Wag the Dog

A Novel


By Larry Beinhart

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Once upon a time there was a mean, dying GOP chairman who had a brilliant scheme to assure that his man would retain the office of president of the United States of America. And the only man who could pull off this elaborate plan was a celebrated Hollywood director. Add to the mix a left-coast gumshoe named Broz who is trapped among cover-ups, undercover work, and his own morality, a cast of bicoastal desperate characters, and the stage is set for a powerful D.C./L.A. production. From Edgar award winning author Larry Beinhart, Wag the Dog was the most brilliant political satire of the last decade. It was made into a classic film by Barry Levinson, and, fortunately, is now back in print.


Praise for Larry Beinhart

Wag the Dog:

“Funny, ingenious and outrageous.”

—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

“Incomparably funny, clever, and inspired—the most

absorbing story I’ve read in some time.”

—Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe

“An absolutely marvelous time . . . a Hollywood superbly

imagined.”—Carolyn See, The Washington Post

Foreign Exchange:

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, 1992

“Larry Beinhart writes well, the way that Elmore Leonard

and Douglas Adams write well.”—UPI

“Sparkling international escapade . . .

a witty, near-perfect caper.”—Publishers Weekly

“A witty, stylish thriller.”

—Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A slick, well-crafted thriller.”—Sunday Telegraph (London)

“A delicious and devious thriller.”—Daily News

“A cynical, at times hilarious book, by an elegant writer.”

—The New York Times

No One Rides for Free:

Winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel

“Brilliant, witty, marvelously alive detective novel.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Ambitious and convincing mystery.”—Publishers Weekly

“Beinhart combines gut-wrenching insights into current class

and power structures with an innovative plot.”


“The man really can write.”—The New York Times

“This is the kind of writing that separates the best

from the rest.”—Rave Reviews

You Get What You Pay For:

“Is to the police procedural what

le Carré is to the spy story.”—Penthouse

“A masterly novel.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Beinhart . . . writes with immense assurance and clarity.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“One of the best books of 1988.”—Chicago Tribune

“Could win honors as best second mystery . . . well-populated,

well-detailed, and very well written novel of political

skullduggery.”—Los Angeles Times

Also By




The Librarian

No One Rides for Free

You Get What You Pay For

Foreign Exchange

How to Write a Mystery







THANKS TO THE Woodstock Library and its librarians—especially Judy Fischetti—who got me the great majority of the books, films, and videos that went into the making of this book.

We get most of our information in shallow, predigested sound bites and headlines. Whenever we want, or need, to look a little deeper, to think a little more seriously, our libraries are our most effective resource. Frequently, our only resource. Certainly, for the average person, the only affordable one. They deserve our support.

Also to Lt. Col. Ky L. Thompson (USMC ret.), who was kind enough to read the manuscript and correct my more egregious Marine errors.





This is a work of fiction. Many public figures appear in the text. Their speech and actions as depicted here are figments of the author’s imagination except where supported by the public record.

There are those who feel that fact and fiction are significantly less distinguishable than they used to seem to be. They might say, as ABC Television did in its introduction to The Heroes of Desert Storm: “Tonight’s film is based on true stories and interweaves news footage and dramatizations with actors and actual participants. To achieve realism no distinction is made among these elements.”

Wag the Dog





WAG THE DOG is about reality as fiction.

First there was a war.

I was watching it on television. I said to someone, “That’s a made for TV movie.” I didn’t get the response I wanted, which would have either been a burst of laughter or a sense of sudden recognition. I suspect they thought that I meant that it was like a mini-series or that the broadcasters were treating it like one.

That wasn’t what I meant. I meant it was scripted and directed and being played for an audience, us, the voters in the apparent democracy of America.

In order to explain it, to demonstrate it, to prove it, I wrote this book. It was originally called American Hero.

In it, a motion picture director, who is like Spielberg or Lucas or any one of a number of others, is hired to create the war that we saw as Desert Storm. I do not claim that story is literally true. It is, however, a literalization of what is really true. And, although it is a far out conspiracy tale, if you sit down and compare it, side by side, to the fakery that the networks told us was the reality, you’d have to choose the one that is officially labeled fiction.

That’s my claim. I invite you to make your own judgment, which is the real point of the enterprise. You’re free to talk to me about it at WagtheDog.biz.

Then there was the movie.

I am always asked if I, as the writer of the book, liked the movie. I loved the movie. It’s a brilliant film.

The next question is, was it faithful to the book. The answer is yes, the movie is exactly like the book, all they changed was the characters and the plot.

The book is about a real president, George Bush the First, and a real war, Gulf War One, with real bombs, blood, and dead people.

