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Originally published Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM


Book review

Retired Washington Post editor draws bead on high-stakes gamesmanship in D.C.

In his new thriller "The Rules of the Game," former Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. portrays the high-stakes gamesmanship that drives public life in our nation's capital.

Seattle Times book editor

"The Rules of the Game"

by Leonard Downie Jr.

Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95

Question: What does the editor of The Washington Post do when he retires?

Answer: He publishes a novel.

Second question: How true to real life at the Post, a newspaper that has uncovered some of the great scandals of our age, is this book?

One of the first rules of fiction is you don't have to stick to the facts, so Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post for 17 years, doesn't have to substantiate a darn thing about the events that unfold in "The Rules of the Game."

But if the world Downie creates in this un-put-downable novel approximates D.C. life at the highest levels ... well, let the naive, the weak and the indecisive beware. Don't even put your little toe in the water without a good lawyer.

This contemporary story swirls around four main characters: Mark Daniels, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post ... er, sorry, The Washington Capital. Sarah Page, an ambitious, socially maladjusted reporter. Trent Tucker, a Karl Rove-esque political consultant. And Susan Cameron, the newly elected vice president of the United States.

None of these characters could be called richly drawn. All they do is work, exercise and cheat, or get cheated on, by their spouses. The skeptical reader may wonder, why care about a bunch of highly buffed politicoholics?

Then the game begins, and Downie vividly demonstrates the stakes these people are playing for, both for themselves and for their country.

Sarah Page is assigned to the campaign-finance beat. By dint of enormous diligence and a bulldog constitution, she uncovers a corruption scandal that leads to a Halliburtonesque government contractor.


The trail of corruption leads to evidence of supersecret and highly illegal anti-terrorist activities. Soon the executive branch, Congress, the CIA, well-connected lobbyists and the media are in a race to either uncover or obscure the truth.

The devil in this well-worn genre is in the details, and Downie — whose watch at the Post yielded 25 Pulitzers — knows the details.

He does a credible job of recreating the pressure cooker he must have worked in: A-list lawyers who threaten to sue the paper into bankruptcy if it publishes a damaging story. Investigative targets who know the paper's work may lead to a federal investigation, or jail. Stories vetted by the paper's in-house legal experts, who go over every line and demand justification for every word.

And reporters who can't trust anyone. After meeting with a sexy, sympathetic congressman, Sarah, in dire need of trustworthy company, thinks: "That had been too easy. ... The congressman had opened up completely to a total stranger, a reporter, no less. In Sarah's experience, politicians were usually much more cautious, often duplicitous, in their dealings with the press."

No wonder this woman has no social life.

I recommend this book to anyone who thinks bloggers are going to save the world. Bloggers have contributed enormously to opening up the political process, but what happens to a lone blogger who takes on a powerful government figure without a phalanx of lawyers and a fiery executive editor playing defense?

"The Rules of the Game" is a compelling read, and also a primer in How Things Work in Washington. You want to go after a, shall we say, Cheneyesque sort of target? Get yourself a good lawyer. Or 10.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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