Q&A with With Charles Robbins, Author, The Accomplice

Charles Robbins served as an aide to former Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), former Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) and former Rep. Donald Ritter (R-Pa.). He is the author of The Accomplice, a new novel about an ambitious but politically naïve press secretary who signs on with Sen. Tom Peele’s presidential campaign. The aide, Henry Hatten, starts the campaign hoping to become the White House press secretary but instead becomes mired in its unethical intrigues. Peele, a moderate Republican from Nebraska and a former television star, seems like a dream boss at first, but Hatten’s illusions are soon dispelled. After discovering the depths of his associates’ depravity, Hatten merely hopes to escape without going to jail or winding up dead. 

In addition to The Accomplice, Robbins is working with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) on a nonfiction book about the U.S. Senate. He is the co-author of Specter’s memoir, Passion for Truth and Life Among the Cannibals.

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Q: How did you end up in politics and working on Capitol Hill?

I started as a newspaper reporter, and my first big job was right out of journalism school at the Omaha World-Herald, and I started as a night cops reporter. But that was 1987, and the ’88 political cycle was heating up, so I got to be a third wheel, fourth wheel, fifth wheel on the political team.

In the novel, the Globe-Times is a very transparent treatment of the World-Herald. But that’s how I caught the political bug back in 1988 covering politics, and I wound up moving to the Hill — to the dark side — to political PR in 1992. I signed on with a congressman from Pennsylvania, a guy named Ritter, and he lost five months later. I like to think it’s not cause and effect.

Q: What did you do next?

I decided I was going to find a kindred spirit, because Don Ritter was fairly hard right and I am not.

If there’s a centrist Republican, moderate Republican — if there any of them left — that’s what I am — what I was. So I found a kindred spirit, Fred Grandy, who was then a congressman from Iowa.

Grandy was best known as the character Gopher in the TV romantic comedy “The Love Boat.” It was a wonderful setup. Grandy was an honors graduate, a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard. He was a classically trained actor who wound up doing what he thought was a one-year gig on a network TV show, and it turned into nine years for him. And that’s how he was forever remembered, as the bumbling purser on “The Love Boat.”

I signed on with Grandy expecting that he would run for governor, and [he] did, so I shipped out to Iowa, to Sioux City and then to Des Moines. My instructions were that we need to show Iowans that there’s a long-pants version of Fred Grandy, we need to bridge the Gopher gap.

I thought that framework, that setup, was exquisite. So in the novel, I used Grandy in a couple of ways for both the Peele character and the Tyler character.

Q: What experiences did you draw on for writing about a presidential campaign?

When Grandy lost the gubernatorial [election] — we tried to take out a three-term incumbent, very much the same setup in the book — then the 1996 political cycle was heating up, and I was told — just as Henry Hatten is told in the book — “You’ve paid your dues, you really ought to take another shot at it,” and I landed with Arlen Specter, who was congenial company, at least politically. I signed with Specter in November of 1994, but I signed on basically for his presidential campaign, for the 1996 cycle. I did that for 14 months, and he pulled out just after Thanksgiving, I think on Dec. 30 of 1995.

So [that] setup, you see in the novel. The framework of a Republican campaign was lifted a fair extent from Specter, but the difference is, without any disrespect to Arlen Specter, to do the novel, I had to create a first-tier campaign, and Sen. Specter’s campaign never caught fire. So I used a fair bit of imagination on that one, and research.

Q: How credible is it to have a centrist Republican as a leading contender for president, given today’s political environment?

I thought it was credible. It’s sort of a what-if scenario. For example, guys like me, we sit around and say, “What if Mitch Daniels had gotten in? What if Rob Portman had gotten in?” Those two guys may take great exception to my calling them moderates, but I’m not the only one. Or another: What if Jon Huntsman had caught fire?

Q: Is there a hunger for fiction on Capitol Hill?

My recollection is, for example, when Primary Colors came out, it was required reading. You had to read the book just because it was a political event, fiction or not, and there are other examples. I think it’s safe to say that most of my colleagues had read, for example, All The King’s Men. There was an understanding that they were part of the canon, and you could have a lot of fun with it. And there’s also the parlor game, “Who does this character stand in for? Who does that character stand in for?” The Capitol Hill crowd was always in my mind.

Q: What about the sexual situations in the book? Is that something that you were really interested in writing about, or did you feel you had to generate some drama and excitement?

I have found, in my travels on Capitol Hill and campaigns and congressional offices, that there’s a real correlation — it’s a Freudian thing. Freud said all energy is sexual, and we sublimate it. But there’s often not a lot of sublimation on Capitol Hill. In other words, among powerful men, and it’s usually men, there’s a very strong sex drive, and sometimes it takes them in very inappropriate directions, and I saw it so many times and in so many ways with so many different guys that I thought it was an important, essential element to try to capture in a book.

Q: What writer is your biggest influence?

In terms of craft? [John] Updike is probably my single biggest influence, and I’ll be even more specific: the Rabbit series. Part of the genius of Updike was he did this with Rabbit Angstrom — the guy’s name is Harry Angstrom, his nickname is Rabbit — and the guy sells used cars at Springer motors in Brewster, Pa., which — forgive me for sounding like a Potomac-fever snob — is about as uninteresting a setup as you can probably find: a guy who sells used cars in suburban Pennsylvania. But it was absolutely fascinating.