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Authors: Ward Just

Echo House

BOOK: Echo House
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Echo House
Ward Just

A Peter Davison Book

New York

Copyright © 1997 by Ward Just
All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections
from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin
Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York,
New York 10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Just, Ward S
Echo House / Ward Just
p. cm.
"A Peter Davison Book."
0-395-90138-3 (pbk.)
1. United States—Politics and government—20th
century—Fiction. 2. Democratic Party (U.S.)—
History—Fiction I. Title.
24 1997 96-45283
813' 54—dc21

Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Robert Overholtzer

10 9 8 7 6 5 4

To Sarah
and to Jennifer, Julie, and Ian


• 1


1 •
• 27

2 •
• 74

3 •
• 104

4 •
4, 1952 • 130


5 •
• 159

6 •
• 200

7 •
• 235


8 •
• 275

Prologue: Echo House

called Echo House had been owned by the Behl family since 1916, the last year of the first Wilson administration, a purchase made at the insistence of Constance Behl, who saw for herself a brilliant future in the nation's capital. She saw beyond the dull Southern village that it was to the thrilling metropolis that it would become. With the triumphant entry of the United States into the European war, the wider world was gloriously at hand and her husband poised to embrace it. Owing to the death of one member and the defeat of another, Senator Adolph Behl was suddenly ranking member of his committee and already mentioned here and there as a likely candidate for the national ticket, some day, some way, if the cards fell fairly. Constance craved a particular mansion on Lafayette Square, but that was unavailable, so she settled for Echo House.

Towering high on the slope overlooking Rock Creek Park to the north and the federal triangle to the southeast, Echo House was the oldest of the great houses in that part of Washington. Everyone agreed that it was ideal for the up-and-coming Behls and something of a conversation piece due to its ingenious interior design. The architect was a follower of Benjamin Latrobe and the landscapist an associate of the incomparable Olmsted. The house was situated on a full two acres of land, well away from the vulgar hustle of the downtown hotels and about as far from Capitol Hill as geography allowed. Constance liked to say that politicians were like cats: they preferred to do their business in one place and sleep in another. Echo House was grand without being ostentatious, the sort of spacious, serious mansion that could accommodate a formal ball, an afternoon tea, or a masculine evening of cards, whiskey, and political conversation. In due course it would serve very well as a place where her son, Axel, could gather with his friends.

Moreover, the house had a history. One of the many inconclusive meetings between President Lincoln and General McClellan had been held in the library (the armchair in which the Great Emancipator was believed to have sat was roped off, a tiny card announcing its significance), and later the billiards room became a clandestine after-hours haunt of President Cleveland, on those evenings when he was weary of statecraft. At that time the house was owned by an attractive widow, famous for her peach sorbet and lively conversation. Senatof Behl bought the house from the widow's dissolute grandson, on the eve of the young man's departure for the battlefields of France, paying full price despite its wretched condition. For the senator this was a matter of honor, and his wife was indifferent to price. In a stroke Constance had reached base camp of the summit of her ambition, which was to assemble Washington's greatest salon, the rooms where the capital's mightiest figures would meet and the place where careers would be made and unmade; and from which her husband would make his final ascent and her son prepare his own. Echo House reminded Constance of the country houses maintained by the Anglo-Irish gentry in her native Galway, except that it was much bigger.

The name derived from the repetition of rooms on the first floor, each room perfectly square but diminishing in size so that the effect was of a set of Chinese boxes clustered like the squares of a chessboard. The arrangement was imaginative but impractical, function following form almost to the vanishing point—living room, foyer, dining room, garden room, morning room, library, study, powder room. Constance had directed that each room be furnished in a different period, but in the event France of the megalomaniacal Second Empire seemed to predominate,
ambitions as lofty as Napoleon III. Many of these rooms remained unchanged into the nineteen-nineties, giving Echo House the atmosphere of a museum (by that time Lincoln's chair had gone to the Smithsonian Institution, where it had a corner of its own and a plaque describing its provenance, along with the usual congratulations:
A donation of Mr. Axel Behl in memory of Constance Barkin Behl and Senator Adolph Behl.

Of course the kitchen was located in the basement; dumbwaiters linked it to the dining room. There were bedroom suites and another library on the second floor, more bedrooms and a gallery on the third floor, and the billiards room and Observatory on the fourth. The oval Observatory with its vast domed ceiling was one of the most remarked-upon rooms in the District of Columbia, its circumference identical with the President's office in the White House. There was a powerful telescope in the Observatory, but it was seldom used. Its precision seemed to diminish the subject The view with the naked eye was breathtaking, and as charming and suggestive as any of Monet's or Pissarro's cityscapes. At dusk Washington seemed to float above the earth, mauve in the blurred and fleeting light, image chasing image as in an infinity of mirrors, and finally returned to the spectator himself, flattered at the sight of such seductive grandeur. This was Constance's view of things, sitting in the Observatory with her afternoon tea, corrected in the usual way. At night the sight was merely spectacular, inspiring in the manner of an imperial capital going about its imperial business, superbly confident, willful, giddy in its enthusiasm. L'Enfant's broad avenues connected to a dozen circles containing reminders of the tempestuous past—slender generals on horseback, admirals caressing spyglasses, heavy iron cannon left and right, parks deftly placed, symmetry triumphant. And indeed the White House and the Capitol were located according to the arrangement of the Grand Trianon and the palace at Versailles, the Capitol dome the highest point on the horizon, the symbol of the primacy of the people. That was the bountiful place where the big cats prowled and pawed and did their business and then came home, exhausted but content. Ireland was so dark and silent and earth-bound, and here the land was liquid and afire, the great floating monuments brilliantly lit and wrapped by the sparkling ribbon of the Potomac. And beyond the river, invisible but audible, the beat of the nation itself, the rumble of a mighty army, turbines, combines, printing presses, roads and rails stretching to the outermost edges of the realm. And—how provident that the spoils always returned to the capital city, protector and defender of the nation's birthright, repository of the U.S. Constitution itself.

