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In ‘Hellfire Club,’ Jake Tapper explores how politicians get dragged into the swamp

In "The Hellfire Club,” a congressman navigates Washington in the era of Eisenhower but also of Joseph McCarthy's red scare. First-time novelist Jake Tapper, whose day job is news anchor of CNN's The Lead, joins Yamiche Alcindor to discuss his book’s resonance with present-day politics, the compromises made by even well-intentioned lawmakers and what’s next.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now a fictional look at McCarthy-era Washington from one of Washington's most well-known journalists.

    Yamiche Alcindor is back with this latest edition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The book is a political thriller focusing on a fictional congressman navigating 1950s Washington, D.C. It's a story set in the era of Eisenhower and Kennedy, but also in the shadow of Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare.

    The author who penned the story also happens to have a day job, news anchor.

    He is Jake Tapper, and he book is "The Hellfire Club," his first novel.

    It opens in 1954. The main character wakes up drunk in Rock Creek Park, and he's somewhat, I guess, rescued. But I won't spoil the whole book.

    But why did you open up this way? And tell me why you thought readers should have this scene as an introduction to Washington, D.C.

  • Jake Tapper:

    I — actually, I had originally written the book more linearly.

    And that scene was in the middle of the book, or the — actually more like the third — first third. And then a friend of mine read it, and suggested, why don't you open the book with that scene, because it's so compelling, and you're just thrown into the situation?

    He wakes up. He's face down in the mud. He doesn't remember getting there. A car has crashed behind him. It turns out that there's a dead body nearby. And you're just thrust into this world.

    And it just seemed a good way to grab people. I wish I could take credit for the brilliant idea, but it was a friend of mine, Jeff (ph), who came up with it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The Hellfire Club was a real place in Britain, and, apparently, in Ireland, it was the name of some exclusive clubs. Why did you want to write about secret societies?

  • Jake Tapper:

    Well, actually, the genesis for this book occurred when I first heard about the Hellfire Club, which, you're absolutely right, it was in England in the 1700s.

    And all sorts of nobility and politicians and rich people, men, would come together on this one estate and have these horrifically debaucherous and sacrilegious adventures.

    And the more I read about it, the more I thought, what an intriguing world, not only because of the secretness of it and people living these double lives, but also the fact that it forced them all to have these alliances.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to ask you about Senator Joseph McCarthy and his role in this book.

    I will read just a small passage from the book.

  • It says:

    "He's impossible to ignore. He becomes this planet blocking the sun. And whatever points he makes that have validity are blotted out by his indecency and his lies and his predilection to smear."

    You started writing this book in the middle of the Obama administration. But how does your depiction of McCarthy at all connect to present day, and in particular to President Donald Trump?

  • Jake Tapper:

    They say history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.

    And McCarthy was in the book. And Roy Cohn was in the book before Donald Trump became a candidate for president. But, certainly, parts of McCarthy and qualities that McCarthy has that are resonant today, I may have underlined a bit here and there, because not only did McCarthy do the same kind of thing that we see with President Trump, which is saying things that are demonstrably false and smearing people who don't deserve to be smeared, but the world that McCarthy was in, Republican politicians, Democratic politicians, the media, didn't really know how to respond to this.

    So a lot of the mistakes that we saw in the 1950s with McCarthy are being repeated today.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    When you talk about kind of the connections to present day Washington, one thing that I was struck by was the main character, he comes to Washington, D.C. and you kind of feel like, OK, this guy, he has a good heart. He's here to really make a difference.

    And then he starts doing some questionable things. How does that — really, that thinking connect to present day Washington and to maybe the response that we're having to — that we see, especially in Congress and Republican lawmakers, to President Trump?

  • Jake Tapper:

    It makes me so happy that that was your response to Charlie, because that's exactly what I want to capture.

    I have seen — I have lived in this town now for several decades, and I have seen good people come here to try to do good works for the American people. And the system is designed to force them to compromise.

    Now, sometimes, it might just be a small compromise, and they can live with it. I'm a Republican, so I'm not going to attack any fellow Republicans, et cetera.

    Sometimes, the compromises might be bigger and deeper. And I have seen people have their principles chipped away and their souls sold off piece by piece.

    And that's kind of one of the things I wanted to illustrate with this book, was, how does it happen somebody good who wants to come to Washington to do good is forced into a situation where, all of a sudden, the system is just dragging him down into the swamp that you hear President Trump talk about?

    And so I think it's very resonant, different kinds of compromises. Mine are fictitious. But it's the same exact problem that a lot of good people who come to Washington to do good face every day.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    As I was reading this book, I thought, this is Jake Tapper, the person who I see six times a week, who has a family.

    What's next for you? Do you want to write another book? I kind of want to learn more about Charlie's wife, because she's one of my favorite characters. Or do you think you will go back to writing nonfiction, or maybe you will just go to sleep?


  • Jake Tapper:

    Well, first of all, Margaret is probably actually the hero of the book.

    I mean, I have had lots of women who read the book tell me, you know what? Margaret is the hero of the book.

    And she's definitely stronger than Charlie.

    I have an idea for a sequel that would take place in 1962, when John F. Kennedy, President Kennedy, is about to go to Los Angeles, and Frank Sinatra desperately wants him to stay at the Sinatra compound. But Attorney General Robert Kennedy is wary of Sinatra because of his mafia connections.

    I thought that might be a fun thing to write about. And you can play with Hollywood, as well as politics.

    But the nap thing you suggested sounds good too. I mean, maybe I could do that first.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks for joining me, Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor and also author of the latest novel "The Hellfire Club."

  • Jake Tapper:

    It's been so fun. Thank you so much, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:


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