City Paper is not for tourists
In his new thriller, The Nation’s David Corn tells tales stranger than nonfiction.
David Corn—since 1987 the Washington editor of the liberal-left bastion The Nation—has been in the same job longer than just about any of his peers in Washington journalism. It’s enough to have made him a bit sick of hewing to the boring facts of real life. “In Washington, we all know there are stories we believe are true, but which we can’t get the goods on,” Corn says. “I call them ‘stories too good to check.’”
So while cranking out pieces about Washington’s tedious cast of political characters, Corn began nibbling around the edges of fiction. “I dabbled in Hollywood material,” he recalls in mock So-Cal jadedness. “Scripts, treatments. I had some near-deals, but nothing happened.” Corn even started a novel about a group of New Yorkers who frequent an avant-garde bar, but later tossed it aside. (He refuses to name the title: “Good titles are really hard to come by.”)
Then fate entered, in the form of James Grady, the author of Six Days of the Condor. Grady was editing a collection of short stories on crime and suspense for the nonprofit group Share Our Strength. Grady had pried submissions out of Joyce Carol Oates, James Lee Burke, Andrew Vachss, and George Pelecanos, but he needed more stories to fill out the book. For the hell of it, he asked his friend Corn. Upon hearing the list of acceptances, Corn said yes, but he acknowledged a little nervousness. Grady calmed him. “If the story sucks,” he told Corn, “we won’t use it.”
“I remember being nervous because I’d never seen any fiction he’d done,” Grady recalls. “The transformation from nonfiction to fiction is a lot harder than it looks, and I didn’t want to be the one to look at a friend and say, ‘You can’t do this—you suck.’ I was tremendously relieved when the story came out and it was good.”
Corn’s story revolves around a failed scriptwriter who writes a book about committing a murder, disguising it enough to foil the prosecutors; the protagonist goes on talk shows, the case blows up into a cause celebre, and intrigue ensues. Corn wrote his story within a couple of weeks because of a deadline snafu with Grady. But Corn’s story made the cut, and—badda-bing, badda-boom—it was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1997. It was the only “virgin” submission in the collection.
Now, two years later, Corn has published his first novel, Deep Background (St. Martin’s Press), which begins with the assassination of a president from Louisiana and continues with all sorts of scurrilous discoveries and power plays. The reaction so far has been favorable. The Los Angeles Times’ reviewer called it a “slaughterhouse scorcher of a book you won’t want to put down.” The Washington Post’s called it “as clean and steely as an icy Pinot Grigio.”
Corn had a rather unexciting upbringing (compared with those of his characters) in White Plains, N.Y. He earned his undergraduate degree at Brown University, though only because he snagged a lot of cross-credits from Columbia while interning at The Nation. Corn got his first taste of Washington working as a Nader Raider on P Street. He survived a bout of food poisoning, which he attributes to the McDonald’s on 17th Street, and helped launch the arms-control magazine Nuclear Times. In 1984, he left to try a round of freelancing. (Full disclosure: His outlets have periodically included a certain Washington alternative weekly.)
Corn settled in as The Nation’s Washington editor in 1987 and began to write regularly about that era’s top story, the Iran-Contra affair. Today, Iran-Contra seems passe—the Sears Roebuck of scandals in our Hammacher Schlemmer age. But, whereas Oliver North may have settled comfortably into life as a radio host, Corn still gets a special glint in his eye when he jabbers on about the halcyon days when congressional committees—controlled then by the Democrats, of course—spewed out reams of previously classified documents about Ronnie, Ollie, & Co.
“There were all sorts of zany, crazy people then—people recruited by components of the administration to do zany, crazy things—and they were not always mindful about how to be discreet,” Corn says. “That left a tremendous, wonderful paper trail to trace. At the end of each day, the Hill staffers would give you a stack of papers, something like 500 or 1,000 pages. Because there were other journalists in the room—scores of them—I had to figure out what was not going to be in the news the next day. So I’d sit up late at night and read through them. They offered tremendous leads. There was such an avalanche of information that few news outlets were able to go through the whole thing.”
These days, most ordinary Americans wouldn’t know a foreign-policy scandal if it hit them in the face. And that fact saddens Corn. “During the Cold War, there was a lot more focus on foreign affairs throughout society and the political-media world,” Corn says. “The Reagan administration made skulduggery a key part of their agenda. It was a time when journalists with an ideological bent could get kickass stories. Assassination manuals make good copy.”
While still a workaday reporter, Corn produced a kickass book about the CIA—Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades (Simon & Schuster, 1994). As a denizen of The Nation’s newsroom—which is rumored to have a few Stalinists left in it—Corn did not have an easy time cracking the spook community. If anything, his research, which took five years, offered Corn a unique perspective on how to go about intelligence-gathering in hostile territory.
