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Times change, faces change, politics stay the same

Democracy: An American Novel, Henry Adams, The Modern Library: 240 pp., $12.95 paper

August 31, 2003|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.

The Washington novel has two forms. The first is familiar enough: the breathless thriller featuring hatchet-faced national security advisors, rumbustious generals and an alarmed president who avert Armageddon at the last minute. The second, and more enlightening, is the satire that seeks to pull the drapery away from the stage and reveal the hurly-burly of politics and journalism, whether it's Gore Vidal's "Washington, D.C.," set in FDR's Washington, or more recently, Jeffrey Frank's saucy "The Columnist."

The creator of the latter genre was Henry Adams. It would be hard to think of anyone better prepared to explore the interstices of Washington politics. Adams, who was born in 1838 and whose presidential ancestors were great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams, epitomized the noblesse oblige, reformist instincts of the Brahmin class.

A Harvard graduate, he worked as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, in Washington and London, before making a name for himself as a highbrow reforming journalist. Adams was wistful for the halcyon days of an aristocratic political elite and dismayed by the turn the U.S. took after the Civil War under President Ulysses Grant, from an agrarian society to an industrialized one controlled by political parties and corporate trusts. Together with his wife, Marian, he moved to Lafayette Square, where he decried the great twin evils of American democracy -- the subservience of Congress to special interests and the spoils system -- but ended up leaving Washington in frustration for a teaching post at Harvard in 1870.

The Modern Library's reissue of Adams' "Democracy: An American Novel" thus arrives at an opportune moment. The political figures may have changed, but the plutocratic excesses Adams mocks have not. Long before the U.S. supposedly lost its innocence during Watergate, Adams punctured the pretensions of official Washington. Adams' whimsicality extended to the release of his roman a clef; he instructed the publisher to release it on April Fool's Day in 1880. It was an instant bestseller, published anonymously, prompting Washingtonians to speculate feverishly about the author's identity. Adams' protagonist is the young, gorgeous, wealthy widow Mrs. Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, who has grown bored with New York philanthropy and heads for Washington. "What she wanted," Adams writes, "was power." But Lee is not intent on power for its own sake. She is a moralist who, in quintessentially American fashion, wants to "know whether America is right or wrong." To answer this question, she sets up a salon in Lafayette Square that includes John Carrington, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who fought for Virginia in the Civil War; Silas P. Ratcliffe, a senator from Illinois; and the cynical Old World diplomat Baron Jacobi. She is initially horrified to discover, at a White House reception, that the incoming president and his wife are little more than wind-up dolls subject to the whims of their nominal inferiors.

But perhaps the stentorian eloquence of Ratcliffe can provide the key to understanding how power is exercised. Ratcliffe could hardly be further removed from Lee's social standing. A widower of 50, he lives in a Washington boarding house and has a white frame summer home with iron stoves, oilcloth carpets and an engraving of Abraham Lincoln in the parlor. But he is also a prominent statesman who knows how to tie the hands of the incoming reformist president even before he has entered the Oval Office. In contrast to Lee's high-toned moralism, Ratcliffe is a connoisseur of skulduggery who believes that the only thing higher than party allegiance is national allegiance. He admits that on the eve of the Civil War he rigged the presidential election in Illinois to ensure the preservation of the Union. In a showdown with Jacobi in Lee's salon, Ratcliffe declares: "No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents .... [T]ry to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate failure." The Baron responds: "I do much regret that I have not yet one hundred years to live .... I should find myself very content ....[T]he United States will then be more corrupt than Rome under Caligula; more corrupt than the Church under Leo X; more corrupt than France under the Regent!"

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