head of the Free World safe. But with the Evil Empire crumbling, “Head of the Free World” was rapidly losing its ring. He was going to have to think of something new to be called. Leader of the…? Put the speech-writers on it. They knew about word things.

and

But without those options and with so many presidential things to think about, it became that 2,134th detail that the presidential mind could not handle, akin to, Should the black socks be to the right or the left of the blue socks in the sock drawer or should “Me” follow “Mac” or come after “Max” in the contributor’s-list filing system or where to actually put bills when he vetoed them.

and

George Bush said of himself (6/6/89): “Fluency in English is something that I’m often not accused of.”

Such an unflattering picture, to say the least.

The bad guys (as a collective) have some interesting traits. My favorite of them was Hartman (a Hollywood hotshot), who was in some ways very similar to Broz — they were both Vietnam vets, they both trained in a dojo, and they both searched for inspiration between the pages of the Art of War. A worthy opponent, Hartman is. The scene where we got to see his strategy in action, convincing Bush to fund the movie2, was one of my favorites in the whole book.

Other considerations
I found sort of amusing the way the scenario the director has made for their war could very well apply to the war on terror after 9/11 :

Bush, in anger and grief, leads the nation—the nations, plural, of the West—in a Holy Crusade against terrorism.
[...]
The terrorists would be Muslims. The Backward forces of Superstition and Repression of the East against the Rational, Ethical, Forward-looking West. It tapped into atavistic hatred. Christians against Moslems!

With the added bonus that they set up Saddam Hussein as the villain to be defeated (and we all know how things eventually ended for him). History repeats itself and all that.

And something that has bothered me a bit (but only a teensy bit, as there was no readily available Internet when the book was written, so checking things was a bit more difficult in those days), the author says that Unix is “an incredibly complex and ingenious program for editing on multiple screens at once“, when in fact it’s an operating system. Nitpicky, I know :D

Thoughts on the title
The original title was American Hero, which is a reference to both Joe Broz (main character, Vietnam War vet, actual American hero) and George Bush (the one who engineered a war to make him seem like the American Hero to the populace). The current title is the title of the movie, and I think it matches that better than it does the book.

Thoughts on the ending
The book ends with Joe Broz paying a visit to the author, and telling him his side of the story, in the exact same words. I liked the ambiguity, the fact that it could be interpreted as having been a real story if the reader so pleases. Particularly as afterwards the author offers a list of thirty-nine “anomalies”, reasons why the idea that the Gulf War was not an actual, real war makes sense. My knowledge of the events isn’t very strong, so I cannot form an opinion on whether his reasons were actually valid, but it matched the way the book ended very well, and I liked that.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
If you have an interest in 80s politics, this is an intelligent book that you’ll probably like.

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  1. “They’re frequently the stuff that doesn’t fit into a book but that the author found so interesting, he couldn’t let them go.” []
  2. he knew just the right chord to strike: Americans’ pride in being American, and the way everyone’s morale would rise if they witnessed a war where America would be the winner; so basically Bush & the rest will be doing everyone a favor by staging this war []

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