BEHIND THE BOOK ESSAY
WHY I WROTE THE PERFECT CANDIDATE
BY PETER STONE
When most people see The Photo of Chandra Levy posing in a white tank top and high-waisted jeans, they see yet another young female murder victim immortalized by the tabloids. When they see the picture of Congressman Gary Condit wearing a too-big white shirt and too-long grey tie and running from the paparazzi, it’s an iconic shot of one more politician under media scrutiny.
But I see a young woman from my hometown. I see my former boss.
I was an intern in Condit’s Capitol Hill office the summer after I graduated from high school. Soon after, he would be embroiled in this century’s first notorious political scandal. But that summer, he was a hero of mine – a homegrown, five-term Democratic Congressman beloved by a predominantly Republican constituency. I had traded the dusty orchard roads of my Central California town for the sleek and futuristic metro of Washington, D.C. The summer before, I was an underpaid and sunburned swimming instructor assistant at the community pool. And one year later at eighteen years old, I was writing legislative briefs and giving tours of the Capitol Building.
Those three hot, sweaty summer months were my first exposure to the real world, the realm of adulthood I was so eagerly racing toward. For a brief season, I became part of the youthful army of interns and staffers who keep the country running. I spent long days in the lawmaking trenches with an influential party leader. The adjacency to power was inspiring and intoxicating – seductive, even.
And then shortly thereafter, it was disturbing.
Seeing the news of Levy’s death, followed by the accusations of murder and the piranha feeding frenzy of the press - I saw the darker side of D.C. Condit insisted that he had nothing to do with the crime, and I am inclined to believe him. But the experience taught me larger lessons about the fallibility of heroes and the duplicity of power. And perhaps most surprising: the realization that the adolescence you were so ready to leave behind was actually wonderful in its own way - maybe even idyllic. And suddenly gone for good.
Today’s teenagers face crumbling institutions and fears that I could not have imagined that summer in Washington. And yet I hope they continue to volunteer for political campaigns, to march and write and speak their beliefs, and to take anxious, lonely airplane flights into the unknown of summer internships in our nation’s capitol. There, they will find the fun and the fear, the confidence and the confusion, the hope and the horror that spilled out onto the page as I reminisced and wrote The Perfect Candidate. Cameron Carter embodies my experiences that summer – but he is also any teenager whose trust is betrayed; and then who doubles down in search of the truth and what is right. That same curiosity - that engagement - will change their lives. And it may change the world. And if, like Cameron, they happen to stumble upon and expose a breathtaking and scary political scandal while they’re at it - more power to them. (Let’s just hope they’re spared the death threats, paranoia, and desperate chases that Cameron encounters…)
Author Peter Stone