“In the end, I spoke to over 100 CIA people,” he says. “Very few people who have written books on the CIA can claim that. And I really did it inch by inch by inch. There are some people who leave that world and are disenchanted, so you find them, and then they lead you to other people. People were sometimes so impressed that I’d found them that they actually wanted to talk to me.”
Still, why would the spooks consent to talk to anyone, much less to Corn? He offers two further explanations: “One, everyone has a desire to talk about what they did in life, even if people in the CIA are more restrained about acting on that impulse. And two, a lot of people were curious what I had learned—what I knew about things they were involved in but where they never saw the whole picture. If you are respectful and listen to them, and have a foundation of intelligent questions, people will often be receptive. A few beers at lunch will help, too.”
Once Blond Ghost materialized, Corn’s sources by and large told him he’d done a good job. So did reviewers at major publications. But sales were disappointing, even for a book of its genre. Corn suspects it goes back to that post-Reagan malaise—namely, that our Zeitgeist these days just isn’t ripe for serious military, diplomatic, and intelligence thought.
Maybe the excitement deficit has something to do with onetime draft-dodger Bill Clinton’s case of performance anxiety when it comes to leading America overseas. (If so, Corn—a ubiquitous television pundit—quips that Clinton “shouldn’t be receiving psychoanalysis on our dime by spending billions of dollars on the military budget.”) Or perhaps it’s because the American public is sick of the press, which, as Corn puts it, “works at only two speeds—neglect and frenzy.”
“All the stories start sounding the same—dog bites man; there’s corruption in the American political system. The public says, ‘We’re shocked. Shocked!’ When the majority of Americans believe that the CIA killed Kennedy and that The X-Files is closer to reality than C-SPAN, it’s going to be very hard to gain the attention of people with something as pedestrian as the truth.” Corn even tosses some sympathy the conservatives’ way—after all, they can’t seem to get the public to give a rat’s ass about the Clinton-China connection or the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom. “After you’ve seen sex in the White House, what else is there?”
At that point, Corn figured, you start concentrating on fiction. “I’d come to the conclusion after Blond Ghost that it’s not only damn hard to do a good and accurate history, it’s even harder to do it in a fashion that tells a story,” he says. “Every nonfiction writer who sends a proposal to a publisher says, ‘This book will read like a movie.’ That’s what I’d wanted to do for Blond Ghost—to make it a real-life Le Carre. You know, follow some infamous CIA officer and get dramatic scenes, where the guy slams his fist and says, ‘That goddamn Castro is going to be gone by the end of the week!’ and where someone snaps a carrot stick, someone else nods in silent assent, and a dog barks in the distance as they all head off to plot murderous schemes. Well, you can’t write history like that. You can’t get the details you need if you’re not there.”
For a while, the fast-moving developments of Monicagate put a hold on Deep Background, so Corn kept writing his column for the otherwise conservative New York Press and contented himself with stints as a sparring partner for Pat Buchanan and other conservatives with whom he’s become amiable. “Pat,” Corn says, “is a fellow who would actually read The Nation to see what the other side was thinking. He believes politics is a battlefield of ideas. It happens to be a battle between Christian good guys and heathen bad guys, but for him it still is a battlefield of ideas.”
His conservative debate partners return the affection. “I’m a huge David Corn fan,” says Tucker Carlson, a staff writer of the Weekly Standard and sometime Corn antagonist on CNN’s Crossfire. “He seems to understand and enjoy the perversity of Washington. He always seems amused by this town.”
“In my dealings with him,” Carlson adds, “he never seems to intend anything he says personally. People tend to mock and disparage you, but he rises above the purely personal. He can sustain an attack without making you feel like an asshole. It’s a gift.”
Even so, there’s only so much Crossfire, Capital Gang, Equal Time, McLaughlin Group, Fox News, and MSNBC that one person—even someone as self-promotional as Corn—can do. So the publication of Deep Background comes not a moment too soon.
For Deep Background—whose moral themes Corn grandiosely, but not wholly implausibly, compares to those of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men—he took care of the details. He scoped out far-flung areas of the District to make sure a pivotal car chase would play out correctly. He asked an intern at an alternative newspaper in New Orleans to check out a particular street corner there to make sure its role in the narrative made sense. And he spent days hanging out at Union Station trying to overhear conversations, just to make sure his dialogue for young black characters had at least a minimum of credibility.
“Unlike a lot of people writing Washington thrillers—many of whom come to Washington as long as two or three days—David knows the city, and it really shows,” Grady says. “Not many people appreciate that.”
Rather fiendishly, Corn even devised a number of scenarios in which criminals could outwit Washington’s ever-expanding array of security devices. He says he made a point of ensuring that everything was plausible. “I didn’t want to have someone holding on to the wing of a 747 or have someone outrace a nuclear explosion,” he explains.
At the end of our conversation, I confront him with his book’s biggest implausibility: No politician from that moral swamp known as Louisiana could ever be elected president.
He laughs. “I am more optimistic,” he says. “I have faith in the good people of Louisiana.” CP