Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Executive Showdown

(Above) Title page illustration by Joseph R. Veno.

Irving Wallace penned his fourth novel, The Man, at the height of America’s civil-rights movement, as battles were being fought (in the courts and in the streets) to curtail racial prejudice in housing, employment, education, and voting rights. The Man first reached print as a Simon & Schuster hardcover in 1964, the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat from Texas—once part of the slave-holding, breakaway Confederate States of America—signed into law a civil-rights bill that, as Wikipedia explains, “banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment practices and ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by public accommodations.”

It didn’t seem possible back then, almost half a century ago before the rise of Barack Obama, that an African American could be elected as president of the United States. Few people would have even bothered imagining such a thing. But Wallace was one of them.

Douglass Dilman is sworn in as president.

The Chicago-born Hollywood screenwriter turned author had previously produced novels about a straying husband frustrated by impotence (The Sins of Philip Fleming, 1959), female sexuality (The Chapman Report, 1961), and the annual awarding of Nobel Prizes (The Prize, 1962). He was well on his way to becoming a best-selling author of sex-drenched potboilers, such as 1974’s The Fan Club. As The New York Times remarked in its 1990 obituary of Wallace (who died of pancreatic cancer at 74 years of age), his fiction offered “a judicious sprinkling of adultery, rape, kidnapping, old-fashioned romance, suspense, babbitry, alcoholism, intrigue and assorted examples of venality”—and sold in excess of 120 million copies during his lifetime.

The Man—a 1965 Reader’s Digest condensed version of which supplies the artwork decorating this post—is something different from its predecessors. There isn’t a great deal of carnal cavorting in its 750-plus pages, but plenty of political chicanery; not much romance, but more than enough white-privilege arrogance and vicious bigotry for most anyone’s taste.

(Left) Secretary of State Eaton gets acquainted with Sally Watson.

It begins with an official visit to Frankfurt, West Germany, during which a freak accident takes the lives of both the U.S. president and the speaker of the House. The vice president has recently perished from a “massive coronary,” and in the absence of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—which in 1967 would set forth procedures by which America’s top political offices were to be filled in the event of death or physical disabilities—the presidency falls to Douglass Dilman, a former college professor and junior senator from a Midwestern state, who also holds the ceremonial post of president pro tempore of the Senate. Dilman has no White House aspirations; as actor James Earl Jones (who portrayed Dilman in a 1972 film based on Wallace’s book and scripted by Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling) observed in his introduction to the 1999 edition of The Man, Dilman is “a quiet, rational man trying his best to do a difficult job in daunting circumstances. Thrown into the center of a political earthquake, he is an apolitical creature, and something of a Milquetoast. He is an intellectual, and a good man with a commitment to principles but no appetite for political battles.” Wallace described his protagonist as someone “who was not white and who was afraid of being black, and who was without armor or grace.” Yet this is the guy who becomes the new president.

White House cronies plot against Dilman.

Unlike Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, who also acceded to the Oval Office after the untimely deaths of popular 20th-century chief executives, “the country doesn’t rally around” new President Dilman, recalled Florida English professor Ariel Gonzalez in this 2011 review of The Man: “sixty-one percent disapprove of him.
Dillman can’t fault them; he holds a low opinion of himself too. Racial insecurity bedevils him. “I am a black man,” he says, “not yet qualified for human being, let alone for President.” Though a widower, he is reluctant to pursue a relationship with a biracial woman because he fears the lightness of her skin will raise the specter of miscegenation. To calm people’s worries, he agrees to play the role of a figurehead. He doesn’t even veto a clearly unconstitutional bill prohibiting him from removing any member of his predecessor’s Cabinet.
Only slowly, with almost painful hesitation, does Dilman grab hold of the reins that have been thrust into his hands, raising the rancor of his opponents on all fronts. There’s an assassination attempt in the White House Rose Garden; African-American radicals protest against Dilman as a “black Judas,” “a Jim Crow president” who refuses to stand up for his race; and the imperious, Ivy League-educated secretary of state, Arthur Eaton—convinced that he deserves the presidency more than Dilman—conspires with his worshipful, younger mistress, White House social secretary Sally Watson, to glean information for use against Dilman. The president’s enemies finally manufacture pretexts on which to commence Congressional impeachment hearings against him; and then, employing some of the most racist verbiage heard outside of a Ku Klux Klan rally, they go on public attack against Dilman’s morality and fitness for office.

