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This political insider’s thriller novels predicted U.S. election interference

A foreign country attempts to influence the outcome of an American election -- before the 2016 election, it was the plot of a new novel by Ohio's Democratic Party chairman. Now David Pepper returns with a second book,"The Wingman," which picks up where "The People's House" left off. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how a politician came to write political thrillers.

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  • John Yang:

    Back in 2012, years before Russian meddling in U.S. elections dominated headlines, Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper began writing a novel about a foreign country's attempts to influence the outcome of an American election.

    That book, "The People's House," was released in August 2016. Now, he's out with a second book, "The Wingman," which picks up where "The People's House" left off.

    Judy spoke with him recently, and asked how a politician came to write political thrillers.

  • David Pepper:

    It was after an election cycle where I hadn't won, and I ha — I just had this urging to try and tell a good political story. And I just started writing, and I just kept writing.

    So it wasn't something I had planned on doing, and I had not done creative writing before, but it was a nice outlet for me. And I also have always thought there's not a lot of movies out there or books that really capture the day-to-day reality of politics.

    A lot of the most famous ones, to someone who knows a lot, are really unrealistic. So my goal was to tell a political story that was really based on how things really work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, your first book, "The People's House," comes out in 2016.

  • David Pepper:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's all about the Russians trying to and succeeding in turning a congressional election, a midterm election.

  • David Pepper:

    Right. Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You didn't have an inkling that something like that was going to happen?

  • David Pepper:

    No, you know, I didn't.

    I put it to bed in the summer. And then I got it out there. And later on, people started writing me, after they have read it, like, my gosh, your story keeps coming true.

    But I didn't write it to predict anything. My goal was to really capture some of the deepest problems in our system, things like gerrymandering, things like weak political systems. And I happened to have worked in Russia years ago. And so I had this Russian oligarch who plays the role.

    But my goal was actually to expose through a thriller a lot of the deepest problems in our political system that do make us vulnerable to this type of interference. And so I think by trying to be very realistic in the plot, I end up capturing obviously what ultimately ended up happening, to some degree.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You sure did. And it has turned a lot of heads.

    And then the second book, which we're showing here, "The Wingman," is basically a follow-on to that, where the Russians try even greater mischief and get away with a lot of it.

  • David Pepper:

    Yes.

    The second book really gets into the role of dark money. And it tries to show the kind of mischief you can cause, that dark money allows you to do for the most part legally. And so it's another plot that I think, frankly, will feel parallel to some of the things that are happening today, because it again tries to capture some of the weaknesses in our system and what they allow for in our campaigns and elections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the things that you portray in these books, you think a lot of that could really happen?

  • David Pepper:

    Yes, so the — when my first book was finished, the first readers, before it ultimately started to look like reality, would say to me, your book really scared me because it felt so real. Do you really think this could happen?

    And so there is some dramatic license in these books, but my point in the end was to actually capture the political system as it currently exists, capture the laws that exist and show that, yes — again, there is a little more drama in the books than probably real life, but to show that what we have allowed to get into our political systems, dark money, gerrymandering…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And by dark money, remind…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • David Pepper:

    Dark money is the ability to spend money that is not disclosed, often through nonprofits that are perfectly legal, that we have created — by the way, at the hyperpartisan environment that basically has some people not wanting to crack down on things because it may help them, that all of these add up to a huge weakness that, as I show in the first book, and as we're seeing, other countries can see that maybe we don't see as clearly as they do.

    And, all of a sudden, those weaknesses ad to really opening up pretty dark possibilities in our election cycles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you see a lot of these dark possibilities, and yet you continue to work in politics.

  • David Pepper:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's your day job.

  • David Pepper:

    Yes, I'm very passionate about politics.

    And if you watch me closely in politics, in addition to writing these books about these issues, I'm very passionate about ending gerrymandering. And one thing we're very proud of in Ohio, in the last couple of years, we have put measures forward and worked with, frankly, both sides and a lot of citizen groups to try and end gerrymandering in Ohio.

    So, yes, I stay involved, but I would call myself a reformer. But if someone wants to kind of get some hints about the things I'm most passionate about, it's some of the central aspects of these books.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, wearing — with your day job hat on, as the director of the Ohio Democratic Party, let me just ask you a couple of questions about that.

  • David Pepper:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How much do you think Ohio voters care, are interested in the Russia investigation, which is getting so much attention here in Washington?

  • David Pepper:

    So, interestingly, given that I wrote these books, I think they care, but I don't think that's the winning message of candidates this year.

    I think to respond to everything Trump does every day, it would be only anti-Trump. To talk about Russia and Comey all day, I actually think that is a trap. And if Democratic candidates get caught up on that every day, I actually think they will not do as well in elections, as if they had stayed disciplined and focused on the kind of issues people worry about every day around their kitchen table.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    David Pepper, the chair of the Democratic Party in the state of Ohio and the author of two political thrillers, thank you very much.

  • David Pepper:

    Thank you so much. Great to be here.

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