Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Interview with J. David Bethel, Author - Evil Town
of Evil Town. Today, as
promised, I am posting a
Transcript of an interview
with J. David Bethel
by Sebastian SeBasco
Interview with Sebastian SeBasco, book reviewer on THE INSIDE VIEWTM Show which broadcasts on CNN Affiliate KNLE in Austin Texas.
“When author David Bethel, a thirty-year veteran of D.C. politics, and I spoke during The Inside View Show interview about how, in EVIL TOWN, he presented compelling background information from the skilled research he conducted (about — among other things —the restoration of the Everglades) it became obvious that his understanding of what is possible in government is what separates EVIL TOWN from most political thrillers. The mastery of Bethel’s writing style is showing readers that evil lurks behind the scenes in politics thereby demonstrating to readers in eye-opening fashion that their lives are constantly in the balance by what they don’t know.
In this, an election year, it is refreshing to have EVIL TOWN push the limits of readers’ imagination about what really goes on behind the scenes in Washington, D.C..”
Salvador SeBasco: We have an exclusive with David Bethel, the author of Evil Town. David, how are you doing today?
J. David Bethel: I am doing great and I appreciate your asking me to join you.
SS: You are very welcome. We are glad to have you. For those who haven’t read the book, would you summarize what it is about without giving away the ending, of course?
JDB: I would be happy to. The way it begins is the wife of a congressman from Florida is murdered and this brings an investigation by the FBI. Agent Matt Thurston starts to make some headway on the case but he is abruptly called away. He tries desperately to convince his superiors that he has some leads, but they insist on closing the case for highly suspicious reasons.
He can see there is something more to this and he enlists help from a couple of reporters – brings them into the case – and feeds them information so they can do what he should be doing. They slowly unravel a series of situations that are suspicious, to say the least, and long story short, he and the reporters begin to match wits with some very powerful and well-placed people which puts them in danger. In the end, it is important that he brought them in as they succeed in uncovering a lot of wrong doing.
SS: David, what was your role in DC politics and for how long?
JDB: I was up in DC for a good part of 30 years, actually just over 30 years. I worked as a press secretary for members of the U.S. House and Senate. It slowly evolved into a speech writing gig for me because I went to work for Senator Paul Laxalt from Nevada, who, after only a short time in the Senate, was asked by his friend Ronald Reagan to head up his presidential campaign. The Senator started to make a lot of campaign stops on behalf of Reagan and needed speeches written When Reagan was elected, I began work in the executive branch and wrote speeches for officials at the Department of Transportation.
After 8 years of Reagan, Bush ’41 was elected and I stayed on as a speechwriter with various departments and agencies, including the Department of Education, where I served as Chief Speechwriter for the Secretary of Education, and at the Small Business Administration. When the second Bush came in his people asked me to come back after the Clinton years, and I ended up writing speeches for the Secretary of Commerce, before moving over to the now infamous General Services Administration, where I was Director of Communications.
Let me say that at intervals during those 30 years, I went back into the private sector as a communications strategist and also as the managing editor of a magazine. It was important to me to spend time in the private sector. If one is to fully succeed in the public sector, you have to get out of the public sector and see how the “real world” works.
SS: Do you find yourself wanting to get back in that role or is that all behind you now?
JDB: That is pretty much behind me. Been there done that. I do keep a hand in to some extent. There are a bunch of communication firms that I work with up in DC, and do some strategic communications for them as well as some executive speechwriting, but it is really not at the level and in the depth of the political field that I was in before. I am perfectly content being where I am and doing a lot of creative writing, which resulted in Evil Town.
SS: How long had Evil Town been percolating or brewing in your thought process?
JDB: Well, it really didn’t. I know that sounds strange to some, but I don’t begin writing with a fully-formed novel in mind. Maybe the best way to explain this is to give you an example. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones says that all of his songs are developed from a riff or refrain. He will come up with a refrain, a very simple, short refrain, and develops the song around that refrain.
I will start with an idea for a story and build around it, and if it builds into a novel, then it builds into a novel. I don’t write like a lot of people I think, although I don’t have a lot of conversations with other writers. But I understand that a lot of them work from detailed outlines, and they actually build build histories for their characters – all before ever writing a word of the novel.
For me, it is just sitting down and writing and seeing where it goes. As I get into the story I know how each of my characters is going to react to a situation, and it just goes from there, like adding building blocks. I build one block on top of another until – lo and behold – I have a novel.
SS: David, how much of what goes on in Evil Town comes directly from your three-plus decade experience working in Washington?
JDB: Well, all writing comes from your personal experience, obviously. You have to have some wacky experience in order to write effectively. I wouldn’t say that anything specific in Evil Town comes from a specific experience I’ve had. For instance, none of the nefarious deeds in the novel came from any personal experience, but I do understand how the system works. I understand politics after years of being there. I know the various personality types that populate the political environment, and what it takes to be an effective congressman or senator. In that sense, the book is written with a foundation of knowledge. As far as the actual story line, no, I wouldn’t say that I was involved in any of that.
