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The right men, but not the real story

Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson; Gore Vidal; Yale University Press: 198 pp., $22

November 16, 2003|Joseph J. Ellis | Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many books, including "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson" and "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation," which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in History.

At the end of "Inventing a Nation," Gore Vidal recalls a conversation with John F. Kennedy at Hyannis in 1961. Kennedy was complaining about the proliferation of second-raters in government: "Then you read all those debates over the Constitution ... nothing like that now. Nothing." Kennedy wonders if perhaps there was something special in the water back then. For how else could one explain, he asks, "how a sort of backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?"

This, in fact, is not the American trinity that Vidal would have selected, but he does not correct Kennedy's choice retrospectively. Instead he refers to one of the biblical books of wisdom, Ecclesiasticus: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us." Then he adds: "Meanwhile, dear Jack, in the forty years since your murder, I've pondered your question, and this volume is my hardly definitive answer."

Kennedy's question has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. Not so much within the groves of academe, where scholars are baying down other less-traveled trails after other scents, but rather in that steadily shrinking space in which ordinary Americans read books about history. My own effort to address Kennedy's question appeared during the last presidential election, which landed in the lap of the U.S. Supreme Court after an awkward pit stop in Florida. Wherever I went, two questions were invariably asked: How did we get this weird contraption called the electoral college? And why is it that in 2000 we had to choose between Bush and Gore when in 1800 they got to choose between Adams and Jefferson?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Henry Adams' grave -- A review of Gore Vidal's book "Inventing a Nation" in Sunday's Book Review referred to the burial place of Henry Adams as Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C. In fact, Adams is buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, which is not a part of the park. In addition, the park is in Washington.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 30, 2003 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Henry Adams' grave -- A review of Gore Vidal's book "Inventing a Nation" in the Nov. 16 Book Review referred to the burial place of Henry Adams as Rock Creek Park, near Washington, D.C. In fact, Adams is buried in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, which is not a part of the park. In addition, the park is in Washington.

In response to the popular appetite for answers, publishers have produced a wave of new books on specific members of the founding generation, a surprising number of which have surged onto the bestseller list, thereby feeding the interest further and creating a little bull market in what most scholars had previously described as the deadest, whitest males in American history. One can only imagine the excitement within the editorial offices of Yale University Press when the opportunity presented itself to match a hot topic with one of the master stylists of American letters, who also happened to be a lifelong student of American history.

Though Vidal could not care a whit, scholars are unlikely to take "Inventing a Nation" seriously. There are no endnotes, a boatload of factual errors (the claim, for instance, that Washington was broke in 1786) and a flamboyant disdain for the measured assessments of, say, the political factions within the Constitutional Convention or the behind-the-scenes bargaining over the location of the national capital on the Potomac. Vidal's cavalier style is not designed to move carefully on the ground through the thick academic underbrush. Asking it to do so is like asking Louis Armstrong to play just the notes on the sheet. It soars and dives at its own choosing, and it feels perfectly free to amble off in tangential riffs designed to express Vidal's imaginative rendering of the story. Thus, in a discussion of the political controversy over passage of the Jay Treaty in 1796:

"At a point like this in a fictional narrative, there would be a confrontation between Washington and Hamilton. From what we know of each man, and each armed with this particular information, the dramatist could move if not into Shakespeare land (Brutus and Cassius at Philippi), then at least into Schiller's 'Mary Stuart,' where the Queen of Scots denounces the Queen of England to her face as, literally, a bastard -- like Alexander Hamilton. But no record in actual history is seldom so completed; hence, swarms of bees are constantly, and most usefully, forever abuzz in Academe's hives."

There are similar Vidalesque improvisations that ricochet off remarks by Franklin or Adams, providing occasions for political lectures on what Vidal asserts are the Evil Empire that is the current Justice Department, the despotic character of the Rehnquist Court and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Vidal, in short, is not happy with what the United States has become since the founders set the mold. Exactly where the republican experiment went decisively awry is not clear, though my best guess is that Vidal thinks it happened in the decades after the Civil War, which raises the core question that darts in and out of his storyline in "Inventing a Nation": Was the founding moment a promise later betrayed, or were the seeds of corruption planted at the creation?

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