When Gore Vidal appears on a television talk show, he's so imperturbably urbane and witty, and shows such commanding intelligence, that I almost always pick up one of his books and start skimming, hoping to retain the company of that elegant, entertaining voice a little longer.
Throughout his career Vidal has been, oddly, hampered by that general impression of his powers - as a high-class entertainer, an intellectual stage performer. His many novels, plays, and essays on a dazzling variety of subjects are too often regarded as the products of an accomplished but superficial virtuosity - polished glitter lacking genuine substance. Only in his political novels - ''Washington, D.C.'' (1967), ''Burr'' (1973), and ''1876'' (1976) - have Vidal's great gifts for organizing unruly material and devising memorable epigrammatic statements been focused on what his critics have deemed truly worthy subjects. And it's really only since ''Burr'' - that supremely ironic revisionist viewing of the American Revolution and the early republic - that Vidal has been taken in any sense seriously as a novelist.
Well, now we have his ''Lincoln,'' a sober and surely authoritative portrayal of America's 16th President during the years 1861-65, from the beginning of his first term to his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. It is a book packed with historical information transposed into drama and dialogue: Readers can justifiably feel they're improving themselves while they are engrossed in this suavely managed story - which, brilliant as it often is, doesn't quite satisfy the expectations it raises.
The story begins with the newly elected President's arrival in Washington, incognito and under guard, after one of the many threats on his life. ''I will never live this down,'' Lincoln observes to a colleague, ''sneaking like a thief into the capital.'' Indeed he's a more than controversial figure, a compromise candidate and winner, hated and feared by secessionist forces who believe he'll free the slaves, perhaps even give them the vote.
Washington is in turmoil: States are seceding and joining the Confederacy, and rumors of Civil War are increasing daily. (Vidal deftly sketches in an amusing parallel situation: The White House is run down and dirty, bereft of efficient plumbing, and downwind of a sewage canal.) Things are rapidly worsening. Lincoln's announcement that he has been elected ''to prevent the extension of slavery to the new territories of the Union'' confirms the deepest suspicions of the Southern and Border States. His Inaugural Address is, however, too conciliatory toward the ''rebels'' for Northern politicians who argue that ''the South must be destroyed.'' The new President appears to be trying, unsuccessfully, to please every element of the population, and there's a consensus among his fellow politicians ''that Mr. Lincoln is a well-meaning but inadequate man.''
Then the contention blossoms into outright war, and we observe - through others' observations of him - Lincoln in control. He puts the broadest possible interpretation on the doctrine of the presidency's ''inherent powers'' and gives his Treasury secretary unprecedented latitude in finding ways to finance military necessities. He discourages the pivotal state of Maryland from secession by suspending the rights of assembly and habeas corpus and other traditional liberties. He resists pressures to evacuate Washington when Confederate troops approach the city. Throughout the long ordeal of the war, Lincoln's determination to preserve the Union whatever the cost is seen against his expressed horror at realizing how great that cost will be. The story's conclusion, in the elaborate preparation to kill the President, then in the mysterious suddenness of the act itself, has a persuasive dignity and grandeur that are only too appropriate to the subject.
The most interesting thing about ''Lincoln'' is the manner in which Vidal tells the story. We see Lincoln as he is seen and judged by several of those most fascinated and obsessed by him. Mary Todd Lincoln's worshipful closeness to her husband cannot keep her from slipping into eccentricity, then insanity. Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the Treasury and later chief justice, knows that his suspicious uncertainty about Lincoln is rooted in his own strong presidential ambitions. David Herold, drugstore clerk and Confederate spy, dreams day and night of ridding the country of ''the Tyrant.'' William H. Seward , Lincoln's clever secretary of state, begins by distrusting his superior's slow competence and ends up as his greatest admirer. And John Hay, Lincoln's young secretary (and later his biographer) - a charmingly created character - is the primary narrator to whom the most incisive opinions of Lincoln are given, such as this climactic assessment: ''So he not only put the Union back together again , but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.''
The technique produces several striking characterizations: Besides those names, there are William Sprague, the ''boy governor'' of Rhode Island, who marries Chase's splendid daughter Kate and tarnishes that proud family with his illegal commercial double-dealings; George McClellan, the fiery Union general who becomes Lincoln's chief impediment to reelection; Walt Whitman, who appears in a brief scene applying for a government clerkship; and two or three dozen other vividly created, individually distinct, and articulate people.
There are many strongly lit and convincingly detailed scenes, many of them policymaking meetings at which Lincoln's political astuteness and personal strength are sharply conveyed. These include a dramatic presidential meeting with Negro leaders; a marvelous strategic conversation between Lincoln and his old rival, Stephen Douglas; and a tense scene in which Mary Lincoln's brother-in-law refuses the President's appeal for support, announcing that he'll accept a commission in the Confederate Army. The quiet, unpolitical moments are no less dramatic, and allow us to perceive people nominally ''in power'' who are inhibited and appalled by the burden they've shouldered.
But Vidal pays a comparatively heavy price for this novel's impression of fullness and authenticity. The exposition is handled quite clumsily: The characters' backgrounds and histories are poured into their reported thoughts about one another. The first 150 pages or so are thus overburdened with retrospective detail, and the story is permitted to develop much too slowly. In fact, this sluggish pace is so firmly established that even the account of the last days of Lincoln's life never quite manages to take on the momentum we expect.
The decision to show Lincoln from outside proves even more troubling. Vidal's mosaic technique produces refreshing emphases: We understand that this President was not at first a committed abolitionist (unlike, for example, his wife) and that his sympathy for the Negro population grew while he held office and only gradually altered his intentions. We come to appreciate his self-possession and his quiet wit, and we become occasionally bored, as do his hearers, by the folk wisdom he can't stop spouting. We may even concur with the extraordinary concluding statement of young John Hay, who came to believe ''that Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.''
There's the clue, I think, to what is missing from this otherwise intelligent and satisfying novel. Vidal's Abraham Lincoln is, essentially, the stone figure seated within that celebrated memorial. For once, this daring writer's nerve seems to have failed him: He declined to think his way inside Lincoln's head and heart. Had he done so, this book might have been something magnificent and original; as it is, brilliant as it is, I'm afraid ''Lincoln'' is really only another act of acclamation, a respectful and conventional tribute.