SS: In Evil Town, David, the only institution wearing the white hat is the press. Congress, the FBI, even the presidency are corrupted. What is the message here?
JDB: I can see how a reader could put the novel down down and say “gee whiz, everybody but the press is corrupted.” The press is clearly at the forefront of the good guys, but the press is not the sole conscience of the novel. Keep in mind, FBI agent Matt Thurston was the one that actually got the reporter involved in the first place.
SS: True, true.
JDB: He did this so that the investigation could go forward. The congressman, himself, Clegg Caffery, is an honorable man, the “bad guy” has a brother who is also decent, decent in the sense that he has a good character and he realizes what is going on, and tries to turn the tables on his brother. So certainly the press is probably front and center as the wearer of the white hat; but there are others as well.
SS: A reader could come away from Evil Town with serious questions about the viability of our system of government. Was that your intent?
JDB: No, not at all. Obviously, the system can be manipulated. We have a representative democracy, an open system of government. People must participate or those who use that openness for their own gain will end up corrupting the system. As the old adage goes: “All takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Evil Town is a cautionary tale. There are plenty of good people in Washington. People trying to do the right thing, but the system can be manipulated. Just a couple of years ago Jack Abramoff made lots of money and corrupted parts of the system up on the Hill by using the system to his advantage. Years ago there was the ABSCAM scandal in which congressmen were being paid for their votes. Watergate, back when I first got on the Hill, was another awful page in our political history. All of these things show that the system can be manipulated. In the end, however, all of these events were turned around because good people did the right thing.
SS: How much of what is represented about Co Luy massacre is fact?
JDB: That happened. It was at the same time as My Lai. For those not fully familiar with the My Lai incident-it was a village in Vietnam in a province where the Viet Cong were active. The U.S. military sent in a battalion of troops to clear the area out. The problem was that there were no Viet Cong there. The intelligence that the U.S. based its plan on was wrong, but the troops had their orders to go in and clean out the area.
Now, it should be noted that during the Vietnam War, a lot of the villagers, a lot of the people there, were sympathetic to the Vietcong. They gave them hiding places, they gave them sustenance. They were also, often coerced by the Viet Cong to do so. So there was often animosity between American troops and the villagers. When the U.S. troops went into My Lai they ended up killing anywhere from 200 to 500. The number is fluid – it was just a massacre. It was awful. It was terrible.
One of the hamlets in the My Lai area was this place, Co Luy and about 93 people from Co Luy were also massacred. Men, woman, and children, not troops. The problem was, as far as Co Luy goes, is that it kind of got lost in the backwash of My Lai. It is still a very mysterious situation. If you look in the history books, there is very little there about this incident.
By the way, on my website eviltownthebook.com, I have all of the research materials that I used for most of the major plot lines in my book. So you can go there and read up on it.
Long story short is it is depicted accurately, but it is still largely a mystery of American history.
SS: David, manipulation of public opinion by government, even of international relations, is a prominent story line in Evil Town. Is it really that easy?
JDB: No, it’s not easy, you have to know what you’re doing. It is possible. Look at something that is happening right now. The John Edward’s trial, in which the former vice presidential and presidential candidate is alleged to have used campaign monies to hide the situation with mistress. This is an example of someone who apparently manipulated the system for his own purposes. If you understand the system it can be manipulated. Conversely, if you understand the system, you can use it for good too. I guess the short answer to that is “yes” it can be manipulated, but easily, no.
SS: Are the characters in Evil Town modeled on particular individuals you came into contact with during your years in politics and government?
JDB: Yes and no. I would say there are both good and not so good people I came into contact with. One of the most honorable men that I ever worked for was Senator Paul Laxalt. I would say there is probably some of his character in Clegg Caffery. And you have the not so nice guys and there are elements of some people I met in my years in D.C. in those characters.
Bottom line, you can’t help but spend 30 years in a business and come away with certain characteristics in your mind that you can then put together into characters in a novel. But there isn’t any one person in the novel who is modeled head to toe on anyone I met during my career. They are amalgams.
SS: David is the restoration of Everglades really at the mercy of the various vested interests as you write in Evil Town?
JDB: I said earlier that all that is need for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. If we don’t do something, the ”vested interests” will control what and how the Everglades is treated. The phosphorus run off that was talked about in the book is from the fertilizer used by some of the larger farmers in the area and it is running off into the water there and killing a lot of the wild life and the vegetation. Something needs to be done about this.
You have to sit down with all involved, the farm interests, the government entities that regulate water and other natural resources, and the environmental groups. These various interests, especially the farmers, must come to an understanding on how to preserve and protect the Everglades. I say especially the farmers because they must face the facts that their methods are not only killing stuff that is outside of their farm land, but this is going to wash back onto their land at some point. There is a problem and it has to be taken care of.
SS: Politics is the only profession without clear cut examinations and a certification system that verify competency. Is the role of the politician, as the representative to the people, therefore an unqualified endeavor or profession, set of professions still in need of a preset hierarchy of qualification, verification, or validation.
To ensure that those given responsibilities of, for, and by the people are held to a high standard by a national standardized qualification, as opposed to what the lack of such a standard seems to be leading to the deceit that Evil Town depicts?
