Where Ideology Runs Amok
by Charles McCarry
Ecco, 576 pages, $25.95
For reasons of ideology, the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington cannot bring himself to greet a conservative Republican as “Mr. President.” So opens, on this pitch-perfect note, one of the best novels ever written about the American Left. Charles McCarry’s Shelley’s Heart, originally published fourteen years ago and now being reissued by the Overlook Press, takes the outward form of a political thriller—but this is no ordinary work of genre fiction. Shelley’s Heart is an ambitious attempt to describe the American Left from within and without, to catch it in the act of revealing its true character, aims, and methods.
The passage of time has validated McCarry’s uncanny gaze into the country’s immediate political future, with a plot that turns on three events—a stolen election, an impeachment scandal, and a highly partisan confirmation hearing. As Shelley’s Heart opens, a liberal Democrat has narrowly defeated a conservative Republican in the presidential election of 2000, but only because a few thousand votes were shifted from one column to another in California, Michigan, and New York. Franklin Mallory, the losing candidate, has uncovered evidence of the fraud. At the funeral of the Chief Justice shortly before the Inauguration, he asks President-elect Bedford Forrest Lockwood to resign the office, and when he does not, Mallory makes the evidence public.
“Your real objective,” says a reporter, “is to destroy the political Left and all its ideas so that the Right can take over on a permanent basis.” Mallory denies it. His only objective is to secure the popular result; stealing elections is within character for his ideological adversaries, but not for him. “These characters despise the people,” he says. “Every time they’re rejected at the polls they think the voters have been duped.”
Threatened with impeachment, President Lockwood decides to fight back. On the advice of Julian Hubbard, his chief of staff (and architect of the stolen election), he nominates Archimedes Hammett to serve as the new Chief Justice and to preside over his trial before the U.S. Senate. Hammett is a cross between Ralph Nader (of whom McCarry wrote a dispassionate early biography) and Laurence H. Tribe. The grandson of Peloponnesian immigrants, he is a Yale law professor who has become the conscience of the intellectual Left.
Every aspect of Hammett’s life and career has been shaped and determined by his politics. For him, “the driving political idea of the twentieth century” is that “everything is personal and nothing in the tangible world is what it seems to be.”
The food he eats (“nothing but organic vegetables and whole-grain bread”), the clothes he wears (“the same jeans and work shirts he had worn as an undergraduate”), the clients he represents (terrorists and other “victims of society” who “wanted nothing more than to be recognized as martyrs”), the associates he hires (“lawyers specializing in environmental issues, animal rights, and so on—from a feminist perspective”): everything is a political action, designed to advance what he calls “The Cause.”
Although he is a controversial figure, Hammett is likely to be confirmed by the evenly divided Senate because he has “a network of disciples and admirers in the media, in the law, in the universities, in the pressure groups that will put heat on the Senate to do the right thing and confirm him.”
Through nightly phone calls and exclusive offers to prominent journalists, lawyers who work for federal agencies, and Yale Law School graduates in the employ of Washington-based pressure groups devoted to progressive causes, Hammett has created the machinery for refining an agenda and crafting a message before the public is even aware that it is the target of an orchestrated campaign.
The network of like minds is “a party within the party,” complains a Democratic official. Hammett understands that the culture “must be conquered camp by camp—first academia, where minds were formed; then the news media, the churches, and the arts, which transmitted the orthodoxy to lesser minds; then a whole new apparatus of special interest groups to bring irresistible pressure on the government.”
Julian Hubbard has not recommended Hammett to the President because the Yale professor can arrange for his own confirmation. It turns out that he and Hammett are members of a secret society, the “most obscure of Yale’s many private clubs,” more hidden even than Skull & Bones. The Shelley Society is named after the English Romantic who famously declared poets, if not journalists and Washington lawyers, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
The club’s purpose is “to force what Shelley had called ‘the moral progress of politics’—American politics above all, but the world political order as well”—upon the world. The Shelleyans are an elite within an elite, the pounding heart of the international Left.
