SUPPOSE THERE ARE two academic centers of power vying for intellectual hegemony--call them Harvard and Yale. Harvard, long dominant in struggles for primacy, has grown complacent. Yale, meanwhile, has devised a cunning plot designed to wreak havoc at Harvard and pave the way for its own ultimate victory in the cold war of academia.
The scheme takes root innocuously enough, unnoticed by the high-minded Harvard decision-makers. When a young reporter stumbles upon the plot--known menacingly as Plan Core--and insists on pursuing the subject, he falls out of favor with his paper. But as the enterprising reporter digs deeper into the story, he comes to realize the ugly, brutal truth, horrifying through it may seem. Could it be that Dean Rosovsky is unwittingly a Yale spy?
The Spike takes this idea, adds best-seller ingredients, and transposes it to a more timely bipolar conflict--that of the United States and the Soviet Union. The latest ads for The Spike goad the public into paying 13 bucks to read what the "liberal journalist establishment" has almost universally panned. See what those sullied liberal press types are scared of, the ad continues. After all, chances are that those who reviewed the book in the liberal publications are tyomhaya verboura:
...an unconscious source.... This type of person serves Soviet interests and works under KGB control without realizing what he is doing. Lenin used to call such people useful idiots. Without being conscious KGB agents, they are often in a position to accomplish far more for the Soviet Union than the people who are knowingly working for us.
Of course, those reviewers and columnists may be principal agents--osnovny--or merely trusted persons--doveryonnoe listo. In either case, with their help, the help of the American liberal establishment and of frivolous laws like those which limit CIA powers, the Russkies are on their way to world domination.
Or so Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss, impeccable journalists and fledgling novelists, would have us believe. Their paranoid world-view is peculiar; it suggests that the Soviet Union could, by sowing the seeds of "disinformation" in the American press, influence public opinion so that it could achieve world hegemony without so much as aiming a nuclear weapon at New York. By simply urging Western journalists to follow their own instincts--by encouraging them to expose covert CIA activities, for example--the Soviets can immeasurably further their interests, and drive Western Europe out of the U.S. sphere of influence into their grimy hands.
But that is just one facet of The Plan--Plan Azev to be precise--that threatens to sap America's international influence. This KGB grand design includes infiltrating Western governments with moles--double agents--who do things like conveying classified documents through microdots on the back of chewing gum wrappers sent in packages to orphans in East Germany. No kidding.
Robert Hockney, hotshot editor of the Berkeley Barb during the student uprisings of the late'60s, prize-winning Vietnam reporter and the first journalist to rip the veil off the CIA, and (naturally) handsome stud, wends his way from New York to Paris to Humburg to London and then back to Washington in search of the elusive "truth." As the authors tiresomely tell us, he faces a most disquieting question: Were all his earlier journalistic tours de force fed to him indirectly by the Russkies? Was his CIA expose planted by Soviet spies? Was his much-heralded interview with a North Vietnamese guerilla leader a set-up? Has he been an instrument of Soviet perfidy?
De Borchgrave is regarded in media circles as somewhat of a prince, Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent who regularly conducts penetrating interview with world leaders, often ferreting out slivers of information no one else gets. Moss edits Foreign Report, a trenchant publication associated with London's conservative Economist. He has written two other books that received positive reviews, but this is the first attempt at fiction for the reporters. It shows--their writing undermines their well-conceived plot. Too often their characters approach cliche, the writing is choppy, and when they reach for poetry, they come up with doggerel. They're at their worst when they describe the women characters in the story-all stereotypes. There is Tessa Torrance, national sex symbol turned terrorist sympathizer; Julie Cummings, the young woman on the move who takes Capitol Hill by storm; Nguyen Canh Lani, the NLF supporter devoted more to her cause than her men; and Astrid Renard, the voracious nymphomaniac. They all enjoy sex. They are all beautiful. Clearly, this bipolar world is a man's world.
Not-surprisingly, the journalists are at their best when depicting characters based on authentic figures. Their portrayal of President Billy Connor from Flats, Mississippi, his ignoramus friend named Timmy, and the "Mississippi Mafia" borders on the hilarious and hits awfully close to home. Or there's Sen. Seamus O'Reilly, a not-too-subtle Moynihan clone who seems to represent the authors' fondest hopes in this world gone awry. But the protagonist, Hockney, is not exactly believable. He decides at graduation that he wants to do investigative work, and with a minimum of effort becomes a renowned journalist. He is extraordinarily difficult to identify with, because we get little more than fleeting glimpses at what makes him tick. What could be a complex and moving figure is instead an empty observer who evokes little reaction.
THE SPIKE ITSELF is a newspaper term that refers to the metal spike on which editors impale copy they decide not to print--for different reasons, including when they do not sympathize with its politics. It implies bias by omission, and calls into question the meaning of "objectivity" in journalism. The two celebrated writers who wrote the book have a straightforward answer: Objectivity doesn't exist. When Hockney first discovers the Soviets may be influencing the American media, his editors shelve the story. In the authors' bipolar world, if you're not with us, you're against us.
De Borchgrave and Moss argue that the overstressed "Vietnam syndrome" has systematically silenced anyone who dares to question detente and the Soviets' motives-- this is, voices of moderate Republican reason have been shouted down by those who cry McCarthyism. But if the two European journalists were to take a close look at the right in America today, they would probably shed fewer tears. Anti-Soviet rhetoric, increased defense spending and conspiracy theories are de rigueur these days, and Ronald Reagan may ride into office on their public appeal.
And who really cares if the vice president of the United States in an unwitting Soviet dupe? We probably have a few of our own in the Kremlin anyway. The Spike is a provocative book a cut above routine spy thrillers and conspiratorial yarns, but it overflows with self-important people who think they are making a difference, pulling the strings and waging the real war. For all we know, they are. But The Spike fails to prove it. It doesn't sufficiently create that someone-is-watching-you quality, it does not suck you in and scare you; it makes you feel like a captive audience to a spectacle you've seen before. Evil was never so banal