David, wouldn’t you agree that otherwise what we have is a popularity contest? Do you see that? Do you see that in the politics and government that you have experienced?
JDB: Well, I know where you are going with this, that is even to sell real estate you need a license and you have to follow certain agreed upon guidelines. There is an interesting story that I think is worth telling and then I will address on what you are suggesting.
Years ago I was working for Senator Laxalt. It was right after Watergate, and Senator Percy from Illinois offered legislation that created a standard of ethics for those elected to Congress. It was an apple pie kind of thing. I wrote up a press release saying how Senator Laxalt had voted for the legislation and what a wonderful thing it was, and I took it in to him after the vote. I put it on his desk and asked him to sign off on it.
He read through it, the release said: “This is great, this is wonderful” and looked up at me and said that he had voted against it. I’m sure I showed my surprise. He said: “If I have to consult an ethics document in order to know how to be an ethical person, then I shouldn’t be sitting in this chair.”
What that brings up to me is that we have an open system of government. If we go in the direction of licensing people, and that sort of thing, then you don’t have that sort of democracy anymore. What you have is something akin to a benevolent dictatorship where you take – in my mind from what you are describing – a group of people or however many people, millions of people, and you try and train them. You limit the ballot, you limit the number of people who can run for office.
It is a little like Plato’s Republic where he suggests developing philosopher kings to help rule the people. It has been a long time since I have read The Republic, but my recollection is that this created another set of problems.
The short answer is, I know where you are going with your suggestion and I don’t think that we would have a true democracy. It would be some other form of government.
SS: Isn’t that why these factions called political parties or an ongoing party because they have not been held to any standard of qualifications as required of most professions in the United States?
JDB: Sure you can make that case.
SS: After all, if we do go back to the person sitting in the chair and say if I need a document to show me how to be ethical then I shouldn’t be sitting here. That is very true; but what about efficacy of those ethics? Efficacy in the preponderance of qualifications already in place — tried, true, and tested. Efficacy which is the ability of an intervention to produce the desired beneficial effect in expert hands and under ideal circumstances.
The preponderance of determining what are expert hands has long been at stake in DC politics, as opposed to ethics, which under definition is that pertaining to or dealing with morals or principles, and clearly in definition not principalities, but principles of morality pertaining to right and wrong conduct.
You see so on the one hand, we have the discourse between politics challenging to be under ethics and then something very different which is the structure and mechanics of government being ethical. These are two very different influences upon the people. Ethics would be more productive to creating and preserving an open democracy. After all you don’t want to put unqualified people even in an open democracy that fall through the cracks on a popularity contest.
If you want to say that this person that gets into office - or official - will represent the people , we would hope there would be some kind of qualification before they get to the point of being able to be voted for or voted in or assigned to an office. Does that make sense?
JDB: I don’t know if you have been following the problem with the General Services Administration, where a group of officials okayed an extravagant amount of funding for conventions that were held in Las Vegas. A hearing was held on the Hill to get to the bottom of how this situation was allowed to happen. During the course of the hearing, the Inspector General of GSA, the guy that blew the whistle on this, revealed that there were standards of conduct in place, that all of the perpetrators were very familiar with. There was a whole list of “dos and don’ts.”
After listening to the Inspector General talk about these standards, one of the congressman said – and I’m paraphrasing here: “Well, what the hell happened then?” The answer is simple. The people didn’t follow the rules, the standards, the guidelines that were in place. The congressman then noted that: “What you are saying is that they knew what they were supposed to do by virtue of this manual, but they just weren’t ethical people.” The Inspector General said: “Yes, that is about what it comes down to.”
So my concern is you can do all of this. You can put all of these constraints in place and have a big document that explains all the “do’s and don’ts,” which people can read and agree to follow, but if a person isn’t ethical, he isn’t going to be constrained.
When this pertains to elected officials who take advantage of their positions to personal gain, they should be voted out of office. Now, that doesn’t always happen and some of these people get away with it year after year after year, but I am just not certain that guidelines will bring what you would hope it would bring to table.
SS: Well, it is a great book. Evil Town, it draws all these questions out because when you are reading it, it feels so real. David, if listeners want to read the book where will they find it?
JDB: If they have a Kindle, they can go to Amazon and type Evil Town into the e-book section to find it. If they have a Nook they can do the same thing at BarnesandNoble.com, or they can go to my website – once again — it is eviltownthebook.com and we have various options there.
SS: Great thank you David, for being in the show. It has been a pleasure having you here. It was great interview.
JDB: Thank you.
SS: Yeah and we would be glad to have you back on the show again.
JDB: I’d enjoy talking to you again.
SS: Glad to have you on the show.
JDB: Thank you very much.
SS: You’re welcome, David.
JDB: Thank you very much for inviting me.
SS: You are very welcome and there you have it everyone, David Bethel, on The Inside View Show. The author of the new novel, Evil Town. There you have it on The Inside View Show.
If you would like to read a guest post by David or enter to win a copy of Evil Town, please click on the link to yesterday's post and leave a comment with your email.