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All the President’s Henchmen: Susan Choi and Garrett Graff on the Citizens of the Swamp

In this episode, novelist Susan Choi and journalist Garrett Graff talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about henchmen in political headlines and political literature. Graff talks about the word’s mob connotations, as well as its connections to the Trump and Nixon administrations; Choi talks about degrees of loyalty, and henchmen in literature, from Falstaff to Trust Exercise and American Woman.

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Selected readings for the episode:

Part One: Garrett Graff

V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was combing through your work, and I was trying to find a place where you use the word henchman. And sometimes you are describing people who I would consider henchmen. But you don’t really use that. It’s not one of your favorite words. Why might people avoid that? Or what words do you use instead?

Garrett Graff: I think you’re right that in addition to something being nefarious, there has to be a thuggish quality to either the work being done or the person doing the bidding. And I think that’s how you end up with Pompeo or Giuliani or Parnas or Fruman or, going back, you know, that this president has actually had many cycles and circles of henchmen over the years.

And you go back to Roger Stone or Michael Cohen from the 2016 campaign and could see them being labeled henchmen. I think there’s also an organizational quality to the term “henchman.” It implies a tie to a gang or a mafioso-like family, or a godfather or gangster at the top of the pyramid. And so I think that this is something that you’ve seen pretty accurately used to describe those associates around the president who operate on the mafia side of the president’s political operation.

Whitney Terrell: I think it’s no accident. I think maybe the other part—and that was really helpful, Garrett, what you’re saying there—made me think that maybe another aspect of being a henchman is that you’re in a society that has, overall, been corrupted. That’s why I feel like the literary connections to the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett noir of the 1930s and 40s, which were really—and all the great noir movies at that time—were really about an LA that was itself already, fundamentally, not a democracy.

And that it was run by crooked people and that the people who were honest, i.e. the cops, were also crooked. Everyone was crooked, and being a henchman comes out of that milieu even—you could be someone who helped a powerful guy in a non-rotten time and maybe not be a henchman. But if you’re in a system that’s broken, then you’re a henchman.

GG: That’s actually a really interesting point, because I think one of the other places that you see it to deployed internationally is in the geopolitical realm, talking about for instance, Saudi Arabia and the people who murdered Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS. That “Saudi henchmen kidnapped him,” is the type of things that you see.

WT: I mean, the recording of those guys talking could come right out of a Chandler novel.

GG: Yes.

WT: It’s completely insane. Yeah.

VG: Yeah. And so it seems like a way of taking things out of an official system and making them unofficial. The henchman is the place where it becomes nebulous.

WT: You’re not assigned to be a lieutenant, you’re just a henchman. You don’t really have a job title.

GG: Well, and I actually think that that’s an interesting question in this—when you look at the political usage of these words, as a henchman, can you have your own agency or are you only doing someone else’s bidding for them? One of the examples I’d throw out is, I think, during the Bush years, a comparatively much more polite and less corrupt period of American politics than that which we find ourselves in now, you would see references to Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney as Bush’s henchmen. And I’m wondering if that was actually an accurate disparagement of them at the time, because those were two figures who were, by and large, really carrying out their own agendas.

VG: Yeah, they had a lot of agency and they had a lot of their own power. Cheney was one of the people I was thinking of because I was realizing, people don’t call Mike Pence a henchman, actually, that I’ve noticed. And then I thought, of course, of other vice presidents and was thinking, yeah, Cheney got so much of his own stuff done. Do you think that being a henchman requires aspirations to your own power?

GG: I think actually generally not. I think henchmen generally are defined only in their proximity to power and not actually by their own hopes of power themselves. And by the way, I think there’s actually a clear reason why Mike Pence has dodged any such labels in the Trump era. And that’s because he’s actually done a remarkable job staying out of everything. You don’t actually see his fingerprints on controversial conversations. You don’t see him participating in controversial telephone calls. He never seems to be in the loop. Which could be its own problem to be sure. But Mike Pence is really not at the center of most of the scandals of the Trump administration.

WT: Mike Pence is like the senator and godfather to who Michael Corleone says, “You can have my answer now if you want—you’ll get nothing.” He’s—he’s the guy who’s pretending to be a square or is a square, it seems to me.

VG: You bring up the mafia. Of course the other president who probably springs to many people’s minds when we think about the word henchman is Nixon, and I think that the word henchmen emerged in political coverage and imagination during the Nixon administration. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think it goes back farther than that?

GG: I would stipulate that as a possible beginning of its term. I don’t know how commonly it would have been used around, let’s say, the Teapot Dome Scandal of the century before, [laughter] but I do think that in popular political culture, henchman really only came into being around the idea of Richard Nixon and Watergate and that was in part because there were just so many henchmen all around the president, up to and including probably, actually, the president himself.

WT: Well, I want to say first that the guys who did the break-in are the most obvious henchmen of all. I mean, they’re almost like, from central casting for henchmen.

