CNN news anchor Jake Tapper makes his fiction debut with The Hellfire Club (Little, Brown, Apr. 24), a thriller set in 1950s Washington, D.C. PW talked with him about his inspiration, McCarthyism, and more.
What inspired you to write The Hellfire Club?
First off, my fascination with the 1950s, which politically seems often ignored in American history, sandwiched between World War II and the sixties. Then there were a lifetime’s worth of bizarre stories I’ve learned about Washington, D.C., and our nation’s leaders that seemed ripe for exploration via dramatic license. Lastly, it seemed it might be fun to break away from the rigid shackles of nonfiction journalism.
What do Americans misunderstand about that era?
Many people seem to regard the 1950s as a sweet and innocent time. It wasn’t. It was the exact opposite. The economy was growing very quickly, and the United States was flexing its international muscle. There was a recklessness in the air. So much so, that at the end of his presidency, Eisenhower warned the nation about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Moreover, obviously, it was a horrific era for women and minorities. Menace lurked beneath the pleasant veneer.
Did your research into 1950s Washington yield any surprises for you?
The alliances—the Kennedys and Joe McCarthy, journalists doing work for the CIA. Swampy stuff that makes today’s Washington, D.C., look like the Mojave Desert. I was quite surprised at how resonant the rise of Joe McCarthy was to today’s political world; as has been said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. McCarthy wielded lies and smears as weapons, and the news media and politicians were stymied as to how to respond. I heard a lot of rhyming as I researched and wrote.
In what ways has Washington changed?
The reforms passed since then spawned a cottage industry of lawyers and lobbyists whose job it is to help individuals and corporations evade them. So the rules are a bit different. The motivations of lust and power and greed, however, remain the exact same. There’s a scene in my book when the main character is surprised to discover an aide doesn’t read the business pages of the newspaper. “I prefer to focus on the politicians, not the CEOs,” she says. “And who do you think,” my main character asks, “is telling those politicians what to do?” Not much has changed about cutting deals, but the press is stronger and freer today. The public is more skeptical. Society is less bigoted and sexist. Despite all of our issues, in many respects, we are far better off today. On the other hand, smears and lies and indecencies—such as the ones that McCarthy pushed—are just as strong today if not stronger.