An Affair of Honor

Scandalmonger

by William Safire
Simon and Schuster, 496 pp., $27.00

We hear a lot of laments about the ways that our present-day political leaders have gotten smaller in character, especially when compared to the larger-than-life founders of the country more than two centuries ago. One explanation for this shrinkage is that we today know too much about our leaders—their eating habits, their sex lives, even the cut of their underwear—and it is all the fault of too many ambitious and nosy journalists. According to some observers, bitter partisan politics and the excesses of the media over the past several decades have exposed a series of scandals and in the process have cut our leaders down to size and made them ordinary just like the rest of us. And the more ordinary they have become, the wider and more terrifying has become the gap that separates us from the so-called Founding Fathers of the late eighteenth century. We assume there were giants on the earth in those days.

Maybe, but those giants certainly had some of the same problems as our present-day Lilliputian leaders. The books under review focus on some of the principal figures of the early Republic—on their character, their partisanship, their scandals, and their clashes with zealous newspapermen. They may help us get a more accurate perspective on our own time. We may believe that we today have had our fill of political partisanship, media excesses, and sex-related scandals involving the highest officers of our government. But if we examine these books on the beginnings of our national history two hundred years ago, we find that partisanship, scandal-mongering, and scandals, including sex scandals, involving high government officials were even more prevalent then than now. Not only were there more scandals and more bitter partisan politics, but the press was far more abusive and scurrilous than it is today. And the consequences of getting mixed up in scandals andscandal-reporting were much more serious and deadly two hundred years ago than now. Political leaders were involved in numerous duels over what they said about one another, and newspapermen were prosecuted and imprisoned for what they wrote about government officials. In the last decade of the eighteenth century Americans were more fiercely divided than they would be until the time of the Civil War. Compared to the frenzied and divisive politics in the era of the Founding Fathers, our own turn-of-the-century political scene seems remarkably stable, staid, and respectable.

The first decade or so under the new American Constitution was not a time of ordinary politics; in fact, the entire period was wracked by a series of crises that threatened to destroy the national government that had been so recently and painstakingly created. The new expanded republic of the United States was an unprecedented political experiment, and everyone knew that. No similarnational republic in modern times had ever extended over such a large extent of territory. Since all theory and all history were against the success of this republican experiment, the political leaders worried about every unanticipated development …

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