The movie is about an imaginary president—all we know of him is that he has a sex scandal with a young girl, which is enough to make everyone think it’s Bill Clinton—and an imaginary war—no bombs, no bullets, no bodies—just press releases and staged video clips. And a theme song and memorabilia.

If the film had tried to be faithful to the book, I think it would have failed. It made cinematic choices. One of my favorite parts is when Willie Nelson creates theme music for the war in a perfect satire of the then ubiquitous video of “We Are the World.” That was pure movie-making, beyond the reach of literature.

The novel, on the other hand, makes book choices. Like using footnotes.

I happen to love footnotes. They’re frequently the stuff that doesn’t fit into a book but that the author found so interesting, he couldn’t let them go. They’re also the place where you find out where the information came from. Which is hugely significant in judging its quality. In this particular book, the footnotes show the play in the business of creating reality, which is the same thing, in essence, that the Willie Nelson/theme song scenes were about.

The movie had far more currency than the book. Movies do that. Wag the Dog became an international byword for fake wars staged to distract from domestic political problems. Without a doubt, it raised the level of cynicism, which is to say it raised the level of awareness that real events are directed and staged for their political impact.

Did that awaken our media and make them sharper in their questions and evaluations? Did it shame our leaders and make them hesitate before making clearly bogus claims and unsupportable allegations? Did that raise the level of our national dialogue?

The answer to all three questions is a resounding, “No!”

In the ten years since the book and the seven years since the film the gullibility and credulity of the media have only grown. The current president, George Bush the Younger, or the Lesser, called the 9/11 terrorists “cowards.” Bill Maher, on a program called Politically Incorrect said “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building—say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Maher was fired and the program was terminated. Some portion of the media should have risen up in outrage, not necessarily to defend Maher and get him his job back, but in defense of speaking the truth. They did not.

That silence signaled to all concerned that other more dangerous fictions would be allowed to stand unchallenged: “they hate us because of our freedoms,” that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 terrorists, that he had weapons of mass destruction and if we waited for certainty “the smoking gun” might be “a mushroom cloud,” to name but a few. And that there would never, ever be any serious debate on what a War on Terror would consist of or should consist of.

I read this book for the first time in almost ten years to prepare this introduction. On one level I am pleased to see that it holds up. On another level, I was appalled. I found myself wondering if the current administration had read it and used it as an instruction manual.

On the way to scripting Gulf War I, the novel has the director considering other wars. One of them is:

A War on Terrorism. Not like the War-on-Drugs war. But real war where we go in and obliterate entire cities. Search and destroy. If they want to hide in Libya, invade Libya. Syria. Anywhere they tried to hide! . . .

Bush, in anger and grief, leads the nation—the nations, plural, of the West—in a Holy Crusade against terrorism. . . .

The terrorists would be Muslims. The Backward forces of Superstition and Repression of the East against the Rational Ethical, Forward-looking West. It tapped into atavistic hatred. Christian against Moslems! There it was—the project title—The Crusades.

First there was a book.

Then there was a war.

The War on Terror that you watched on TV today is about fiction as reality.



HE BELIEVED THAT he was Machiavelli incarnate. Political theoretician. Master intriguer. The most clever and the most ruthless man in the empire.

It was certainly true that it was an empire. In many ways the greatest the world had ever known though there was a prohibition against saying so in polite political society. In any case, it so far exceeded the sort of minor realm ruled by the Borgias, the meager reach of the Medici, the influence of any Italian city-state, that any such comparison was like comparing an elephant to an ant. It could only be compared, de facto, no matter what political-speak required people to say, to Rome when Rome was the very definition of empire.

And he was the kingmaker. The king might be crownless, but he was still the first in the land, armies at his command, billions to dispense, the power to create wealth or destroy life. The dreamer on the bed was the man who was advisor to the king. Which, in point of fact, was better than Master Niccolò Machiavelli, the man himself, had ever actually done.1

Although he was delirious—the effects of deadly disease, powerful drugs both violent and soporific, and fear: death was, after all, imminent and known to be imminent—there was nothing untrue about his thoughts. Though perhaps highly colored, a fancy-dress version of reality, they were verifiable, accurate, real. He would have had, and would have been entitled to have had, the exact same thoughts at home, healthy, surrounded by family, friends, sycophants, connivers, special pleaders, intriguers, followers, imitators, wannabes, power merchants, billionaires, at an all-American Fourth-of-July-type barbecue—chicken and ribs and watermelon, booze on ice and beer in the bucket.

“He’s sleeping,” the nurse said softly. She was not a pretty nurse, but she was very clean and she was white. “He may wake soon.”

The guest looked at her questioningly.

