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Illustration by Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source photos by iStock; AP PHOTO (Kennedy, Nixon), Getty (Biden, Bush), Library of Congress (Lincoln), Keystone Features/Getty (Roosevelt).

As we approach the end of the first hundred days of the presidency of Joe Biden, it is increasingly clear that the past four years in American politics proved that fact was stranger than fiction. But those fast-receding four years have also proved that, when it comes to the White House, facts sometimes have precursors in fiction.

In an 1880 novel with the piquant title Democracy, a fictional president – in a characterization not unknown to contemporary followers of Washington politics – considered himself owing “nothing, as he conceived, to politicians, but sympathising through every fiber of his unselfish nature with the impulses and aspirations of the people,” believing that his duty was “to protect the people from those vultures, as he called them, those wolves in sheep’s clothing, those harpies, those hyenas, the politicians.”

That characterization in Democracy (Henry Holt, 1880, with a modern edition from Penguin Classics) was the product of the active imagination of Henry Adams. Perhaps the oldest presidential novel still in print, it was written by a descendant of two presidents, the author of a landmark history of the Thomas Jefferson and James Madison presidencies and an intellectual figure perhaps best known for his posthumously published memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Modern Library’s accolade as the finest non-fiction American book of the 20th century.

Patricia O’Toole, whose biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson followed the publication of The Five of Hearts (Clarkson Potter, 1991) – a portrait of the Gilded Age circle around that same Henry Adams – notes that presidential novelists have an easier path, in some ways, than academics: “In the face of inconsistencies they cannot explain, biographers and historians often throw up their hands and declare the matter a paradox. I have done this myself with Roosevelt and Wilson. But novelists are free to imagine their way to an explanation.”

As the central figure in the central crisis of 19th-century America, Lincoln naturally has attracted the attention of novelists. The best known of the modern era is Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: A Novel (Random House, 1984), where the 16th president is less sentimental and more conspiratorial than the version presented in myriad biographies.

Many biographers (and one film director, in the 2012 adaptation of the Seth Grahame-Smith novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, published by Grand Central Publishing in 2010) have examined Lincoln’s grief after the death of his son Willie in the middle of the Civil War. But none so poignantly as George Saunders did in setting forth the shorelessness of Lincoln’s grief for his dead son in Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). Especially when Saunders’s Lincoln compared his son’s death with that of so many others in America’s most deadly war: “He is just one. And the weight of it about to kill me. Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. … A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it.”

The counterhistorical notion of Nazi victory in the Second World War has produced what you might regard as two horror stories that elevate isolationist figures with anti-Semitic outlooks to the White House.

In Fatherland (Hutchinson, 1992), the British novelist Robert Harris – whose later books about a papal conclave and, last year, the development of Nazi Germany’s V2 rocket, are irresistible page-turners – combines counterhistory with mystery so effectively that I have read the book, later adapted as an HBO movie, three times. In this case, the Nazi victory in the war is followed by the election in the United States of the appeaser Joseph P. Kennedy as president in 1964 – in real life, a year after his son was assassinated in Dallas.

In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, known not only for his pioneering 1927 solo trans-Atlantic fight but also for his acceptance of a Nazi medal and his 1940s crusade to “save the white race,” defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election and then negotiates a separate peace with Germany and Japan. The book includes two of the most searing sentences in all of Roth’s work: “Our incomparable American childhood was ended. Soon my homeland would be nothing more than my birthplace.”

Libraries are full of stories about fictional presidents, some of them inspiring figures and some intimidating, some full of charisma and some beset by challenge.

The British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “When I want to read a novel, I write one.” In fact, he wrote 17 of them, with Sybil, or the Two Nations – which The Guardian newspaper described as “perhaps the most important Victorian condition-of-England novel of its time” – sometimes ranked as one of the dozen finest English novels of all time. Not to be outdone, Bill Clinton checked in with The President Is Missing (Knopf, 2018), a thriller written with the prolific novelist James Patterson, a book full of calamity but, surprising for the 42nd president, no carnality.

