Rothstein draws on his experience as a political strategist and media manager to craft a political thriller of epic scale

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political suspense novels

It’s Always Something

The Day When the Red Phone Did Not Ring

On October 27, 1962, the supreme commander of all U.S. military forces in Alaska calmly advised Governor William Egan to alert the Alaska public that a nuclear war with Russia could be imminent and that everyone should make preparations to protect themselves. I was a young aide to the governor, sitting at his side, my eyes riveted on the red telephone at the general’s elbow, willing it not to ring.

By then, near the end of the 13 day “Cuban missile crisis,” the world knew that the Russians had installed missiles in Cuba in range to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. In response, President Kennedy had demanded that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev order removal of those weapons. Kennedy had sent U.S. warships to surround Cuba with orders to destroy any Russian ships that attempted to break its blockade.

What the commander of all U.S. forces in Alaska knew that day, which the world did not know at the time, was that the Cubans had shot down a U.S. spy plane, and that in response many Pentagon leaders were urging Kennedy to order a first strike to destroy the Russian missile installations. He also knew that nuclear-armed Russian submarines were in the Cuban waters with orders to fire nuclear torpedoes on the U.S. fleet at the first sign of war. The entire Alaskan Command was on a war footing.

The general warned Governor Egan that Alaskans should make sure their auto and truck gas tanks were full, that water and food supplies were available, and that everyone should plan for evacuation. He urged the governor go to the media with this message immediately upon leaving this meeting.

I was in my 20s, with a wife and small children. The scene is etched in my memory as if yesterday. Being that close to the abyss that could end life on earth is not something a person can forget ever.

But, the world has mostly forgotten how close we came to nuclear annihilation that day. The war in Ukraine, North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear developments are refreshing our memories. It’s about time.

In my latest novel, The Moment of Menace, the menace is nuclear arms and the deployment that make use of them close to inevitable. The central figure in my story is a woman the world knows as “Tenny,” U.S. President Isabel Tennyson.

Tenny is on a mission to destroy all nuclear weapons, everywhere. During her campaign she goes on worldwide TV asking a billion people to sign her petition for international disarmament to pressure their leaders. In her speech, she makes this argument:

“The reality of today’s world is that I am authorized to destroy civilization. And I am not alone with that power. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is as large as ours. China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea,  all have nuclear arsenals. All have leaders with authority to  use them. Like the United States, all have systems for maintaining them, upgrading them, protecting them. All those functions require people who follow orders, and never disobey them, or misunderstand them, systems that must never critically break down, codes that must always work as programmed, accidents that must never occur. And all these weapons must be protected from falling into the hands of      those with malign intentions.”

Then Tenny goes on to describe many of the real-life near-misses that have occurred since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Including this one:

During the Cuban missile crisis, Russia dispatched four submarines to Cuba, all of them armed with nuclear torpedoes. The commanders of each sub were authorized to use those torpedoes on their own initiative in the event of attack. The U.S. Navy, detected their location and began dropping depth charges, not to destroy them but to chase them from Cuban waters. The sub commanders had been incommunicado and misunderstood the reason for the depth charges. Believing war had begun and they were under attack, the captain and another officer of submarine B-59 agreed to launch their nuclear warhead. But the fleet commander, Vasily Arkhipov, stopped them. Arkhipov is widely recognized today as someone who had ”saved the world.”

How many Arkhipovs are out there? How many leaders would pull back from the abyss? How many chances do we get? Seventy years ago, off the coast of Cuba, we were one miscalculation from nuclear war. We still are.  

Remember Gilda Radner? Maybe not. That was nearly a half century and a thousand episodes of Saturday Night Live ago. She was one of the seven original cast members, memorable for playing so many comic characters, including her Rosannadana.

Rosannadana was a regular on the show’s “Weekend Update,” never failing to including “It’s always something. If it’s not this it’s that. If it’s not that, it’s this.” That doesn’t sound very funny as words on paper. But in Rosannadana’s telling, and everything she said following, and how she it said it, it was hysterical.

Gilda Radner died of cancer in 1987, five years after marrying comic actor Gene Wilder. Oh, how I would have loved an invitation to dinner at that home.

She’s been gone a long time, now, but the wisdom of ‘It’s Always Something,” lives on. Whether in our personal lives or a worldly view, “something” is always happening worth talking about or writing about.
So, I think it’s fitting that I channel Rosannadana in writing this column. Sometimes it will be light-hearted, sometimes earnestly serious. Whatever “something” happens to capture my attention.

