Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel

Second paragraph of chapter three:

On the same October Thursday the Houston Oilers toiled in practice in the nearby Astrodome, the American balance-of-payments deficit soared to a twenty-year high, three more corporations decided to flee New York City and a man in Boston died of mercury poisoning after eating codfish cakes.

This book is going for a penny plus postage on the online used book store of your choice, and I recommend you buy it now before the rush later this year. Written in 1972, anticipating the 1976 election, it concerns the story of Eddie Quinn, an obscure former Congressman and New Jersey Turnpike Commissioner who is unexpectedly thrust to national prominence when the failing Republican presidential candidate suddenly dies three weeks before the election and the party reaches desperately for a replacement; nobody, including the colourless Vice-Presidential candidate, wants to go down in history as the loser, and Quinn is good-looking, doesn’t drink or smoke, and is not known for dangerous views.

Although the Democrats are well in the lead (with an intellectual Methodist state governor rather reminiscent of their real 1976 candidate, Jimmy Carter), Quinn launches a populist rearguard campaign, promising tax cuts, an end to the military draft for young people, a system of ombudsmen, and much else, which instantly earns him the displeasure of the Republican grandees (particularly the one who is nominally married to his lover) but catches the interest of increasing numbers of voters, leading to a dramatic conclusion to the election.

There are several particularly intense incidents: Quinn’s opening speech, where he attacks vested political interests like the ones that have just nominated him; his gathering of a diverse group of trusted advisers; a confrontation with black radicals in Quinn’s home town (which sounds a bit like my grandmother’s home town of Plainfield); and a fatal car accident which Quinn refuses to allow his team to cover up. The author’s tone towards lefties and feminists is a bit wearyingly snide (not to mention New Jersey, “a corridor of swampy weather and toadstool habitations that called itself a state”), but apart from that it’s a real page-turner.

Of course, a book like this is always going to be partial wish-fulfillment. (See my list of Pope books; was Hadrian the Seventh the orignial Mary Sue?) But Knebel mounts a sharp critique from the liberal Right (a species that barely exists these days) of conventional American political wisdom, and challenges the reader to wonder how change might come? Things have now got worse, of course; I strongly recommend this recent article from The Atlantic, How American Politics Went Insane for a review of what has gone wrong, mostly since this book was written.

Apart from the death of the liberal Right, there are other major differences between how politics happened in 1972 and how it happens today. The most striking is that there was no twenty-four hour news cycle. The press corps did indeed follow the candidates around, but they were print journalists with their early evening deadlines; TV was much more cumbersome and had to be carefully arranged in advance. Minor gaffes by Quinn and his campaign staff are laughed off in a cordial way by all concerned, rather than becoming the focus of faux outrage by media talking heads. There is no chance that a candidate’s love affair with a married Congresswoman could evade scrutiny today for as long as Quinn gets away with it in this book. (There is a sub-plot with a sex tape of which there is only one copy.)

Another point that hit me was that the only mention of TV debates is a brief reference to Kennedy/Nixon in 1960, with the strong implication that that experiment would never be repeated. Debates are now of course an immovable part of the process, but we tend to forget that rather than 1960 that has only been the case since 1976, when Gerald Ford killed his own chances of re-election by mis-speaking about Eastern Europe. (Ford, who was the 1976 Republican candidate in real life, was also something of a dark horse given that in 1972 he was the fading House Minority Leader).

It’s irresistible to compare the fictional 1976 scenario of Dark Horse with the real situation forty years after, where one insurgent from outside the party leadership came within a few hundred delegates of capturing the Democratic nomination, and another insurgent actually is the Republican nominee. Knebel’s Quinn is closer in policy to Trump than Sanders, but has several redeeming points: he values intellectual input and thoughtful policy-making, he instinctively grasps the importance of reaching much wider than the white male demographic and challenges his own party on race and gender issues (even if he doesn’t end up where we might want him to), and he doesn’t tell lies. Immigration is a second or third generation issue, and the terrorists are domestic insurgents neutralised by negotiation. I would probably still have supported Quinn’s Democratic opponent if I’d had a vote in this fictional 1976, but I would have found it a tough choice. Read the book for yourself, and see what you think.