Clinton himself is (kind of) portrayed in Primary Colors (Random House, 1996), by the (kind of) anonymous author who later was revealed to be the columnist Joe Klein. The book caused a sensation when it was released, but anyone who followed the 1992 presidential campaign knew that the candidate – a Southern governor whose extramarital affair was revealed during the New Hampshire primary – could only be the chief executive of Arkansas who had a longtime dalliance with Gennifer Flowers.

Richard M. Nixon comes alive – or rather we see a far more sensually alive Pat Nixon, in real life the pallid First Lady – in Watergate: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012), by Thomas Mallon, who also portrays George W. Bush in Landfall (Pantheon, 2019).

The younger president Bush also is portrayed, fictionally at least, in Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (Random House, 2008), which opens with an author’s note describing the book as “a work of fiction loosely inspired by the wife of an American First Lady,” adding, “Her husband, his parents and certain prominent members of his administration are recognizable.” No one missed the comparison.

A lot of readers – and a hopeful publisher – thought they saw Donald J. Trump in Night of Camp David, by Fletcher Knebel, the story of a mentally-ill president who actually says, “There are no such things as true facts, for then we’d have to have false facts, wouldn’t we?” And, indeed, when Vintage Books put it out two years ago, a marketing folio for the book asked a provocative question of its own: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?” The book contains a blurb from The New York Times (”A little too plausible for comfort”). Alas, that comes from a half-century-old review, for the book actually was published in 1965, in the early Lyndon Johnson days.

But Knebel belongs in the pantheon of presidential novelists for another book, published two years earlier during the Kennedy administration. Seven Days in May (Harper and Row, 1962) was written with Charles W. Bailey II, later the editor of the Minneapolis Tribune and the author of a lovely frontier political novel The Land Was Ours (HarperCollins, 1991). Seven Days, made into a 1964 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, remains one of the classics of the genre, combining a military coup, a nuclear threat and the go-go morality of the period. Sharp-eyed readers will identify two figures of enduring importance in this volume: the atomic-trigger-happy General Curtis LeMay (the model for the principal character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove film and later the 1968 running mate of third-party presidential candidate George C. Wallace) and right-wing agitator Army General Edwin Walker (the target of a botched assassination attempt by Lee Harvey Oswald, considered the assassin of John F. Kennedy seven months later).

The early Cold War period spawned an unusual interest in politics and, consequently, an unusual spate of political books.

Fail Safe (McGraw Hill, 1962) was published, it turns out, at the exact midpoint of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, a president consumed by a nuclear crisis has to decide whether to shoot down an incoming plane – a dramatic moment that is at the heart of the 1964 film adaptation starring Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda. Indeed, great actors often are attracted by presidential novels; Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman are the stars in the 1997 film adaptation of David Baldacci’s Absolute Power (Warner Books, 1996), about a murder growing out of a presidential sex affair.

Though it was written decades later, the horror novelist Stephen King also was drawn to the Cold War period, and his 11/22/63 (Scribner, 2011) is based on the Kennedy assassination, which occurred on that date in Dallas. Later adapted into a Hulu television series, the 849-page book has novel (and barely believable) perspectives on the signature event of the 1960s.

One of the great novels of the period is Irving Wallace’s The Man (Simon and Schuster, 1964), based on a series of improbable deaths that lead to the installation of a Black man in the White House; this notion later was employed in the three-season ABC and Netflix television series Designated Survivor, which ended its run two years ago. At the centre of The Man, published 45 years before Barack Obama became the first Black president, is an impeachment crisis based on the 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson, the only presidential impeachment in American history at that point. Four impeachment crises and three impeachment trials would follow between 1974 and now, but at the time, impeachment possessed a forbidding air that Nixon, Clinton and Trump (twice) would help alleviate.

Many of these novels have antecedents in a book firmly established in the American canon. Written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935 and published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, it involves a presidential candidate with dictatorial impulses whose 1936 political platform might be summarized simply as “Make America Great Again.” The novel, written by Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is titled It Can’t Happen Here. As so many of these presidential novels – including Henry Adams’s 141-year-old Democracy – show, it can.

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