Indeed, it’s hard not to collate the behavior of Lou Runyon, the paper’s tough, scrupulous editor (modeled somewhat on Ben Bradlee) with that of the author himself. Earlier in his career, Downie oversaw coverage of Watergate. More recently, he went forward with stories about CIA prisons in Eastern Europe in specific defiance of the Bush administration. Even a fictional treatment of these matters, from such an apt and credible source, becomes a rather delicious off-the-record rarity.

The book even details a presidential election in which the older, male candidate selects a younger, glamorous, inexperienced woman as his running mate. “I can’t remember a presidential nominee being upstaged like this at his own convention,” a colleague tells Sarah Page. This fictional ticket resonates so eerily with the McCain/Palin campaign that readers will wonder about the publisher’s production schedule (the finished book hit the stores in early January of this year.)

Beyond the pleasure of voyeurism, though, Downie conveys the thrill and privilege of just being there. A White House volunteer in The Rules of the Game puts it this way: “It was fun, a game with its own unique rules, which sometimes included intimate relationships confined to the campaign, away from what insiders referred to as ‘real life.’”

In the end, Downie’s novel satisfies the myth of the reporter as a stubborn, insatiable, and often alienated guardian of democracy, one whose work can slip thrillingly into the territories of the detective or the spy. In his debut as a novelist, Downie retains both spirited optimism and enthusiasm for the ideals his profession requires. And readers may take private pleasure in trying to match the fiction with the all the facts surrounding its author’s impressive career.

Caroline H. Dworin is a writer in New York.