“You can wait here,” the nurse said, pointing at a chair by the bed. “If you want,” she added with some diffidence. This was not a public hospital full of oppressive visiting regulations and rules, where the doctors and even lowly nurses told the patients, their family, friends, or patrons what to do and when to do it, and expected to be obeyed.

“He was asking for me?” the guest asked.

“Yes,” she said. “He said it was important. Very important. But,” she immediately added, “he didn’t tell me anything more than that,” as if to reassure the visitor she knew no more than she ought.

The visitor calculated. He was a very, very busy man. Very busy. About the busiest in the empire. Now. The man who was dying had been a friend. A colleague. A member of the same winning team. The visitor figured he could spare ten minutes. If the dreamer awoke and spoke, then it would be mission accomplished. If not, it was duty done and he could leave with conscience clear.

The patient’s name was Lee Atwater.2He was dying of brain cancer.

This was a piece of irony so splendidly vicious that even his enemies thought it was in bad taste to chortle about it.3And his enemies hated him. He had made brilliant and devastating use of innuendo, half truth, and political distortion to exploit the malignancies of American society, especially racism.4Racism was always effective, but it was dangerous to employ and required expert handling. It was not excessively egotistical for the dying man to feel that it was he himself who had made George Bush president in 1988. Before Atwater unleashed his campaign, Bush had been eighteen points down in the polls. Before Atwater engineered the media event in which Dan Rather was suckered into an attack on the then vice president so that Bush could lash back, Georgie was a man with a reputation as a wimp. A man who couldn’t speak a complete and coherent sentence unless it was pre-scripted, who was tainted by Iran-contra, and on and on, liability upon liability. With this crippled pony, this lame—if thoroughbred—nag, Atwater had won the biggest race in the world.

The seconds clicked by. There were gray clouds outside the window. Funeral weather, thought the visitor. It was less than a minute and he was already impatient. It was insane of him not to have brought his cellular phone up to the hospital room. Goddamn it, it was insane of him not to have brought his cellular phone and a couple of aides and a Portafax. If anyone would have understood, it would have been Lee, how precious time is to a busy, busy man.

Atwater thought on, dreamed on, of the man he had made king and whom he would leave behind to fend for himself Although it was Bush who was president and Atwater who was the advisor—a dying one at that; and it was Bush who would go down in history, while Lee would be lucky to be much more than a footnote; and it was Bush who held power while Atwater could only suggest how it should be employed, one voice competing out of a cacophonous chorus, Atwater still felt, frankly, rather patronizing about George. This is common in political consultants. As it is with lawyers about their clients, doctors about patients, agents about talent. They feel that the client is a product incapable of caring for itself who has to be directed, instructed, cared for, protected. When the client does what it is told, it succeeds, thrives, survives. When it does not take advice, it makes a mess, it hurts itself, it creates more work for the handler, whatever the handler’s title is.

There were a hundred different versions of that basic story floating through, sometimes zapping through, Atwater’s mind. An entire assortment of images. He was Merlin, wand and cap and gown, to the presidential Arthur. Cus D’Amato to Mike Tyson. Brian Epstein to the Beatles. Livia to the emperor Tiberius. It was his mission not merely to have raised up the king but to protect him—lo, even from beyond the grave. Like a guardian angel. Something more than mortal. A spirit that could reach from the other side. A hand that held a fiery sword, like the archangel Gabriel, come down from heaven . . . In that, there was a sort of immortality. If he could do that, he was the most cunning of them all, slicker than death.

Enough of this, the man in the chair by the window thought. I’ve done my duty. Close to three minutes had passed. He got up to go.

Atwater had neither moved nor spoken. His message still buried in weariness and morphine. His visitor, passing the bed, looked down at the wasted body and bandaged head. Where once the creature below him had been full of exuberant vitality, clever, bullying, sharp-eyed and sharper-tongued, now the dullness was upon him, the emptying had begun. Atwater’s hand, under the sheet, appeared clenched.

The visitor couldn’t think of anything to say. Not to a recumbent form that neither spoke nor saw. He wasn’t that kind of guy, who spoke to people in comas, saying, in that made-for-TV style, “Yes, yes, he [or she] can hear me. I know they can.” So, whatever Lee had summoned him for would have to wait until later on, World Two, heaven or hell or Washington, D.C., in the summertime, wherever dead politicos went this millennium. He nodded and turned to leave the room.

Inside Atwater the Merlin character arose. As if by magic, he reached beyond the dulled and sleeping senses—or perhaps opened the passage between sense and sensibility. Atwater got the message that his guest was here. “Jim,” he whispered, “Jim.”