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Why I Write

(Interview with Joe Rothstein, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Given our current political climate, it’s hard to imagine writing DC-themed fiction that’s stranger than truth, but Joe Rothstein has done just that in his new novel, The Moment of Menace: The Future Looks Glorious…Unless We All Die First. Rothstein, whose long career spans both politics and literature, braids the two worlds together in a riveting story that gives readers a glimpse of what our democracy could become — for better or worse.   

Your deep knowledge of politics comes through in this book. Is it challenging writing fictional stories about a very real system?

Think about what it means to be a candidate. Depending on the political office at stake, you will need to raise considerable campaign money, much of it by personally asking friends, family, co-workers, strangers. In a real sense, you will have to learn to beg. You will have to hire a professional staff and recruit dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of volunteers, a hugely difficult exercise in high-pressure management. You will need to appear in public every day, sometimes in the media, weighing every word lest it be misinterpreted, often purposely, by the opposition.

Tension will increase as Election Day approaches, whether the polls have you ahead or behind. The money won’t be enough. The attacks on your character will increase, all in public media. Your family will feel under siege. You will get conflicting advice. Every day, you will need to make decisions, any one of which could cause you to win or lose the election. This is stuff of high drama, and I lived it through more than 200 campaigns. Marriages were…destroyed, so were reputations, wealth, hopes, and dreams. I don’t need to use my imagination to develop characters and situations. I just need to remember.

Your novel follows a charismatic American president named Isabel Aragon Tennyson. How did you shape this character? 

During my campaign career, I met many strong, capable, and courageous women: candidates, spouses, campaign leaders, and others. We’ve never elected a woman president. I decided that I would, and that she would be a composite of many women I met who would have made great real-life presidents.

This book is as much a dystopian novel as a thriller. Do you find it difficult to approach the dystopia genre without being overly pessimistic?

I’m a democrat with both a small and capital D. But democracy is struggling to effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century. And because democracy is underperforming, anti-democratic forces are presenting a serious challenge. It’s essential to recognize and meet this challenge. So, I write not as a purveyor of doom but rather with a call to action. Rather than write essays about this, I’ve chosen to write entertaining thrillers and wrap them around real public problems.

What does waiting to write until you’ve gained some life experience bring to the resulting work?

Perspective. The curved edges of “good” and “evil” and “right” and “wrong.” Living through chapters of life to see many of them resolve, gaining insight from experience.

What’s next for you?

One of my summer-vacation jobs in college was with an automobile stunt show, sort of a car circus of smashed cars, daredevil motorcyclists, and a finale with a car and driver being shot out of a cannon. We traveled the country as the Motor Olympics. I was “Suicide Saunders.” That’s my next book.

Welcome to my corner of the Internet. It’s where I talk about my novels and about current events. I have a lot to discuss.

 

I sat down to write my first book when I was in my 20s. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could not write a book because I had nothing useful to say. I’d have to live my life first. Among other things, between then and now:

 

–I was the advance man for a traveling automobile stunt show. In the act I was “Suicide Saunders.” (That’s my next book). 

 

–I sat, as an aide to the governor of Alaska, in the private quarters of the top military commander in Alaska, while he clutched a red telephone expecting a call telling him we were at nuclear war with Russia over the Cuban missile crisis. 

 

–I experienced the most powerful earthquake in U.S. history, in Alaska, and worked on rebuilding in the aftermath.

 

–I became editor of a daily newspaper, The Anchorage Daily News, before I was 30.

 

–I flew as a passenger with the Navy’s Blue Angels (and have the photo to prove it).

 

—-As chief of staff of a United States Senator I was deeply involved in the Pentagon Papers episode.

 

–I was political consultant to Congressman Peter Rodino of New Jersey as he presided of Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

 

–I worked as strategist and media producer to help elect and re-elect nine U.S. Senators, dozens of members of Congress, and countless other candidates.

 

–I’ve started five businesses, one which went public, and another that’s become an important Internet news distribution service.

 

–Also, I’ve had the experience of raising four sons and, among other things, coaching their Little League baseball team, which was one of the most intense political experiences I’ve ever had.

 

And now, in my 80s, I’ve written three novels with two more in progress. Having something to say no longer is an obstacle.

 

My first three novels feature a charismatic Mexican-American heiress who becomes the president of the United States and is confronted with a series of events like none other in U.S. history.

 

I hope you enjoy them. And if my words and thoughts in these novels and my current events blogs prompt responses from you, please share them with me at jrothstein@rothstein.net.

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Want Joe’s opinion blogs delivered by email. Just give us your address here.

