Rice is the most compelling character. Allie pities “poor Condi, who seemed to have spent a lifetime offering graciousness as a kind of microwaved substitute for actual warmth.” Barbara Bush reckons Rice “wanted her real personality to break through; she was merely afraid of it — as opposed to Hillary … who despised her own real self.” But Rice has an authentic center, knows that if she ran for office “every compromise and stifling and self-suppression to be performed would … devour her with shame.”
At an Army base in Germany, preparing to address the troops outdoors, she unbuttons her coat so it will blow open and “reveal a pair of knee-high boots tightly encasing two legs whose several inches of exposed thigh had been made shapely by uncountable hours on the elliptical. … Our Miss Brooks morphing into Lucy Lawless. … Dominatrix? Who, me?” Three hundred pages later, she’s in bed with the named, real Canadian foreign minister, a man 11 years her junior. “Condi admired the forearm flexors of Canada’s Sexiest Male M.P.,” and later proudly thinks “I got laid,” but also recognizes that their “lovemaking resembled the U.S.-Canadian relationship … affectionate; not especially dramatic; and unlikely to evolve.”
As for Bush, I’m willing to buy that he really is kind, particularly to the women in his life; emotional about the wounded and displaced; “sickened” by corruption “more than any dovishness”; and realized after being re-elected “how much he already wanted the whole thing to be over.” And he might have the dark, funny thought that “if the plane aiming for the Capitol dome on September 11 had actually hit it, he could imagine his vice president muttering ‘No loss’ through that sly slit of a mouth.”
But the W. of “Landfall” is unbelievably wonderful. He makes charming fun of his reputation for ignorance — and then disproves it again and again. He’s fluent geopolitically, historically, philosophically. He knows minutiae, like the Iraqi village where Saddam’s regime executed over 140 people in 1982, and he’s smart about the bigger picture, understanding that his war to incite regional democratization “was, he’d come to realize, his own domino theory, a reversal of the L.B.J. version.” When Rumsfeld and Rice have a spat, he angrily asks: “What would you call that? A ‘dialectic’?” His born-again Christianity, he figures, gives him “more in common with, and more insight into, the most radical Muslim who read his Quran than the unbeliever who never opened his Bible.” And Mallon’s Bush is this much of a brainiac mensch: He’s trying to finagle a happy ending for Allie and Ross because he’d failed in Iraq and New Orleans, and thus “felt required to amalgamate … the miniature and the giant. If he could help to solve their problems, writ small in the ink of a double catastrophe, maybe that could lead him toward a solution for the catastrophes themselves.”
His flaws are barely flaws. Dole rags on him for “always choking up” and Kissinger, likewise, for possibly being “the sincerest man I’ve ever met.” In this book his biggest problem, which Mallon diagnoses well, is a fundamental uneasiness, the lack of an even keel. Young Laura worries “how long it would be before the quick, constant movements between overindulgence and athletic self-punishment broke the spring of her husband’s metronome.” When Allie first beholds him, she remarks on the fake good humor — “He’s actually pissed off. I can see it in his eyes” — and three decades later still sees the bipolarity: “Half the time he was without self-confidence; the other half he spilled an excess of it.” But this is such a mature and self-aware Bush that he knows he “had to fight it, the sudden shift from merriment to irritability, from runner’s high to cramp, the flight and crash he experienced a dozen times an hour.” He wonders at one point if he is “getting as paranoid as Nixon,” and then decides that maybe President Ford “was the only normal guy to have occupied the place,” including himself and his father.
I was surprised how little space such a thoughtful writer devotes in this long novel to the awful particulars of its central catastrophe. He’s too easy on everyone. The action starts nearly two years into the war, well after the administration made its big, terrible decisions. The profound bungling and cynicism and deception behind those decisions is elided, practically ignored, eclipsed by Bush’s present-moment sincerity and idealism. Dick Cheney is generally absent, as are any real discussions of waterboarding or renditions or Guantánamo. Rice’s predecessor, Colin Powell, who warned the president in 2002 that if we broke Iraq we’d own it, is recalled as a self-righteous ass. The war years Mallon has chosen to focus on, 2005 and 2006, perfectly stack the moral deck in Bush’s favor — after breaking Iraq but before committing to trying to put it back together. In fact, the military “surge” that started in 2007 reduced the chaos the United States had unleashed. The one main character in the war zones is likable, lovable Allison, whose work doesn’t involve killing or torturing, and the Iraqi (and Afghan) characters we meet still welcome the Americans as liberators, years into the wars.
Ross’s government job also consists of doing nice things. The most Republican opinion he expresses isn’t very right-wing — annoyance at “P.C. colleagues in his department … with their theory-ridden view of American history as a sort of ongoing atrocity.” In fact, he’s a deep-state RINO, finding the new bureaucratic term “homeland … a trifle Third Reich-ish,” and arguing against funding a hagiography of the conservative pundit Norman Podhoretz: “Let’s not reject their junk just so we can start pushing our junk.”