In the beginning of Gore Vidal’s new novel, Hollywood, the “Duchess,” as the consort of Ohio senator Warren G. Harding is affectionately known, visits the Washington salon of the astrologist Madame Marcia to read her husband’s horoscope. The visit has been arranged by Harding’s henchman, Harry Daugherty, who is pushing him for the Republican nomination in 1920. Daugherty believes that his candidate will be nominated and elected, and he expects that Madame Marcia, who is consulted by the greatest in the land, will predict this, and that her prediction will be a good way of preparing the Duchess for her future role. Only Harding’s hour and date of birth have been supplied to the functioning sorceress, but since she has instant access to the Congressional Directory, a glance could allow her to match the date to the man. Or has Daugherty fixed her in advance?
Madame Marcia duly foresees the presidency in the stars and rampant lion of the horoscope. But she also sees a darker fate. In answer to the question: “He’ll die?” she replies:
“We all do that. No. I see something far more terrible than mere death.” Madame Marcia discarded her toothpick like an empress letting go her sceptre. “President Harding—of course I know exactly who he is—will be murdered.”
We are now in the world of Gore Vidal. Many years ago, although an avid reader of his novels, I was uneasy in some parts of that world. I remember waxing a bit hot under the collar, reading Burr, at what I considered a travesty of the character of my hero, Thomas Jefferson. But since that time the bottom has fallen out of my old world. We have undergone Watergate and Irangate; we have seen a president resign from office under fire and a daydreaming movie star occupy the White House. If I hear the truth spoken by an elected official or his representative, I wonder if he has had no inducement to lie. I have had to face the nasty fact that the world is—and probably always was—a good deal closer to the one so brilliantly savaged by Vidal than any that I had fondly imagined.
And even now, as I pause in writing this piece to glance at the newspaper, I read that the second volume of Robert Caro’s heavily documented life of LBJ will attempt to prove that that lauded Texas liberal was the greatest and most unabashed rigger of elections in our political history. We may yet live to see Vidal branded a sentimentalist!
Vidal has said that Hollywood is the last (though not the last chronologically) of a sequence of novels loosely called his History of the United States, starting with Burr, which deals with Aaron Burr’s conspiracy, jumping forward to Lincoln and the Civil War, pausing in 1876 to cover the scandal of the Hayes-Tilden election, then moving in Empire to the imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt, and ending in Washington …