From her armchair in the Observatory it seemed to Constance that the whole sumptuous metropolis was arrayed on a platter, its delicacies there for the taking; and the big cats would bring them to you, too, if you asked them nicely, flattered them, and fed them a treat. At twilight the city's ambiance was grave, its mood somber, as the workaday world wound down and ended with the bang of a gavel. And by night it came magnificently alive, as majestic as a cathedral and as vivacious as an operetta, with ominous aspects of the jungle as well. From the Observatory at Echo House it was easy to forget that Washington was just another glum city of government, like Albany or Sacramento, legislators and lobbyists and bureaucrats and their clerks working and reworking the sodden language of government in order to distribute the spoils. Instead, it was fabulous—and more fabulous in its reach and aspiration and promise and desire than any of the great capitals of Europe.

Naturally in so febrile an environment there were disappointments, schemes delayed or denied, the odds stacked against, ambitions unrealized. The capital's numerous checks and balances were formidable, and no less formidable for their subtlety; often a certain languid modesty won the day. All the same, Constance Behl thought Echo House auspicious. History had been made there; history would continue to be made. Peach sorbet would yield to oysters and Champagne as Washington continued to grow and prosper, extending its reach beyond the known world. Constance thought of her capital as a city-state like Venice or Genoa, the genius of its diplomacy and the weight of its treasury guaranteeing something like a golden age. She saw the great boulevards as canals and the White House as a palace, in due course her husband in the Oval Office, her son waiting his turn. It may not happen in her lifetime. But it would happen.

You nudged fate; you put yourself in the hunt. So Constance insisted on setting her table personally, the flatware, the crystal, the china, the candelabra, the flowers, all situated just so on creamy Irish linen. She attended to this chore with the energy and enthusiasm of a general preparing the batdefield, and indeed that was how she saw herself and saw the after-hours life of the capital. She believed that tables were the terrain of the common struggle. Life flourished on flat surfaces, desks, conference tables, lecterns, dinner tables, an indoor world; and as the general paid particular attention to his forward battalions, his artillery support and reserves and logistics, so Constance was concerned with the precedence of chairmen, which senator was across the table from which lobbyist, who was at her own elbows and who at Adolph's, the latter a delicate matter because he was not a lively partner, altogether too ponderous and self-absorbed, rarely contributing when she signaled general conversation. He did not roar as a lion should; not that anyone noticed in the prevailing din, and that upset Constance most of all. Of course the table glittered, but it had a businesslike quality as well, a commercial environment where practical conversation could flourish. She took special care with the placement of the candelabra, in that way encouraging cross-table discussion. Enfilade, the general would have called it. Constance thought the number twelve was just about right. That was the largest number that could be conveniently assembled within the range of one man's voice.

She believed it was cowardly to live in the capital city without participating in its intrigue, to be conspicuous at the table for the shuffle and the deal, to pay the ante whatever its sum, and to continue as long as there was a bet to be called or raised. A man was dealt a hand, and how he played it was a test of character; and so much depended on luck and the nerve to conceal an ace up your sleeve. You won or you lost but you stayed at the table, because the fabulous intrigue was there, and the intrigue would determine your own place in the volatile scheme of things. You lived in this manner for years, until one momentous night when all the chips were on the table, wagered on the turn of a single card—a vote in the Senate, a vote in the jury box, a vote at a national convention, a telephone call announcing that the White House was on the line. For a moment your world held its breath, your future poised on the cusp of the next rotation, and you were rewarded or punished. Yet this too had to be admitted, though Constance never did—such was the fundamental instability of Washington, and such was its fluidity, that there was always the suspicion of a more important game being played elsewhere, and the outcome of that game would have a mighty influence on your own.
Were you at the wrong table?

Constance saw a passionate ballet of force and counterforce, a dance to music of opposing styles and tempi while the world watched and made its judgment. The world governed, and the world's judgment was decisive. In every family there's a moment seen as a turning point, the dancer dipping and weaving, moving center stage or into the wings, the music quickening or dying, the audience on its feet or on its hands, giving approval or withholding it. When things did not go well the reasons why were all too familiar; bad luck, bad timing, bad cards, bad judgment, false friendship, betrayal. No encore.

The unhappy event enters the world's memory and the family's as well, the facts becoming gray with age, misshapen as the legacy is passed from one generation to the next, described often in the language of the failed romance. If only you had loved me as I loved you, if only you had courage, faith, fidelity, trust—well, then, the world would be a different world. The family would have been a different family—more prominent, more respected, richer, healthier, happier, wiser. The failed romance, the unfortunate investment, the neglected medical appointment—or Adolph Behl's obsessive pursuit of the nomination for vice president of the United States. He confided to Constance that he was not in the first cut but he was the tallest tree in the second cut; and the vice presidency was the honor he wanted and would have. When she sneered that politics had nothing in common with the timber industry, he interrupted. More than you think, he said.

BOOK: Echo House
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