Title: "Joe Steele"
Author: Turtledove, Harry
Published: New York: DAW, 2003
Length: 10 pages
ISBN: 0756401771
Keywords: althist, democrat, hoover, stalin
Review by: Don Kuenz

Harry Turtledove


Turtledove wrote this 2004 Locus Best Short Story winner for an anthology entitled Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian. The story's theme comes from a "Stalin was a Democrat" line in a Janis Ian song.

This alternate history story opens in 1932, with Congressman Joe Steele from Fresno California, running against Franklin D Roosevelt in the Democrat primary. Joe's man, "the Hammer," intimidates enough delegates at the convention to take the nomination away from Roosevelt. And J Edgar Hoover helps Joe count enough votes in the general to achieve a landslide victory.

The titular character then nationalizes banks to finance his future vision for America. He also collaborates with J Edgar to frame and purge political enemies as treasonous Nazi spies. As World War II rages, Joe becomes Britain's greatest patron.

Note: Turtledove expanded the story and released it as a novel in 2015. The teasers, cover, and blurb shown below all originate with the novel.

Title, teasers, cover, characters, & blurb

Joe Steele

The New York Times bestselling author of the Supervolcano trilogy envisions the election of a United States President whose political power will redefine what the nation is—and what it means to be American…

Character list:

  • Joe Steele–32nd president of the United States.
  • Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Farley, Howe, Tugwell, Trotsky, Hitler, J Edgar Hoover, Willkie, Boss Tweed, Admiral Kimmel, General Short, MacArthur, George Marshall, Nimitz, Eisenhower, Halsey, Churchill, Einstein, Szilard, Fermi, Von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Teller, Feynman, Frisch, Kistiakowsky, von Braun, Chiang, Mao–historical figures.
  • Kagan, Stas Mikoian, the "Hammer"–Steele's inner circle.
  • John Nance Garner–Steele's Vice President.

The Great Depression continues to cast its dark shadow over the country. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the Democratic Party makes an interesting nomination for their Presidential candidate: California Congressman Joe Steele, the son of a Russian immigrant laborer who identifies more with the common man than with the wealthy power brokers in Washington D.C.

Achieving a landslide victory, President Joe Steele wastes no time pushing through Congress reforms that put citizens back to work. Anyone who gets in his way is getting in the way of America, and that includes the highest in the land. But Steele’s homeland political enemies pale in comparison to European tyrants whose posturing seems sure to drag America into war…


The tanks circling the White House on the cover brings to mind How Camouflage Became Chic in Beltwayland by Mike Lofgren:

it is an inescapable fact that Washington is unique among capital cities of the so-called free world in the ubiquity of its military presence. I have never seen anything comparable elsewhere except in East Berlin in 1974 and Moscow in 1979.

The short story's a one note samba. It hammers home its point with each sentence. As such, Turtledove delivers a short story suitable for the anthology.

Its plot takes artistic liberties with history as it occurred under Roosevelt and Truman. There's no character development. Instead, single minded, one dimensional characters insidiously make matters worse until the end.


© 2021 Don Kuenz