A man who tells it like it is - and was
SCANDALMONGER By William Safire Simon & Schuster 496 pp., $27Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
William Safire doesn't pull any punches. In his new book, he quotes the clerk of the House of Representatives dismissing one of the most famous presidential hopefuls: "A man who carried on with a whore in his own home when his wife was away? And then brought shame on his wife and children by confessing to it publicly? Never!"
We can hardly blame Safire for leaking this juicy outrage. After all, it's already 200 years old.
"Scandalmonger" is a smart, rollicking dramatization of the scandals that shook Thomas Jefferson's administration and barred Alexander Hamilton from becoming president. History has never been so much fun. Almost all the dialogue, like the clerk's comment above, is constructed from surviving letters, diaries, speeches, and essays. The result is like pressing your ear to the door of America's most dynamic decade. "My dirty little secret is that I used to be a speechwriter," the former Nixon aide confesses.
In this meticulously footnoted novel, the similarities between President Clinton's challenges and those that beset the Founding Fathers are sometimes striking, sometimes even comic. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist insists that wasn't his design.
"I didn't go into this book saying, 'OK, I'm going to write a book about the previous scandals that will illustrate the current ones,' " he says during a recent interview at Simon & Schuster. "I got into it because I was interested in 'Peter Porcupine,' William Cobbett, the critic, the first media giant."
Safire eventually decided to focus his novel on Cobbett's archrival, James Callender, an incendiary journalist and editor fleeing from Scotland. Callender alternately flattered and tormented America's Founding Fathers for 10 years before his mysterious drowning in 1803.
Safire's investigation into Callender's life led him to the exposs of Hamilton and Jefferson. "At that point," he says, "the vividness of the comparison struck me because Jefferson is William Clinton's middle name."
Pressed to acknowledge the striking echo of Clinton's troubles with the press, the venerable word maven raises his voice in mock indignation: "I had my head in the 18th century! That's why I put the notes in the back," he laughs, "for someone who says, 'Oh, he's straining now to make it look like it's all the same,' or 'everybody did it.'"
Fortunately, the academic baggage has been stowed in an "underbook" that advises interested readers about the accuracy of every scene and reference. "I like that approach," he says, "particularly in a time of docu-dramas and 'faction' rather than 'fiction,' where you get confused about what happened and what didn't. In my books, and this one in particular, I say, 'This is the history and this is the twistery - the addition that I make so that the reader can read the book as a novel."
A novel history
Safire's most significant ahistorical twist in "Scandalmonger" is the invention of a romance between Callender and Maria Reynolds, the woman at the center of the calumny that derailed Hamilton's presidential ambitions.
Secretly encouraged by Vice President Jefferson, Callender rabidly pursued claims of Hamilton's alleged profiteering after the Revolutionary War. In order to defend his integrity and the national financial system he had designed, Hamilton was forced to confess to an affair with Mrs. Reynolds that explained - Callender claimed obscured - his peculiar financial arrangements.