By William Safire
Simon & Schuster, 496 pp, 2000
It's not every day that a fictional novel
is published with source notes and a bibliography. But this isn't your
usual novel. As Safire explains both before and after the book, this
novel is a true account based on contemporary documentation. He's taken
much of the words written by the historical characters in letters and
presented them as dialog between the characters. It's a unique approach
that makes for an entertaining and informative read.
But what's the book about? Political
intrigue, mainly. Scandal and those who spread it. Power politics. The
quest for power. Even better, the characters are America's founding
fathers, the true greatest American generation.
The scandalmonger is James Callendar, an
anti-federalist immigrant fleeing imprisonment in his native Scotland.
Thomas Jefferson provides him some financial support for his writing,
which flogs Federalist John Adams and his supporters. But when Jefferson
becomes president, Callendar feels slighted by his former benefactor and
turns on him and other anti-federalists by breaking the Sally Hemmings
This description is too brief to cover
the scope of this sweeping book. It includes the controversy over the
Alien-Sedition Act, tension between France and America and the threat of
war between the two countries, and the role of the press in the entire
At that time, anyone with some money (or
with a supporter with money) could open a paper. The editor wrote many
of the "news" stories, which blended news with opinion. There was no
separation between the news and editorial pages. So you had blatantly
partisan newspapers, both slamming the opposition and savaging the
competition by name on a daily basis. Truth mattered much less than
All this reminded me of the Internet. The
scandalmongers of yesterday are ancestors for the bloggers of the
present day. Anyone can open a web site or get free space and then spout
their opinions, true or not. It's really a wonderful thing.
Anyway, back to the book. Safire is a
fine writer and knows his stuff, which makes a great book. The only
nitpick I have is that it's a bit long and maybe overly ambitious.
Sometimes, Callendar goes missing for several pages at a time as Safire
switches to other viewpoints and scandals having nothing to with
Callendar. But that's a minor thing.
But one last thing before I go. I've long
admired James Monroe, since the fifth grade, in fact, when I wrote an
essay about him. But this book shows that he was one cold-hearted,
politically calculating SOB. Not sure if that changes my opinion of him,