A 1965 Novel About an Unhinged President Is Being Rereleased

Posted November 9, 2018 5:21 p.m. EST

A couple of months ago, prominent political pundits began buzzing about a provocative book by a Washington journalist.

The book — which raised questions about what congressional leaders should do if the president was mentally unstable and unfit for office — wasn’t a new expose about the Trump administration. It was a 1965 political thriller by Fletcher Knebel.

The novel, “Night of Camp David,” features an unhinged U.S. president who falls prey to his own paranoia and conspiratorial fantasies, as people around him struggle to rein in his worst impulses. (A critic called the book “too plausible for comfort” in a review published in The New York Times in 1965 — the same year that Congress passed the 25th Amendment, which provides a mechanism for removing a president who is deemed unfit to serve.)

Now, more than 50 years after it was released, “Night of Camp David” is getting a new life. Later this month, Vintage Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, is rereleasing the novel, as a paperback, e-book and audiobook.

The publisher isn’t shying away from drawing parallels between the novel and our current overheated political climate, with a dramatic black cover flap that reprises the tagline on the original novel: “What Would Happen if the President of the USA Went Stark Raving Mad?”

“It’s got the perfect balance of escapism and that haunting touch of reality,” said Anne Messitte, publisher of Vintage Books.

Messitte said she first became aware of the novel in early September, when Rachel Maddow spoke about it at length on MSNBC and noted the eerie similarities between the fictional plot and the biggest political story of the day: the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times by a Trump official, who wrote that members of the administration were working to undermine the president’s agenda and had considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him.

“Dystopian thriller books and movies like that invite us as Americans to imagine what we might do with a presidency gone that haywire,” Maddow said. “It turns out, that all might have been good training because today’s news invites us Americans to consider the same.”

Interest in the novel soared. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted about it. In an interview with The New York Times, Bob Woodward mentioned he had recently reread it. Used copies on Amazon were priced at more than $100. “I read this book a long time ago back in the late 1960s,” a reviewer wrote on Amazon. “Today, we should just change its name to a “Night of Mar-A-Largo.” It’s the same plot only the characters are different.”

The novel centers on a young Iowa senator who grows worried about the president’s mental health when he is summoned to Camp David in the middle of the night. During deranged monologues, the president — a liberal Democrat named Mark Hollenbach — rants about his perceived political enemies and imaginary plots against him. He rails against the media and accuses a newspaper columnist of leading a “conspiracy” to discredit him. He tries to undo America’s long-standing alliances with Western Europe and arranges “a high-level conference with the Soviet Premier that could damage our national security,” according to The New York Times review. (Bizarrely, there’s even a Supreme Court justice in the novel whose last name is Cavanaugh.) It’s unclear whether “Night of Camp David” will attract political junkies who have been obsessively following the real-life political melodrama unfolding daily in Washington. Two of this year’s biggest blockbusters — “Fear” by Bob Woodward and “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff — offered blistering insider accounts of the drama and dysfunction in the Trump White House and have sold millions of copies. But as readers have been glued to the nonstop political news cycle, interest in fiction seems to have flagged, while nonfiction sales have surged.

There have been some notable exceptions. “The President Is Missing,” a novel about a fictional president that was written by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, has sold more than 1 million copies. But other works of political fiction have fallen flat, perhaps because the genre has limited appeal at a moment when the headlines are often more dramatic than anything a screenwriter or novelist could dream up.

A handful of novelists have written fictional critiques of Trump, mostly with disappointing commercial results. Howard Jacobson published a satirical political allegory about a vain, vulgar prince that fell flat with critics and readers. (The Guardian said Jacobson “misses his punches.”) Last month, an anonymous author published a thriller titled “The Kingfisher Secret,” about an American tycoon who is about to become president of the United States and has secret ties to the Russian government. Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines premise, or maybe because of it, “The Kingfisher Secret” was panned by some critics as a poor substitute for the actual news: “Admittedly, the confirmed and speculative details of the president’s malfeasant career are hard for fiction to match, but this plot doesn’t exert itself any more than Donald Trump lumbering around his golf course,” Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post.

Last year, Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian, published a novel under a pen name about a moody and impulsive U.S. president who brings the country to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea and emboldens white supremacists by stoking racial fears. The novel, “To Kill a President,” which also wrestled with the question of how to remove an unfit president from office, was apparently too plausible for some: “Got a bit fed up with it about three-quarters through. A little bit too close to reality,” one reader wrote on Amazon.

Some felt similarly about “Night of Camp David” when it first came out. (A Times critic complained that it was too realistic, writing that “as a suspense novel it is probably a great deal too honest for its own good.”) But many readers were riveted: The book spent 18 weeks on the best-seller list in hardcover.

Knebel’s son, Jack Knebel, said that the family was gratified to see the book republished and that his father would likely be shocked to see how prescient his novel was.

“The parallels are quite striking between then and now,” he said, “He’d say, yeah, this is just what I was afraid of.”