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Reading between the lines in Washington

Reading is such an improbable idea -- a miracle, really. Yet simple squiggles on a page, arranged just so, can convey ideas that change the way we think or introduce to us characters we love for a lifetime. In celebration of reading -- and of this weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books -- we asked four readers (who also happen to be writers) to celebrate books that mattered in their lives.

If you want a friend in Washington, the saying goes, get a dog. But if you're looking to understand Washington, I'd recommend fiction.

Not a thriller or a potboiler, though. I mean serious fiction, specifically the stories and novels of Ward Just, a brilliant war correspondent for the Washington Post who decided he could tell more truth if he shook off the strictures of journalism.

"Journalism is useful," he once wrote, "but truth wears many masks, and in Washington facts sometimes tend to mislead. All the facts sometimes tend to mislead absolutely."

Just's first great story, "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert," convinced me he was right. We see Washington politicians in action all the time, thanks to the endless chatter of cable news. But Just's characters have something television and newspapers often can't convey: complicated inner lives. They are driven by ambition — no surprise there. But they're also gripped by uncertainty and regret, two demons no one in public life is allowed to acknowledge.

Listen, for example, to the protagonist of "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert," a once-idealistic Southern Democrat who worries about the compromises he's made in his struggle for power in the House of Representatives:

"It was not a place for lost causes," Rep. Lou LaRuth reflects. "There were too many conflicting interests … [and] too many people: 435 representatives and about a quarter of them quite bright. Quite bright enough and knowledgeable enough to strangle embarrassing proposals and take revenge as well. Everyone was threatened if the eccentrics got out of hand."

Just wrote that story in 1972, but he could just as well have been describing today.

"LaRuth, at 40, has no secret answers. Nor any illusions," Just writes. "The congressman, contemplating all of it, is both angry and sad…. He thinks that everything in his life is meant to end in irony and contradiction." Some members of the current House would recognize that feeling all too well.

"House of Cards" fans will hear echoes of Francis Underwood in Just's portraits of Washington, but without television's manic pacing and melodramatic twists. On the pages of a book, Just's characters can let their inner monologues play out more deeply and more truthfully than the best of Kevin Spacey's wry asides to the camera.

Like all Washington correspondents, I'm often asked — by friends, relatives, audiences — to reveal something secret, something we can't put in the newspaper. I usually wave my hands, embarrassed, and say there really aren't secrets we know but don't publish — very few, anyway. But that's not a full answer. There are plenty of secrets that don't get written about. Sometimes they're simply hard to pin down. Sometimes they're in the gray zone between public life and private life — the gay senator who won't come out of the closet, the elderly congressman who's no longer up to the job.

And sometimes they're easy to write about in the aggregate — the officials who go easy on industries they regulate, thinking about their next jobs — but difficult to write in the more damning particular. Hardly ever do officials sit down with reporters and confess: Here's how I lost my idealism. Here's when I decided: What the hell, I can't change the system, I might as well make money.

That's why we need fiction. And even in Ward Just's elegant fiction, the characters don't always tell the whole truth.

"All the stories they told had something missing. This, it seemed to me then as it does now, is common among government people," a character in Just's most recent novel, "American Romantic," muses. "There would come a moment when their voices trailed off and any attentive listener would know they were deep in their memories, pondering what they were unable — not unwilling but unable — to say aloud. The missing piece."

It's a reminder to journalists and their readers that they're never quite getting the full story. Almost no one ever knows the full story — and those who do aren't telling.

Doyle McManus is The Times' Washington columnist.




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