(Right) Black students protest Dilman’s sudden rise.

Particularly venomous, during and outside of those hearings, is Congressman Zeke Miller, a newspaper publisher and “Southern redneck mouthpiece,” who denounces Dilman as an “all-fired ignoramus of a nigger … fixing to make [the United States] into another Africa.” Appealing to Eaton for his assistance in bringing down the accidental president, Miller reveals the odious depths of his contempt for Dilman:
“We’re going to put old Sambo on the hot seat good, and we’re going to roast his ass plenty, until he yells enough, and begs us to get him off it. I’m going to force him to resign, to resign because of disability or whatever, but to resign, and if he refuses, I’m going to resign him by force.”
It would be comforting to think that such hidebound attitudes and low-minded hatreds were things of the past, that by the 21st century America had come to realize the value of its population diversity. But as eight years of racially charged and increasingly ludicrous impeachment talk against Democratic President Barack Obama demonstrated, and as Republican Donald Trump’s divisive recent White House campaign confirmed, this is still a country held hostage by ethnic and sexual prejudices, all of them lurking just below the surface, barely held at bay by public norms.

An attempt on Dilman’s life in the Rose Garden.

According to Jones’ introduction, “in 1963, as background for The Man, [Wallace] accepted an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to spend several days observing life in the White House, from the Oval Office to the Cabinet Room to the private family quarters.” The result is a tale redolent of authenticity, with details of the president’s Pennsylvania Avenue residence and business habits tossed off with all the studied casualness one might have found in an episode of The West Wing. While the back-and-forth of Dilman’s impeachment proceedings can be tedious at times, burdened with the turgid declarations of politicians seeking the limelight, Wallace does a fine job of ratcheting up tensions between Dilman’s treacherous accusers and the sharp but shy president. “The writer keeps you angry long enough to make the retribution sweet,” wrote reviewer Gurdas Singh Sandhu in this 2007 post for his blog, Guldasta. “The sheer audacity of lies, the shameless hatred veiled in goodness, and the vocal mudslinging is just perfect to get the reader angry. And angry I was! So much so that while reading the book, there were instances when I had to keep it aside and allow the torrential anger inside me (at the injustice meted out to Doug) to subside.”

Although The Man doesn’t achieve the heights of American political fiction reached by, say, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, or rival Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a literary exploration of racial injustice, it certainly forced readers of the ’60s to confront the possibility of someone other than a white man occupying the Oval Office. Furthermore, it was prescient in envisioning the ugly belligerence that would greet an African American like Douglass Dilman or Barack Obama ascending to the presidency.

I didn’t catch up to The Man until 35 years after its initial publication, purchasing a paperback edition that was released by ibooks in 1999. I didn’t get around to actually reading the novel until 2015. And only last year did I happen across the illustrations peppering the length of this post. As I mentioned earlier, they were featured in a 1965 Reader’s Digest edition of Wallace’s yarn, which was combined in a single volume with condensations of William B. Walsh’s A Ship Called Hope, Joseph Hayes’ The Third Day, and John Ehle’s The Land Breakers. Aside from the title page, shown atop this post, the other paintings were done by Robert K. Abbett, an American artist I’ve mentioned a number of times in Killer Covers. You should find a full set of those illustrations here.

SEE MORE: At least for the time being, you can watch the 90-minute ABC-TV film based on The Man by clicking here.

1 comment:

Rick Robinson said...

Wow, I'd forgotten about this book. I posted ALL THE KING'S MEN today.