James Baker, secretary of state, hand on the knob, stopped. He turned. Atwater’s eyes were still closed, but his breathing was more urgent and his hand seemed to move.


“Ahhh,” a groan, a grunt, a summons. Baker went to the bedside. Atwater’s eyes suddenly opened. The old hawk looked out. Full of cunning and ego. “Listen,” he said. “George . . .”

“George what . . .”

It seemed to Baker that he could see Atwater’s thoughts like waterworks turning and meshing behind Atwater’s eyes, and what he seemed to have thought was, I can speak my mind. Baker can’t take it back to the office and use it against me, because, cackle, cackle, I’ll be dead before he does. “George,” Atwater said, about the president, “is a wienie. Ambitious, conniving, vengeful, but still . . . And he’s going to blow it, Jim. If he does . . .”

“What do you mean, blow it?”

“I mean in the polls,” Atwater said, as if Baker shouldn’t have had to ask, as there was nothing else. “And if he doesn’t do something about it, the reelection.” It was hard, after Reagan, Reagan again, and then Bush/Quayle, smashing the opposition, to imagine that reelection could fail.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jim said, a bland reassurance. “We’ll take care of it, Lee.”

“That’s my job. My mission.” One hand reached out and clutched Baker, grabbed at his sleeve, held him, and pulled him closer. Atwater’s breath was bad. Foul, fetid. Jesus Christ, Baker thought, why don’t they brush his teeth or dose him with mouthwash or something. “I have a plan,” Atwater said. The other hand, the near one, came out from under the covers where it had been visibly clenched. It held a half-crushed envelope. “If Georgie blows it, you open this. This is the surefire, ultimate election winner.”

“Hey, thanks,” Baker said politically. “I’ll tell George. He’ll be touched. You, in your condition—your thoughts are of him.”

“Fuck that,” Atwater said. “My thoughts are of winning. Remember that, Baker. There’s only two things—winning and dying.” He cackled. “Don’t show it to him now. Don’t you even look now. Wait . . .”

“For what?”

“Till you’re in trouble and you need it.”

“It’s like a magic coin in a fairy tale or something like that?” Baker asked.

“Like that,” Atwater said.

“Why can’t I look now?”

“Because you’ll think”—Atwater paused for a breath—“that it’s insane. And it will frighten you. But it’s so sane, and so logical, that you won’t be able to resist it and you’ll try it out too soon . . .”

“And so?”

“Then it may not work anymore.”

“Like the goose that laid the golden egg or three wishes from the genie?”

“That powerful,” Atwater said, appearing somewhat demented. He pushed the envelope into Baker’s hands. Baker couldn’t imagine what it could be. “It’s beautiful. The president will love it. After you realize it’s not insane. Not insane at all.”




1 Machiavelli was second chancellor and secretary of Florence from 1498 to 1512. He was frequently an envoy, though not an ambassador. Without a thorough familiarity with the period, it is extremely difficult to make comparisons between the power of his post and that of his spiritual heir. After the Medici regained power in Florence, Machiavelli never held an important office again.

2 This is a work of fiction. Many public figures are named in the text. Politicians, celebrities, presidents, etc. Their actions as depicted here are absolutely figments of the author’s imagination and should in no way be construed as “true” or even a “fictionalization of a truth that can be told no other way.” Unless of course the reader has independent documentation that real actions are coincidental with these fictional ones. The same is true of the depiction of characters. The author has no knowledge of any real person mentioned in this book beyond what is in the public record, and even then he has chosen to treat that information with literary license—because this is a work of fiction.

3 Atwater commented on it in his autobiography Life, written with Todd Brewster: “I recalled the maxim we had used in ’88: ‘Get inside the mind of your enemy.’ Now cancer had used it on me.”

4 Democratic representative Pat Schroeder called him “the most evil man in America.” Reverend Pat Robertson said, “Lee Atwater has used every dirty trick known to mankind” and “the Republican campaign was blamed for planting specious rumors about the mental-health history of Michael Dukakis.” (William Greider, Rolling Stone, 1/12/89)


On Sale
Apr 29, 2009
Page Count
300 pages
Bold Type Books

Larry Beinhart

About the Author

Larry Beinhart is best known as the author of Wag the Dog (originally published as American Hero) on which the film starring Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson was based. His No One Rides for Free (1986) received the 1987 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. His most recent book, Fog Facts, a work of nonfiction, examines why some important, even striking, truths are overlooked by the media and the culture at large.

Beinhart spent two years in Oxford, England, where he was the Raymond Chandler Fulbright Fellow at Wadham College. He is a regularly featured blogger on Huffingtonpost.com and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Chicago Tribune. He resides in Woodstock, New York, with his wife and two children.

Learn more about this author