It’s Always Something

The Day When the Red Phone Did Not Ring

political suspense novels

On October 27, 1962, the supreme commander of all U.S. military forces in Alaska calmly advised Governor William Egan to alert the Alaska public that a nuclear war with Russia could be imminent and that everyone should make preparations to protect themselves. I was a young aide to the governor, sitting at his side, my eyes riveted on the red telephone at the general’s elbow, willing it not to ring.

By then, near the end of the 13 day “Cuban missile crisis,” the world knew that the Russians had installed missiles in Cuba in range to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. In response, President Kennedy had demanded that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev order removal of those weapons. Kennedy had sent U.S. warships to surround Cuba with orders to destroy any Russian ships that attempted to break its blockade.

What the commander of all U.S. forces in Alaska knew that day, which the world did not know at the time, was that the Cubans had shot down a U.S. spy plane, and that in response many Pentagon leaders were urging Kennedy to order a first strike to destroy the Russian missile installations. He also knew that nuclear-armed Russian submarines were in the Cuban waters with orders to fire nuclear torpedoes on the U.S. fleet at the first sign of war. The entire Alaskan Command was on a war footing.

The general warned Governor Egan that Alaskans should make sure their auto and truck gas tanks were full, that water and food supplies were available, and that everyone should plan for evacuation. He urged the governor go to the media with this message immediately upon leaving this meeting.

I was in my 20s, with a wife and small children. The scene is etched in my memory as if yesterday. Being that close to the abyss that could end life on earth is not something a person can forget ever.

But, the world has mostly forgotten how close we came to nuclear annihilation that day. The war in Ukraine, North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear developments are refreshing our memories. It’s about time.

In my latest novel, The Moment of Menace, the menace is nuclear arms and the deployment that make use of them close to inevitable. The central figure in my story is a woman the world knows as “Tenny,” U.S. President Isabel Tennyson.

Tenny is on a mission to destroy all nuclear weapons, everywhere. During her campaign she goes on worldwide TV asking a billion people to sign her petition for international disarmament to pressure their leaders. In her speech, she makes this argument:

“The reality of today’s world is that I am authorized to destroy civilization. And I am not alone with that power. Russia’s nuclear arsenal is as large as ours. China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea,  all have nuclear arsenals. All have leaders with authority to  use them. Like the United States, all have systems for maintaining them, upgrading them, protecting them. All those functions require people who follow orders, and never disobey them, or misunderstand them, systems that must never critically break down, codes that must always work as programmed, accidents that must never occur. And all these weapons must be protected from falling into the hands of      those with malign intentions.”

Then Tenny goes on to describe many of the real-life near-misses that have occurred since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Including this one:

During the Cuban missile crisis, Russia dispatched four submarines to Cuba, all of them armed with nuclear torpedoes. The commanders of each sub were authorized to use those torpedoes on their own initiative in the event of attack. The U.S. Navy, detected their location and began dropping depth charges, not to destroy them but to chase them from Cuban waters. The sub commanders had been incommunicado and misunderstood the reason for the depth charges. Believing war had begun and they were under attack, the captain and another officer of submarine B-59 agreed to launch their nuclear warhead. But the fleet commander, Vasily Arkhipov, stopped them. Arkhipov is widely recognized today as someone who had ”saved the world.”

How many Arkhipovs are out there? How many leaders would pull back from the abyss? How many chances do we get? Seventy years ago, off the coast of Cuba, we were one miscalculation from nuclear war. We still are.  

Remember Gilda Radner? Maybe not. That was nearly a half century and a thousand episodes of Saturday Night Live ago. She was one of the seven original cast members, memorable for playing so many comic characters, including her Rosannadana.

Rosannadana was a regular on the show’s “Weekend Update,” never failing to including “It’s always something. If it’s not this it’s that. If it’s not that, it’s this.” That doesn’t sound very funny as words on paper. But in Rosannadana’s telling, and everything she said following, and how she it said it, it was hysterical.

Gilda Radner died of cancer in 1987, five years after marrying comic actor Gene Wilder. Oh, how I would have loved an invitation to dinner at that home.

She’s been gone a long time, now, but the wisdom of ‘It’s Always Something,” lives on. Whether in our personal lives or a worldly view, “something” is always happening worth talking about or writing about.
So, I think it’s fitting that I channel Rosannadana in writing this column. Sometimes it will be light-hearted, sometimes earnestly serious. Whatever “something” happens to capture my attention.

