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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


Scandalmonger

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 story.

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 affair.

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 victory.

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, though.

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