NEW YORK — SCANDALMONGER By William Safire Simon & Schuster 496 pp., $27
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.
At the suggestion of his editor, Safire pursued this woman and made her affection for Callender, the nation's most outraged and outrageous journalist, the spine of his novel.
"As a historian, I didn't have much to work with," he confesses, "because all the historians at the time either dismiss her as a 'blackmailing whore' or say she was a 'mysterious woman about which little is known.'"
During his research, however, he discovered a brief description of Mrs. Reynolds in the memoir of a Philadelphia merchant who met her a few years after the scandal. "That fleshed out the character, if you'll pardon the expression," he grins.
In the novel, Safire has cleverly retained her coy nature. While she's affectionate and genteel, she manages men effectively enough to leave a degree of ambiguity about her real nature. Pairing the object of Hamilton's affections with the journalist determined to expose those affections proves a clever way of focusing what is sometimes a thicket of historical details.
Congress shall make no law ...
The novel's real subject and the one closest to Safire's heart is the freedom of the press, a liberty that evolved haphazardly and was almost snuffed out by President Jefferson's efforts to silence Callender.
Infuriated by the new president's inadequate payment for his scandalmongering stories, Callender turned on his old patron with a vengeance and dragged the nation through salacious stories about Jefferson's affair with one of his slaves.
"Politicians who were in opposition were desperate to defend the right to dissent publicly. But as soon as they got into positions of power and felt the lash of dissent, they turned around and tried to stop it," Safire says.
As his novel makes clear, government efforts to restrict the press's freedom are fraught with tyrannical potential. Safire, like Hamilton before him, prefers to risk putting the press in the public's hands. "When the poking into private lives goes too far and there's a public revulsion at it and editors or broadcasters or cable operators realize that it's costing them readers, they'll change."
But for 200 years, American newspapers have proven the sad practicality of Callender's method: People are as quick to condemn intrusions into private life as they are to read those intrusions. "I defended Gary Hart when he was tracked down and - he feels - entrapped," Safire says, "and I defended Bob Packwood when I felt he was unfairly attacked. I'm bipartisan in my feeling about privacy."
Today, Safire sees the media's freedom more threatened by consolidation than government restraint. "I'm antimerger, by nature," he says, acknowledging the irony of working for The New York Times, one of the nation's leading media consolidators. "The constant reduction in the number of choices people have to make is a danger."
"The counter to it," he claims, "is that the Internet allows hundreds of thousands of people to publish, and you don't have to have a heavy capital investment in order to express yourself. The Internet is today's version of the pamphleteers" of Callender's day.
But even the World Wide Web can't compete with the speed or spark of Callender's 200-year-old pen. "With that combination of good reporting and innate viciousness, I don't think anybody quite matches him today," Safire says.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society