Review: 'Francis Goes to Washington', by David Stern
During World War II, David Stern, then assigned to an Army newspaper in Honolulu, wrote 15 short stories for Esquire about a nameless brand-new U.S. Army 2nd lieutenant fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. The naïve 2nd lieutenant is helped by a talking, flying Army mule. The humorous military fantasies, satirizing the Army’s bureaucracy, were very popular. As soon as the War ended, Stern wrote connecting material to turn the separate stories into a single novel. Francis was published in October 1946, and sold so well that it went into several printings.
A couple of years later, Stern was out of the Army and was drawing a target on the political establishment. His sequel, Francis Goes to Washington, was a true novel. The 2nd lieutenant, now civilian Peter Stirling, returns to an average East Coast postwar life as a bank clerk. When Mayor Parker, the head of his local Democratic party, invites him to be its common-man candidate for Congress, an “ordinary fellow”, he feels nervous yet honored – until Francis reappears to reveal that the Mayor, known to insiders as “Slimy” Parker, is a corrupt political boss who plans to use him as a patsy.
NYC, Farrar, Straus & Co, September 1948, xii + 243 pages, hardcover $2.50. Frontispiece by Garrett Price.
As before, Francis has to spell out everything to Peter in detail:
‘What makes you think I’m so naïve?’ I demanded.
‘Because, Pete,’ said the mule, ‘you’re slated to be the fall guy in this pretty little American drama. And you don’t even know it.’
My heart was sinking. ‘Fall guy, what do you mean, Francis?’
‘From every indication,’ said the mule, ‘this looks like a Republican year. Since this area has always had a Republican leaning the indications are the Republicans here ought to win by about two to one.’
‘Wait a minute, now, Pete. I’ll explain it all for you. Slimy Parker and his boys can see the handwriting on the wall, specially when it’s spelled out in block letters eight ballot boxes high. They’re in for a trouncing. They’re going to have their pants licked right off them … At a time like this why sacrifice one of the boys? Why take one of the insiders and bury him under a landslide of opposition votes?’
‘You mean …?’
‘From your green expression,’ said the mule, ‘I can see the light beginning to dawn.’
‘You mean …’ I was trying to wet my lips. ‘… You mean, the Democrats don’t want me to win?’
‘Of course they want you to win. They just don’t think you have a chance.’
‘I’m … I’m to be … sacrificed?’
‘That’s right, Pete.’ (p. 54-55)
It is 1948, and all America expects the Republicans to sweep to a huge national victory. (Remember the Chicago Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline?) Parker, expecting the local Democratic ticket to be beaten by the popular Republican candidate, upper-class Edward Ronald, Jr. – “Wealthy, brilliant speaker, handsome, ex-colonel in the Army, football star at Princeton, president of the Chamber of Commerce” -- has really drafted outsider Sterling as their weak candidate so none of his cronies will be tarred as a loser. Worse, Parker assigns George Z. Smith, an openly Communist wardheeler, to be Peter’s campaign manager, hoping to rid himself of this political liability as well. The odds are all against Peter, but Francis volunteers to become his secret “real” campaign manager, to keep him honest yet victorious.
Stern repeats his formula of the world-weary mule condescendingly lecturing his impossibly-naïve front man. Again, no effort is made to explain away Francis, who refuses to be pinned down to anything:
I rushed to Francis and threw my arms around his neck. Then I kissed him smack-dab between the ears!
The mule shook his head. ‘Take it easy, Pete. Take it easy!’
‘But I’m so glad to see you.’
‘O.K., Pete, O.K. But keep your shirt on. I’m neither a voter nor a baby. Just relax.’
‘Francis …’ I said, breathing hard. ‘… it’s so good to see you. I thought …’
‘You’d be better off if you gave up thinking, Pete. You never were much good at it.’
‘But the airplane?’ I said.
‘What airplane?’ asked the mule.
‘You were supposed to have been killed in an airplane crash in the hills of Kentucky.’
‘Oh,’ said the mule. ‘That airplane.’
‘How did you escape?’
The mule waved his tail. ‘That was a couple of years ago. Ancient history. Forget about the past.’
‘But … But what happened to you, Francis? Where have you been?’
‘Oh, here and there, Pete. Here and there.’ The mule flapped his right ear forward. ‘I can take care of myself.’ (pgs. 28-29)
When his opponent Teddy Ronald reveals Peter’s military record of being constantly sent to the psycho ward for insisting that a talking mule helped him, and accuses Peter of being too crazy to deserve being elected, Francis sees their campaign strategy. He tells Peter to agree that he’s crazy … only a crazy man would want the responsibility of political office … of telling the truth instead of flattering the voters … and so on. It seems to be working but it’s not enough. So Francis takes the step of revealing himself to Peter’s socialite would-be girl friend and his opponent’s fiancée, Betsy Cupper, and enlisting her help.
In subsequent pages, Peter reveals his ignorance of, and Francis and Betsy explain the realities of, the nation’s economy, foreign relations, the Red menace, the labor situation, housing, and other issues of the day. Francis’ and Betsy’s opinions of how things really work presumably mirror Stern’s own. Peter’s ignoring of Parker’s orders of how to campaign finally results in Parker publicly reading Peter out of the Democratic party.
Cast on their own resources, Peter continues to run as an Independent. He crisscrosses the city in an old-fashioned buggy, pulled by Francis, with a hidden microphone in Francis’ harness so the mule can prompt him on how to answer the public’s questions. At the climax, Peter wins an upset victory:
Betsy was staring at Francis.
The mule took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He was looking at Betsy. ‘I wonder if we realize what we’ve done?’
Betsy glanced at me, then back to Francis. ‘It frightens me.’
‘The United States Congress,’ said Francis. (p. 242)
Francis Goes to Washington ends with the trio preparing to leave for Washington:
’You know, Francis,’ said Betsy, ‘I think you and I make a good team.’
‘By the tail of my great-aunt Regret who won the Derby,’ said the mule, ‘I think we do!’
‘How …’ I said in a small voice, ‘…how about me?’ (p. 243)
A third book was obviously intended, but was never written. Stern bought a New Orleans newspaper in 1949, and spent the rest of his career running it. Also, in 1950 Stern sold the film rights for Francis to Universal Studios for $50,000, plus an additional $50,000 for each subsequent feature. There were seven Francis movies during the 1950s. Stern probably felt that he could sit back and collect much more money from the film rights than from writing any more novels.
A more important reason may be, although this is a guess, that Francis Goes to Washington was less successful than Francis. It is certainly a much darker and more cynical comedy. In Francis, the reader could identify with the 2nd lieutenant as a very young and understandably inexperienced American lost in the unfamiliar Burmese jungle. With Francis Goes to Washington, it becomes obvious that Peter Stirling isn’t just inexperienced; he is really stupid. He figuratively spends the novel with his mouth hanging open while Francis and Betsy treat him like a puppet. (“‘Don’t interrupt,’ said the mule. ‘Just go over there in the corner and stay out of the way...’” – p. 123.)
Francis is a story of Good America versus the Evil Japs. Francis Goes to Washington is a story in which the antagonists are our own corrupt politicians. Betsy comes across as not loving either Teddy or Peter, but being tired of being regarded as “a mere female” and excited by being asked by Francis to help plan Peter’s underdog campaign. (“‘But this is actually too much of a job for one individual,’ said the mule.” – p. 105.)
Finally, although Francis talks about helping Peter to run an honest campaign, it quickly becomes clear that his campaigning is even more sneaky and manipulative than Peter’s opponent’s; he’s just more clever about it. The ultimate patsy is the American voter. American readers could not be expected to feel as good about this.