Review of Erik Tarloff's Face-Time

J. Bradford DeLong
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/
delong@econ.berkeley.edu

April 2000

Erik Tarloff (1998), Face-Time (New York: Random House: 0609604635).


The most famous and talked about novel about the American White House in the 1990s is not Erik Tarloff's Face-Time: it is Joe Klein's Primary Colors. Klein's novel is about a presidential campaign--read 1992. It is about a young, naive, but competent and high-ranking aide--read George Stephanopolous. It is about the candidate's wife--read Hillary Rodham Clinton. And it is about a charismaic and intelligent presidential candidate with a past full of sexual and moral lapses--read Bill Clinton.

Truth be told, Primary Colors is not a very good novel. It is heavy on episodes: lots of things happen and the pot keeps boiling, but not in a way that makes a unified plot. Characters are boldly drawn, but as caricatures rather than people. People who shouldn't have sex, but the scene is not particularly hot. Primary Colors is a pot-boiler, not a novel. Klein recognizes that telling the story of the Clintons required a novelist of greater gifts--someone like Robert Penn Warren, perhaps, and Klein drops allusions to All the King's Men, Warren's story of Huey Long, throughout Primary Colors. But Klein can't quite pull it off.

Yet when it was published Primary Colors triggered enthusiastic reviews, an enormous media buzz, and became the talk of Washington D.C. for half a year. It did so because when first published the book was by Anonymous. And the book's publisher and flacks dropped hints that Anonymous was in fact somebody whose position and career would have been jeapordized if it became known that he had written this book. The author--so the sly innuendoes implies--was someone very close to the President: someone who had lots of face-time with Bill Clinton, and who was telling us via the novel what he had learned from his special access.

The interest in the book grew the longer that its author--Joe Klein, just another Washington reporter with no special passes to the White House's West Wing, East Wing, or Family Quarters--could keep up the pretense that the author was someone special who who had to stay "anonymous." Klein went as far as telling questioners that he was not the author--in fact pledging his journalistic integrity to questioners that he was not the author. The result? Big sales, big movie.

But why?

The answer is that the American presidency has acquired magical, mystical, royal powers: that contact with the president confers magic; that those who have face-time with the president are somehow ennobled.

This is a strange and remarkable phenomenon. And this is what Erik Tarloff's book Face-Time is about: not about his President Sheffield, but about Sheffield's speechwriter Ben Kraus and what being at the Court of the President does to him--especially when President Sheffield decides to sleep with Kraus's girlfriend Gretchen. It's about life inside a peculiar bubble where your status, your power, your sense of your own self-worth all a function of your face time, and what this does to you.

Tarloff's book struck me as very true--in the elation of the campaign and a new administration, in the confident belief of those in the White House that they can change the world, in the worship of the president, and in the associated sycophancy. Yet precisely because Tarloff said that he wrote it, rather than claiming face-time he did not really have--Tarloff's novel has had a smaller cultural and political footprint than Joe Klein's.

So kudos to Erik Tarloff, for writing what may be the most psychologically true pictures of life around the White House I have ever seen--and here's hoping that none of us will ever find ourselves in the positions of Tarloff's characters Ben and Gretchen.

The novel has a number of moments and descriptions that have stayed with me, for example...

 

...Tarloff's capsule summary of just why the presidency becomes the center of attention:

p. 21: When an entire enterprise is built around one person, your sense of importance is determined by your access to him. By face-time. The campaign becomes a traveling court, with the candidate as sovereign, the rest of us courtiers vying for his attention and favor. It's almost independent of his personal qualities. I mean, to get that far, he's probably got something, but whatever he might personally lack his position supplies.

 

...Tarloff's claim that working in the West Wing is not that different from joining the Moonies:

p. 48: When I was in high school, my older brother, Dave, who was in his sophomore year in college at the time, suddenly dropped out of school and joined a cult. He had always been so sensible, it took all of us by surprise and made my parents frantic.... [S]eeing my brother in the company of the leader... and his inner circle was especially distressing. The man had a certain presence, unquestionably, but the extraordinary deference shown him by everyone in the room... was profoundly disconcerting.... [I]n that context, in that setting, you began to wonder whether you were possibly missing something essential. Everyone else in the room seemed to see it... as if every word and gesture of the man bespoke something manifestly majestic and holy. Dave left the cult on his own after about ten months.... But it's something I sometimes recall when I'm in Charles Sheffield's company. The president is an interesting and able man, undoubtedly, but does he really merit the deferential kowtowing that is shown him as a matter of course? If he didn't have the mantle of the presidency about him, would any of us think of him as anything terribly special? I doubt it, frankly, but the fact that I can't be sure--that the man and the office are inextricable, even to me, even now--as almost as distressing as was the adulation everyone showed... [in] the cult's compound. I sometimes get the feeling Dave isn't the only Krause brother who joined a cult.

 

...on the eagerness of nearly everyone to tell the president what he wants to hear so that he will find talking to you pleasant:

p. 134: "Yeah, right. Ingratiating yourself, sucking up... no ulterior motives there, uh-uh, no sir."

"Well now, Randy," I said, getting a little pissed myself now, "I suppose everyone tries to ingratiate himself around the president. Seems to come with the territory. It's just, some of us are better at it than others. Or maybe it's even simpler than that, maybe some of us are just more naturally likeable."

By now he was washing his hands, and I was at a urinal. He looked over at me. "In any case, you're exactly where you want to be, right?"

"If only you knew, I said."

 

...on how close contact with the presidency feels... special:

p. 138: "But I think this is worse. Ultimately, it's worse. It's so... forgive the cliche, but it's so unmanning. I mean, if it were anybody else, I could at least compete. But if you're looking for a boyfriend they play 'Hail to the Chief' to when he enters the room, then only one guy fills the bill. And I'm pretty much out of contention."

"But doesn't that make it less terrible? I mean, he's not really my boyfriend. Nobody's my boyfriend but you. I'm not interested in anybody else. And it's not a judgment about you. Comparisons aren't relevant. He's, he's... he's this figure on a stage. It isn't personal. It doesn't even feel personal. Not even when he talks personally. And it isn't like, I don't know, like his conversation is more interesting--it mostly isn't very interesting at all--or that he treats me better, or he's more attractive, or he's a better lover. It's just, the position he occupies makes the whole thing unique. Irresistible. Irresistible as a bizarre once-in-a-lifetime opportunity..."

 

...and on the deep fundamentals of primate behavior in the presence of the alpha-male:

p. 100: Jesus, I hated this. The worst part was, even while seething inwardly, I found myself smiling at him, lowering my head slightly, not meeting his eyes, docilely permitting myself to be steered toward one of the two matching sofas. My reactions were out of control somehow. Jane Goodall, in her book In the Shadow of Man, describes a chimpanzee named William: "If another adult male showed signs of aggression toward him, William was quick to approach with gestures of appeasement and submission, reaching out to lay his hands on the other, crouching with soft panting grunts in front of the higher-ranking individuals. During such an encounter, he would often pull back the corners of his lips and expose his teeth in a nervous grin. The most I can say for myself is that I somehow managed to omit the panting grunts. That one trivial bit of primate behavior to the side, I felt quite a kinship with William as I took my seat. During his encounters with dominant males, I wonder if his heart raced as fast as mine was doing now...

Erik Tarloff reviews Primary Colors' author Joe Klein's new novel, The Running Mate.