Why I Write

(Interview with Joe Rothstein, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Given our current political climate, it’s hard to imagine writing DC-themed fiction that’s stranger than truth, but Joe Rothstein has done just that in his new novel, The Moment of Menace: The Future Looks Glorious…Unless We All Die First. Rothstein, whose long career spans both politics and literature, braids the two worlds together in a riveting story that gives readers a glimpse of what our democracy could become — for better or worse.   

Your deep knowledge of politics comes through in this book. Is it challenging writing fictional stories about a very real system?

Think about what it means to be a candidate. Depending on the political office at stake, you will need to raise considerable campaign money, much of it by personally asking friends, family, co-workers, strangers. In a real sense, you will have to learn to beg. You will have to hire a professional staff and recruit dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of volunteers, a hugely difficult exercise in high-pressure management. You will need to appear in public every day, sometimes in the media, weighing every word lest it be misinterpreted, often purposely, by the opposition.

Tension will increase as Election Day approaches, whether the polls have you ahead or behind. The money won’t be enough. The attacks on your character will increase, all in public media. Your family will feel under siege. You will get conflicting advice. Every day, you will need to make decisions, any one of which could cause you to win or lose the election. This is stuff of high drama, and I lived it through more than 200 campaigns. Marriages were…destroyed, so were reputations, wealth, hopes, and dreams. I don’t need to use my imagination to develop characters and situations. I just need to remember.

Your novel follows a charismatic American president named Isabel Aragon Tennyson. How did you shape this character? 

During my campaign career, I met many strong, capable, and courageous women: candidates, spouses, campaign leaders, and others. We’ve never elected a woman president. I decided that I would, and that she would be a composite of many women I met who would have made great real-life presidents.

This book is as much a dystopian novel as a thriller. Do you find it difficult to approach the dystopia genre without being overly pessimistic?

I’m a democrat with both a small and capital D. But democracy is struggling to effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century. And because democracy is underperforming, anti-democratic forces are presenting a serious challenge. It’s essential to recognize and meet this challenge. So, I write not as a purveyor of doom but rather with a call to action. Rather than write essays about this, I’ve chosen to write entertaining thrillers and wrap them around real public problems.

What does waiting to write until you’ve gained some life experience bring to the resulting work?

Perspective. The curved edges of “good” and “evil” and “right” and “wrong.” Living through chapters of life to see many of them resolve, gaining insight from experience.

What’s next for you?

One of my summer-vacation jobs in college was with an automobile stunt show, sort of a car circus of smashed cars, daredevil motorcyclists, and a finale with a car and driver being shot out of a cannon. We traveled the country as the Motor Olympics. I was “Suicide Saunders.” That’s my next book.

Welcome to my corner of the Internet. It’s where I talk about my novels and about current events. I have a lot to discuss.

 

I sat down to write my first book when I was in my 20s. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could not write a book because I had nothing useful to say. I’d have to live my life first. Among other things, between then and now:

 

–I was the advance man for a traveling automobile stunt show. In the act I was “Suicide Saunders.” (That’s my next book). 

 

–I sat, as an aide to the governor of Alaska, in the private quarters of the top military commander in Alaska, while he clutched a red telephone expecting a call telling him we were at nuclear war with Russia over the Cuban missile crisis. 

 

–I experienced the most powerful earthquake in U.S. history, in Alaska, and worked on rebuilding in the aftermath.

 

–I became editor of a daily newspaper, The Anchorage Daily News, before I was 30.

 

–I flew as a passenger with the Navy’s Blue Angels (and have the photo to prove it).

 

—-As chief of staff of a United States Senator I was deeply involved in the Pentagon Papers episode.

 

–I was political consultant to Congressman Peter Rodino of New Jersey as he presided of Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

 

–I worked as strategist and media producer to help elect and re-elect nine U.S. Senators, dozens of members of Congress, and countless other candidates.

 

–I’ve started five businesses, one which went public, and another that’s become an important Internet news distribution service.

 

–Also, I’ve had the experience of raising four sons and, among other things, coaching their Little League baseball team, which was one of the most intense political experiences I’ve ever had.

 

And now, in my 80s, I’ve written three novels with two more in progress. Having something to say no longer is an obstacle.

 

My first three novels feature a charismatic Mexican-American heiress who becomes the president of the United States and is confronted with a series of events like none other in U.S. history.

 

I hope you enjoy them. And if my words and thoughts in these novels and my current events blogs prompt responses from you, please share them with me at jrothstein@rothstein.net.

Newsletter

Want Joe’s opinion blogs delivered by email. Just give us your address here.