In selecting Hammett, the liberal President has sealed his own doom. Not wanting a crisis to go to waste, the Shelleyans have decided to pursue a “constitutional solution” that will install one of their own in the White House. “The radicals are going to go for a messiah,” warns the Speaker of the House, “somebody who’s above politics.” Aided by the most left-wing member of the U.S. Senate, they plot a nonviolent coup that will bring the Chief Justice to power, perhaps for life.
Upon its original publication, Shelley’s Heart provoked extreme reactions. Jonathan Yardley hailed it in the Washington Post as “the best novel ever written about life in high-stakes Washington.” Christopher Hitchens took that sort of praise seriously enough to mete out a 5,000-word beating in the pages of the New York Review of Books. The novel, he said, is “pedantic and didactic for whole furlongs of its immense length, and utterly, artlessly fantastic for the remainder.” It is a “work of rancor,” written out of a “very strong and very confused emotion of class resentment,” and founded in the “self-pity of the American right.”
Hitchens was in error in assigning McCarry to the camp of alienated American conservatives. A liberal Democrat in his youth, McCarry served as a speechwriter for Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., President Eisenhower’s UN ambassador and the East Coast Republican par excellence who was selected as Richard Nixon’s running mate in the 1960 election to provide centrist geographical balance.
McCarry became a covert operative for the CIA (hardly a right-wing bastion, then or now), and later went on to earn a livelihood as an editor for National Geographic and as a spy novelist.
McCarry found himself appalled in the 1960s by the rapid ascent of the New Left, with its contempt for law, authority, prisons, the armed forces, police, flags, national sovereignty, patriotism, traditional religion, middle-class responsibility, and conventional morality, everything that was once summed up as the Establishment (a term he happily embraces). “Thanks to Sartre,” McCarry said in an interview in 1995, “most postmodern intellectuals automatically assume that every writer is un homme (or une femme) engagé, but it ain’t necessarily so. Some of us are just trying to make an honest living and read our Bible every night before we go to sleep.”
When Franklin Mallory expresses a polite skepticism that the organized Left might seek to grab power through unelected means, his political mentor is incredulous. “Right,” he says. “All that crowd has done in our lifetime is take over the federal budget, the universities, the schools, the do-good movement, the civil and foreign service, the news media, world literature, the theater, the ballet and the opera, plus the Democratic Party and organized religion minus the evangelicals. Why would they try for the big hit?”
Though McCarry distrusts abstract ideas, he is masterful at dramatizing their influence. Written in a fluent and sharp-toothed prose modeled upon W. Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, Shelley’s Heart succeeds in creating an utterly believable world in which ideology has run amok.
McCarry’s portrait of the inner experience of an American radical is entirely convincing: “Correctness was virtue; belief was personal validity; doctrine was truth. All else was evil.” So is his dystopian portrait of Washington’s near future, in which deer run freely in the streets because of laws governing endangered species, thermostats must be set low and lights dimmed by government mandate, and terrorists have more advanced weaponry than the Secret Service because of budget cuts.
McCarry is more interested in persons, the moral drama of men and women operating at cross-purposes, than in flogging a thesis. Although the “whole point” of America’s elite institutions is to “turn out a type,” as the President’s lawyer says, Shelley’s Heart contains no types—no “flat” characters in E.M. Forster’s sense of having been “constructed round a single idea or quality.” The life of every person in the novel is complicated by temperament, memory, and love or its lack.
McCarry is particularly good at snagging personality on exact details: Julian Hubbard is a “compulsive diarist” and bird watcher, using “well-worn Zeiss binoculars” that his father had taken from “the corpse of an SS officer”; Franklin Mallory reads Macaulay’s essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson with a pen in hand; President Lockwood greets his lawyers in an old University of Kentucky sweatsuit and thick socks; up close, Archimedes Hammett looks “like a Richard Avedon photograph of Muammar Qadaffi.” Even better is that McCarry fully unfolds his characters dramatically—through their twisted histories and mixed-motive actions.
McCarry is one of the few American novelists to have written with distinction about what Irving Howe called “politics as a milieu or mode of life.” Shelley’s Heart is a classic that examines how the American Left came to be and how potent the American Left still is. It might best be understood not as a conspiracy thriller but rather as a dark satire. Given how many of McCarry’s wild surmises have become reality since its initial release, however, no one should make the mistake of attempting to compartmentalize his remarkable novel.