It’s the afternoon of December 19, 1998, the day the House will impeach Bill Clinton, and one Republican representative can’t bring himself to vote. Not, as you might expect, because he’s torn between his partisan passions and constitutional principle—the representative has just delivered a screed pronouncing the president’s offenses impeachable. But because he literally can’t vote. He has emptied his wallet, ransacked his office, and badgered his aides, all to no avail: Our poor hero has misplaced his electronic voting card.
Welcome to the misadventures of Charles Lattan, a fictional representative from Idaho’s fictional seventeenth district who launches a quixotic presidential bid. Lattan is the protagonist of Potomac Beach, a Christopher Buckley-esque satire penned by a congressional aide-turned-p.r. specialist named Eron Shosteck. When Shosteck released the book last year, it won an exceedingly modest reception—a handful of reviews in insider publications like Roll Call and National Journal’s The Hotline—and raised few eyebrows on Capitol Hill. The bumbling, slow-witted Lattan was just too cartoonish to resemble any actual congressmen.
But, now that House Speaker Dennis Hastert has bungled his way through the Mark Foley scandal, Shosteck’s novel looks less and less like an exercise in burlesque. The author, it turns out, spent three years working as Hastert’s press secretary in the early ‘90s, and more than one former Hill aide now sees shades of Shosteck’s old boss in the novel. “Watching the current events on the Hill has reminded [friends and former colleagues] of my book,” says Shosteck, who estimates some two dozen Potomac Beach fans have contacted him since the scandal broke.
Shosteck is understandably coy when discussing his muse. “Some of the scenes are based on actual events,” he says. “Others are completely products of my imagination. It’s up to the reader to decide which is which.” Given what we know of Hastert’s performance during the Foley scandal, that shouldn’t be too challenging. These days, it’s hard to read up on Shosteck’s protagonist without inferring a thing or two about the man who runs the House.
POTOMAC BEACHopens during the final months of the 1998 campaign season, and Lattan, a former plumber and House freshman, is up for reelection. His chances, to put it mildly, are not good. Lattan ties himself in knots during an interview with Larry King—he of the world-famous softball question. Later on, his aides exclude him from all but two minutes of his own 30-minute infomercial, the better to minimize his incoherent ramblings. A list of Lattan’s mental states reads like the symptoms of head trauma: During those rare moments when his head isn’t “spinning,” it’s usually because his brain is “boiling” or his mind is “aflame.” Or because he’s asleep. Lattan has a narcoleptic’s gift for nodding off at mildly stressful moments.
Lattan only manages to impersonate a minimally functional candidate thanks to the vigilance of his staff. Without them, he lapses into Admiral Stockdale- like confusion. During a campaign appearance at an Idaho middle school, Lattan gets a question about abolishing the Department of Education. Panic sets in when he can’t remember his own position. “[T]he person who would know, the chief of staff, was God knows where on Capitol Hill,” Shosteck writes.
On Election Day, Lattan looks headed for certain defeat. His opponent is his stylistic opposite: surefooted, charismatic, blessed with Kennedy-esque good looks. But fate, in the form of a natural disaster, intervenes. Torrential rains keep the undecideds home, and Lattan squeaks by with less than a point to spare.
Throughout the book, no subject more reliably raises the fictional representative’s blood pressure than the former president. A headline proclaiming Clinton’s apology to the nation for the Lewinsky affair sends Lattan into a sputtering rage: “Clinton didn’t apologize one bit! That slick bastard did it again!” Lattan is driven to distraction when a reporter asks him about his botched impeachment vote. “Here I am, an honest man, and I have to explain myself while that impeached, lying pervert continues to wage his illegal war in the Balkans,” he privately fumes.
At times, Lattan can’t even denounce Clinton without muffing his lines. Before a phone interview with a reporter during the Lewinsky scandal, Lattan’s press secretary painstakingly reviews the requisite talking points. But, once the questioning begins, Lattan clams up, forcing the aide to scrawl responses in huge letters on a legal pad.
Tragically blind to his own limitations, Lattan decides to run for president not long after winning reelection. The raison d’etre for his bid isn’t lowering taxes or even protecting potato subsidies back home in Idaho, but his intense Clinton-hatred—hence the campaign mantra, “His interns lick envelopes.” Lattan’s flesh-pressing style is some parts George Allen, some parts Larry David. On a trip to New Hampshire, he refers to Canadians as “Canucks,” which he assumes to be a term of endearment. He slurps down Elijah’s wine at a Passover seder with prospective supporters and proposes abolishing Social Security before an assemblage of retirees. Lattan isn’t even competent enough to get himself entrapped. Porn king Larry Flynt hires a prostitute to seduce him in Iowa. But, unlike his nemesis in the White House, Lattan falls asleep before he can incriminate himself.
THANKS TO SCENES like these, one friend told Shosteck she thought she was watching the movie version of Potomac Beach at the height of FoleyGate. A bumbling Republican congressman? Hastert did an almost Oscar-worthy rendition of the tongue-tied Lattan during his recent Foley-themed sessions with reporters. An inveterate Clinton-hater? In an attempt to divert attention from the scandal, Hastert took after various unnamed Clinton aides during a recent interview. As Shosteck explains it to me: “He felt that Clinton was getting away with things he would never be able to get away with because he didn’t have Clinton’s panache or finesse with the media. ... He’s someone who wasn’t refined or discerning enough to be able to hobnob with the Washington elite. That drove a lot of his anger.”
But, wait, who exactly does Shosteck mean by “he”? Hastert or Lattan? Shosteck declines to clarify. “The novelist is powerless against what he might read in the newspaper the next day,” he says. “It’s harder and harder to distinguish fact and fiction.”
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.