Sunday, October 28, 2012

Irving Wallace's THE MAN

What if a black man had become President of the United States in the late nineteen sixties?  This is the plot of Irving Wallace’s 1964 political pot boiler The Man.

“The Man” is Douglas Dilman, an obscure black junior Senator from a Midwestern State. As a token gesture to quell racial unrest in the country,  Dillman is appointed President Pro Tempore of the Senate.  Shortly before The Man begins, the Vice-President has died of a heart attack.  When the novel begins, the office of Vice-President is vacant.  (Before the passage of the 25th Amendment there was no legal mechanism to fill a vacancy in the Vice-Presidency).  When the President and the Speaker of the House are killed in a freak accident, Senator Douglas Dilman is thrust into the Presidency.

An illustration from the Readers' Digest Condensed Book version of "The Man"

Dilman has been a “yes-man” to the leadership of his political party. (Although the novel never expressly says so, it appears that Dilman is a Democrat).  At first he falls into line with the wishes of the party leadership and the former President’s advisors.

In addition to Soviet incursions into Africa (remember this novel was written at the height of the Cold War) and racial unrest at home, Dilman has plenty of personal problems.  Dillman’s dead wife drank herself to death as a result of depression.  Dilman’s daughter is living in New York and passing for a white woman.  Dilman’s son is a member of a radical civil rights organization which is ready to use violence to achieve racial justice.

An illustration from the Reader's Digest version: 
Black Radical Students protest President Douglas Dilman

Everyone is shocked when Dilman stops being a yes man and vetoes a major entitlement bill, the Minorities Rehabilitation Program (MRP), which has almost universal support among members of the party.  Now Dilman is disliked by nearly everybody: racist whites hate Dillman because he’s black, liberals hate Dilman because he vetoed the MRP, and radical blacks hate Dilman because he’s “an Uncle Tom.”

President Douglas Dilman survives an assassination attempt.

All the stereotypes you would expect are here: the racist Southern demagogue Congressman who leads the effort to impeach Dilman; the black radicals who want try to assassinate Dilman; and the ambitious Ivy League educated Secretary of State who wants to replace Dilman.  Near the end of the novel, a cross gets burned on the front lawn of the White House and a race riot breaks out in Washington.

The Old Guard Washington insiders plot against The Man.

This being an Irving Wallace novel, there is, of course, sex.  The Secretary of State, the debonair Arthur Eaton, who is estranged from his wife, becomes involved with the emotionally unstable daughter of a powerful Southern Senator.  Eaton recommends his mistress, Sally Watson, as the White House Social Secretary.  Ultimately, Sally becomes Eaton’s spy inside the White House.  When she is caught spying by the President, she falls back on the tried and true method of accusing the black man of sexually assaulting her.

Secretary of State Arthur Eaton becomes cozy with Miss Sally Watson

Ultimately, Dilman is impeached by the House of Representatives on trumped up charges.  When The Man was written there had only been one impeachment trial in American History, that of Andrew Johnson in the 1860s.  In light of the Clinton impeachment the comments Wallace makes are very interesting:

His firm belief was that the House members, having enjoyed the catharsis of vituperation, would now realize the historic gravity of the decision they faced.  They would realize that an impeachment in modern times was unthinkable, that the legal instrument of reproof and discipline in the Constitution had become obsolete.  In fact, just the other night, unable to sleep, Dilman had come across the words of an eminent political scientist who had characterized impeachment as a “rusted blunderbuss, that will probably never be taken in hand again.”  Surely, the more judicious of the House members would see that, would think twice before signifying aye or nay.  

Ultimately, like President Andrew Johnson, Dilman is saved from impeachment by a single vote.

The real Man: President Barack Obama

It was fun reading The Man as a time capsule.  Everyone in the novel smokes.  The big foreign policy issue is containing Communism.  President Dilman visits Cape Canaveral to inspect the new Apollo program.

Although Irving Wallace did not write great literature by any stretch of the imagination, reading a Wallace novel is like eating potato chips: once you have a bite it’s hard to stop.  Wallace was a good writer who carefully constructed stories and knew how to sink the hook into the reader.  I enjoyed reading The Man a great deal.  While Wallace was not a great novelist, when a 48 year old out of print novel can still entertain a reader,  I am prepared to say that Wallace was a great story teller.

The prolific Irving Wallace (1916 - 1990)

Thanks to the blog Today's Inspiration for the illustrations from Reader's Digest.

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