GG: And then from there you go out in circles. You’ve got Chuck Colson, John Ehrlichman, H.R. Halderman, up to and including John Dean, who, of course, is one of the architects of the cover-up and then ends up being the first to turn to the prosecutors and the investigators on Capitol Hill and blow the whistle on the whole thing. But there is a reason that the book and movie that captured the popular imagination out of that scandal is called All the President’s Men, and that’s just because there were so many henchmen involved in that situation.

WT: You’re bringing up a point that we haven’t touched on yet, which I think is important in political terms. Henchmen are also often dealing with the money, right? That’s the line of Watergate—follow the money, as Woodward and Bernstein were told, but a lot of those guys you’re talking about—it was slush funds that they were using to pay for these covert and illegal activities like the break-in and stuff like that, that ended up being Nixon’s undoing, and that was what the henchmen were covering up, in essence, or handling.

GG: Yes, and certainly, coming back to the nefarious nature of henching, as you would say, once you are dealing with break-ins and wiretaps and sabotage operations—that’s classic henching.

Part Two: Susan Choi

Susan Choi: Before you told me about the [horse-related etymology of the word], I would have said that a henchmen or henchperson is the person lower down on the ladder from the alpha, who’s doing their dirty work for them. I mean, isn’t that what we associate that word with? And that’s negative. So they could be a person lower down on the ladder from the alpha, who’s not necessarily doing their dirty work, but providing them with low company while they slum it for a while. That’s what Falstaff is. When Prince Hal is going through his wild and woolly period, Falstaff is his pal because they’re being bros together. It’s not necessarily that Falstaff does his dirty work.

WT: I do associate the word henchmen with criminality. Obviously the original definition doesn’t say that. But I would say exactly what Susan says—it’s the guy who does the thing that the alpha doesn’t want to do or doesn’t want to be connected to, so he can’t get in trouble. Like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, or any of a number of gun-toting stiffs in Raymond Chandler’s crime fiction.

SC: What you’re saying is just confirming this idea of hierarchy. There has to be underlying hierarchy for there to be henchmen. The henchmen are always on a lower rung of the ladder. They’re always in a position of servitude, right? And the horse people, maybe they weren’t engaged in criminal behavior, but they were retained by the alpha person. They were servants. They did the bidding of somebody.

WT: And to me, that’s what’s interesting about the characters, is that I think you can fall in love as a reader with a henchperson, because their primary characteristic is loyalty. And even if they’re being loyal to a bad person that loyalty can be admirable. Does that make sense? Does that seem crazy?

SC: It doesn’t seem crazy. But is that loyalty pure? You’re talking about the loyalty of the henchperson being admirable, even if their actions are deplorable, even if they’re engaged in criminality, their loyalty to the person for whom they hench, whoever that person is. You’re talking about how we can romanticize that and find that admirable, but is it pure loyalty, or is it a performance of loyalty in context?

Michael Cohen said that he would take a bullet for Trump—until he then turned around and spilled, right? He was up against the wall and said, Oh, actually, I’ll cooperate. So his loyalty was very situation-specific—lasted until he was in handcuffs. Should do we admire him because he was once loyal? Or find him even more contemptible, because his loyalty was so obviously not authentic.

VG: Susan, are you suggesting that in order to be a henchman or henchperson to engage in henchery, you are doing something—it seems like there’s some inherent hypocrisy to it, in that it’s something that the alpha, as you were saying, doesn’t want to be seen doing. Does the henchman also have aspirations to power? Is that how you would define it?

SC: Of course. I don’t want to shoot down Whit’s romantic idea of the loyal henchperson. But I think the henching is always totally utilitarian, right? It’s transactional. You’re not performing these deeds out of your selfless love for this person. You’re fulfilling the mandates of your hierarchical role in the hopes of one day unseating that person above you. It’s very cold-blooded, henching.

WT: That applies to Iago, a classic henchman who wants to take over, in my view. But the Luca Brasi character from The Godfather, who you see in the very opening of the movie when he’s practicing the way he’s going to speak to the Godfather and thank him for all this stuff—he’s a guy who seems like he’s really a loyal henchman, who does die for the Godfather and would never want to take over the Godfather’s position.

SC: Yeah, you’re right, and Luca does die, in part because I think he doesn’t hench successfully enough. He’s too sentimental. Maybe that’s what’s interesting about these characters is that some of them do fall prey to this inner conflict between sentimental loyalty and cold-blooded utilitarianism. Lucas cares too much about what the Godfather thinks of him and in a sincere way. And so he’s got to go. The system within which he exists weeds him out. He’s too soft.

WT: So we want to talk to you about henchpeople in your own work. And we’re going to get to Trust Exercise, but when I was thinking about this episode, I realized that your novel American Woman was in some ways about a henchwoman. Or at least that’s the way that I think about it. I wondered if you thought that was a fair way to characterize Jenny Shimada.

