CNN’s Jake Tapper navigates the 1950s political underworld in his novel “The Hellfire Club”

Like any diligent political reporter, CNN “State of the Union” host Jake Tapper lists sources in his new book; but as a novelist, he doesn’t let historical fact get in the way of telling a gripping story about the ever-shifting rules of political and marital engagement.

In “The Hellfire Club,” a lively page-turner set in Eisenhower-era Washington D.C., juicy cameos by the likes of Roy Cohn, Allen Dulles, Bobby and Jack Kennedy, Joe McCarthy, the wild ponies of (renamed) Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, and a 1954 Capitol shooting lend an air of verisimilitude while deftly advancing an intrigue-twisting plot. Page one opens with a tuxedoed congressman awakening from an absinthe-induced stupor on a riverbank near an open Studebaker and a dead body.

More consequential appearances by Eisenhower and Sen. Estes Kefauver deepen themes concerning immigration, racism, warfare and patriotism that echo modern-day debates. Not for nothing does Tapper stage a tense showdown in a room ringed with Confederate statues. If you’re willing to “do whatever it takes” and destroy the republic to save it, at what point are you pledging allegiance to the Union forces of Lincoln, and what compromise signals you’ve abandoned small-“d” democracy? What constitutes treason? Who really runs — and protects — the government, the military, and the media?

Tapper’s even-handed (if sometimes pat) scenes offer a compelling excuse for the Dartmouth alum to flash his history nerd creds. He describes luxe private clubs and labyrinthine corridors of the Capitol and Library of Congress with an insider’s eye; and the book takes its title from a notorious club founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, an 18th-century English politician whose taste for debauchery appealed to unconventional contemporaries like Benjamin Franklin. Tapper’s no Franklin, but Poor Richard’s cynical creator would likely appreciate his storytelling and wit.  

— Bliss Bowen

Live Talks LA presents Jake Tapper discussing “The Hellfire Club” at 8 p.m. Monday (July 9) at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $45 at livetalksla.org.

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