For some reason I still remember a tattered paperback of Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel in my huge collection of books only for the tagline “What if the President of the USA went stark-raving mad?” Never read it. Probably donated it to a charity like Friends of the Library. At the time, going by the back cover. I thought it was a thinly veiled allusion to Richard Nixon. I did not know at the time the book originally came out in 1965.
Fast forward to 2018, where we currently have a president that some have described as unhinged or incompetent. Let’s be clear, Night of Camp David is not some Nostradamus like prediction of the Trump presidency any more than I thought it was a reference to the Nixon presidency. Long out of print, interest had recently brought the book back into publication. I even received a NetGalley copy even though I had pre-ordered a paperback already.
The book itself is fairly simplistic, maybe even a little longer than it needs to be. A young junior senator from Iowa gets called to Camp David one night at the behest of the President. While there, in a darkened office the President rails about the Vice President whose own scandal the President takes as a personal attack against him. He want’s the young senator, Jim McVeigh to be his new running mate for re-election instead of the current VP. He them goes on to promote the idea of nationwide wiretaps of citizens. Bells start going off in McVeigh’s head. But the offer of a vice presidency silences those bells.
But another encounter with the President as well as accounts from other people who have talked to him raises alarming red flags to him where he is convinced the President nuts.
What happens over the next few hundred pages is a lot of hemming and hawing between McVeagh’s own doubts and trying to keep things secret until he is absolutely sure. Even the few people he confides in aren’t convinced. In fact, they think he is the one that is losing his mind.
As far as political thrillers, this is definitely political, but barely has any thrills. Senator Jim MacVeagh is not the brightest bulb in the bunch and he is definitely morally flawed with his extramarital affair. At times the dialog is very dated and sometimes sound like an episode of Mad Men.
The situations themselves does come across as very plausible in how other political figures would react and initially refuse to believe that the president has become an unhinged paranoid with delusions of grandeur. The book was published in 1965, and the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967. But Fletcher Knebel was also a political newspaper columnist so we can assume he drew on his background for the material. And at time it reads almost like a satire. Perhaps it is and we were never told.
The novel comes to a tidy end. Perhaps it comes at that end a little too conveniently. Nevertheless it is a short read worth taking with you on a plane or to the beach.