SC: That’s so interesting. I’ve never ever imagined her bearing that label, the henchwoman or the henchperson label, but it is a really interesting way to think about her because she’s a person who is torn between the pure sentiment of loyalty and these very, very pragmatic considerations having to do with the fact that she’s a wanted criminal living underground in hiding, running out of money, and so she’s basically taken on as a paid henchperson to these other two outlaws, but outlaws who are less pure than she.

She feels already dirtied from the very beginning by the fact that she agrees to be their henchperson. She agrees to be their henchperson because she has no other options left for herself. So she lacks that loyalty, she lacks that sense of a sentimental bond, but then that enters into it when she forms this attachment to one of her fellow outlaws. She develops an actual genuine caring for this person, and it totally complicates her role and messes everything up.

VG: Being a henchman is a complicated psychological position from which to create a character.

SC: It definitely is. It’s certainly not a way that I ever thought of her but I think it is an interesting way to think of her, because she’s been part of an organized movement to serve a greater good and she hasn’t thought of herself as a criminal, but her movement has engaged in criminal activity, and then it all spirals from there. It’s like you engage in criminal activity, even if you’re idealistic, now, you’re a criminal. Now you’re associated with other criminals. Now you’re helping those criminals avoid apprehension, which in itself is a crime. So, she does end up experiencing this moral undertow like her moral stance toward the world gets really undermined.

VG: So as we were discussing before, one clear characteristic of a henchman—henchperson is that they do the dirty work.

WT: I’d like that we can de-genderize henchman, I think that’s good.

VG: One clear characteristic of a henchperson—henchfolks!—is that they do the dirty work their “Lord” doesn’t want to do. And this turns out to be a really interesting way also, I think to think about your novel Trust Exercise. And we’ll follow your lead on spoilers there. But is it safe to say that if there is a “Lord” who has henchmen in this book, it’s the drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley?

SC: Trust Exercise is set in the early 80s at a performing arts high school in an unnamed city that isn’t Los Angeles or New York. And beyond that, we don’t know where it is. And the students that we are introduced to are in the drama program. They’re theatre students, and their teacher is this really charismatic, and quite fascinating person, Mr. Kingsley. They’re very, very enamored of Mr. Kingsley and concerned with fulfilling his expectations of them. I think it’s definitely fair to say that if there’s a lordly figure in the book, it’s Mr. Kingsley.

First of all, look at what he’s named. And second of all, look at the way he acts. Yeah, he has a lordly presence, but this idea of whether he has henchmen is really interesting to me. Of course I didn’t set out to write a story about Mr. Kingsley and his henchpeople; I never thought of it that way. But what’s so fun about writing a novel is that you then get to see what interpretations other people come away with. So in what way do you think Mr. Kingsley has hench—hench-folk?

WT: Well, I was thinking of the character of Martin as being a henchperson for him, but also maybe the faculty there who don’t often report or do anything about his behavior.

VG: I can’t help but think of—given that Whitney has given us this astonishing set of magnified facts about horses and the word’s etymology—the verb grooming comes to mind. The way that people are prepared for certain kinds of events or not prepared for certain kinds of events and to think of them in certain ways. So we’ve brought this reading to your novel, but you think it holds, yeah?

SC: I don’t know if I think it can be mapped directly onto the book. I think it actually interacts in a really interesting way with the book especially if you start thinking of this henchman idea is as being—well if you start thinking of it in terms of agency. We generally think of henchmen as acting knowledgeably to advance the interest of—I guess we’re using this royal terminology—their lord or their boss, whoever the boss is, the henchperson acts deliberately to advance that person’s interests.

But is that the only definition? When we start talking about the world of Trust Exercise, there’s not a constellation of subordinate people who are deliberately acting to advance mercenary interests, but I think that there’s a culture in the book of certain assumptions and certain norms, that all added together, do advance the interests of some over those of others, and it’s structural. It’s not criminal, if that makes sense. The structural problem, which I think makes it more difficult to put your finger on—you can’t really say, well, it’s so and so’s fault; they set out to victimize this person. Instead, you have to go well, it feels as if there are people being victimized here, but who’s to blame? Who are we gonna charge—who are we gonna point the finger at?

WT: A henchman, I guess, in this particular context, you could also think of as someone who doesn’t act, or who allows a thing to be covered up, who enables that kind of behavior rather than acting affirmatively to do something on behalf of the lord. That’s the way I was thinking about it in the terms of this book.

SC: Yeah, I mean, you could widen the definition that way, and you could say, are bystanders henching for some dark agency simply by not doing something to diminish the power of that dark agency, whatever it is. I mean, are we all henching for something? I guess now we’re really casting the net pretty wide in terms of culpability.

WT: I was just gonna say that I think being in a fraternity in college is a little bit like being a henchman for the patriarchy. I mean, that’s kind of what it was, in retrospect. That’s what it feels like to me, you know—being somebody that wasn’t changing a particular power structure.


Transcribed by Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan and Damian Johansson. Photo of Susan Choi by Heather Weston.

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