THE hero of John Updike's 15th novel, "Memories of the Ford Administration," Alf Clayton (born in 1936 and named after Alf Landon, that year's "affable but unsuccessful" Republican presidential candidate), is a history professor at an obscure New Hampshire college. His long-cherished but unrealized ambition is to write a major biography of James Buchanan, 15th president of the United States, a man generally condemned by historians for having done little if anything to prevent the country from plunging in to the Civil War shortly after he left office.
Along with the fact that Buchanan is relatively untrodden academic territory, Clayton feels a deep personal affinity for the man: "A big fellow, six feet tall, with mismatching eyes, a tilt to his head, and a stiffish courtliness that won my heart. He projected a certain vaporous largeness, the largeness of ambivalence...." What Clayton likes about Buchanan is precisely what is commonly held against him: his inability to make up his mind. "There is," the historian muses, "a civilized heroism to indecisio n - `the best lack all conviction,' etc." What Yeats bemoans, Professor Clayton condones.
Invited by the Northern New England Association of American Historians to contribute his particular memories of the Gerald Ford administration for a forthcoming issue of their journal, "Retrospect," Clayton provides the eponymous book, which - whatever else it may be - is obviously not what the requisitioning editors had in mind. Clayton gives them an intimate, probably unprintable, account of his own domestic and personal life during the Ford years, interlarded with large chunks of the unfinished biogra phy of Buchanan that he was working on at the time. The result - however unsuitable for the historical society's journal - is vintage Updike.
Alf, approaching 40 during the Ford years, was having a kind of midlife crisis. Looking back from the perspective of the Bush administration, he now perceives his attempt to complete the Buchanan book and his attempt to replace his wife, Norma, as twin aspects of "a single vain effort to change my life."
Juxtaposing scenes from Alf Clayton's life with scenes from Buchanan's, Updike unveils a series of comical, poignant, and unexpected contrasts and similarities between the two eras.
The mounting tensions of the decades leading up to the Civil War - years of westward expansion, North-South rivalry, and the great slavery question - are implicitly contrasted with the curious post-Watergate lull of the Ford era:
"... a time of post-apocalyptic let-down, of terrifying permissiveness.... A President had been shot, a war had been lost, our empire had been deemed evil, our heavenly favored-nation status had been revoked, the air had been let out of our parade balloon, and still we bumped on, as we had in 1865, with wandering steps and slow, as out of Eden we took our solitary way."
Clayton, a typical product of his own times and a willing enough participant in them ("What had been unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory," he notes), also feels a profound nostalgia for the previous century, when "people made sense, in a way we can't any more."
Based on historical research, Clayton-Updike's account of Buchanan's life is a vivid, fascinating, and rather wonderful re-creation of a bygone age. Updike previously wrote a play called "Buchanan Dying" and provides a marvelous portrait of the man: a canny, slow-moving, cautious politician who seemed almost constitutionally unable to believe that you couldn't compromise, wheel, or deal your way out of any situation.
As Buchanan - the nation's only bachelor president - endures the early loss of his high-strung fiancee, Ann Coleman, parleys with Andrew Jackson on behalf of Henry Clay, and hobnobs with the Czarina on his stint as ambassador to Russia and with fellow diplomat Nathaniel Hawthorne while both men are representing their country in England, his would-be biographer Alf Clayton tries to maneuver his way out of one marriage and into another.
But even in the permissive Ford era, nothing quite prepares Alf for the shock of having to face his own particular impending divorce, when his mistress breaks the news that she has "broken the news" to her husband:
"We had agreed we were in love, lovely, too lovely ever to lose each other. I just wasn't quite ready for the agreement's translation into practical terms, into legal action involving realtors, judges, mellifluous lawyers, abandoned children," he says.
Later, Alf finds himself in the peculiar position of trying to defend himself against the false rumor of having had an affair with a student by explaining that it was "only" a one-night stand with the student's mother.
Buchanan's knack for prevarication, by contrast, operated chiefly in the political realm. A Northerner (from Pennsylvania) with Southern sympathies, Buchanan began his political career as a devoted Federalist but later became a Democrat.
Many of his best friends - including his longtime Washington roommate and colleague, Sen. R. D. King of Alabama - were Southerners. For Buchanan to have lost the support of his Southern Cabinet members, for this consummate politician to have been betrayed as president by the very people he had trusted and tried to help, must have been painful: pretty much the way Clayton feels after Genevieve dumps him.
"When loved ones kiss us off," he reflects, thinking of himself and Buchanan alike, "the question arises, did they ever love us? Or has it all been illusion and cool scheming?"
Updike's elegant, yet slangy portrait of the Ford era demonstrates considerable finesse. Even more impressive is his authentic, yet unstilted, evocation of Buchanan's era. Buchanan's rocky courtship of Ann Coleman, his cagey, yet poignant, pleas in the Senate for national compromise, are brilliantly imagined.
In a pivotal scene between young Buchanan and the battle-scarred Gen. Andrew Jackson, the spirit of accommodation meets the stubborn voice of principle. The strength of this book is that neither side seems short-changed.