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The Best Men?

The reader of a historical novel, like someone at a gospel meeting, is urged to decide. He must put himself in the hands of the author. Doubt has no place. We trust that the writer has done his work, has gone to the library, or, better, remembers the events of which he writes. We like to think that in his material form he was there, in the corridors of power, or could have been, or is descended from someone whose true, inside account is here being given. Our permanent view of some notable event or figure is clay in His hands. The Golden Age is Gore Vidal’s elegiac historical novel about the twentieth century, and we seem to be in good hands.

Certainly our view of some things may be altered. In general, history has a way of writing itself by incremental revelations. Diaries are found, sealed archives are opened, reluctant memories spilled. At any given moment the inattentive may lose track of where things stand in this retrospective process of uncovering the truth of the past. Political correctness apart, was Pat Buchanan right or wrong when he advanced his controversial hypothesis that if America had not entered World War II (our “just” war, after all), nothing much would have happened to us? What is the state of knowledge about how much Roosevelt knew beforehand of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor, and with what degree of intention did he provoke it?

That and other questions may have formed in the minds of most of us, and some of them will be answered provocatively in the seventh in Vidal’s magisterial, if mischievous, series of historical novels about American presidents and events from Aaron Burr to Abraham Lincoln to Hollywood and the Washington of Woodrow Wilson.* With what authority, we do not ask; it is enough to feel that Vidal knows the truth of things, is an excellent scholar, and was well placed to hear the gossip, near to if not in the corridors of power. “I was thinking about history,” says young Peter Sanford to a young Joseph Alsop, two of the characters in the book—the latter, of course “historical.” “About writing it or making it?” Alsop asks. “About what it is, if it is anything at all except different versions of something that probably never was.” What a temptation for a novelist.

Did William Randolph Hearst, deep in debt, really have a sort of garage sale in the Gimbels boys’ department? Did the teetotaling Calvin Coolidge, enjoying a glass of wine, really say, “I’ve got to remember the name of this beverage?” Did Alice Roosevelt Longworth really have a baby by Idaho Senator Borah? Even more riveting, did a Wall Street group consider getting rid of Roosevelt by military force with the collusion of Army Air Corps generals?

On faith, we must decide whether it is all made up, or all true. Why it should matter to us is one of those mysteries no doubt being worked on by literary philosophers. We do not care if something is true or made up, but we need to know which it is, and the historical novel has a sort of implied contract with truth. In an afterword, Vidal discusses the terms of contract he has imposed on this novel: “What the real people say and do is essentially what they have been recorded as saying and doing, while the invented characters are then able to speculate upon motivation, dangerous territory for the historian.”

Impossible to demand verification for each scandalous, delicious tidbit or alarming revelation: the reader must accede to the whole, and does. It appears that Franklin Roosevelt served his guests cocktails made of rum, vermouth, and pineapple juice; and that the White House food was notoriously bad, like the salad that is “mostly mayonnaise from a jar, with slices of tinned pineapple, carved radishes—the ones with spongy interiors—and, sometimes, deep under the mayonnaise,…cottage cheese decorated with maraschino cherries….” Whose memory is it of Franz Werfel wedged in a telephone booth at Romanoff’s Rodeo Drive restaurant?

Historical novels seem to come in several forms. One is where an unknown, ordinary person, say at Pearl Harbor or the Battle of Waterloo, is seen to do something to alter the course of history, or is caught up in a historical event he does not understand but which we understand in hindsight; another is where the inner or private life of a great man is illuminated or dramatized—the up-close, real Napoleon, say. Here the interest is not in the personal fates of the characters real or fictional but in the events of history itself, and in the inside gossip that illuminates known outcomes, and in the many scenarios which could be envisioned for the youngish country in 1939.

Vidal’s broad subject is, of course, the American Century, but he assumes no obligation to speculate on every significant event and in fact skirts whole episodes that do not bear on the central issues of the American hegemony at the millennium, most startlingly what the Roosevelt administration knew, and did or didn’t do, about the European Jews, an issue he has written about elsewhere. Here he is more concerned with the origins of World War II. The Golden Age begins at the moment when England and France had declared war with Germany, and America was still relatively isolationist. In one scene, wily geopolitician Senator Gore (grandfather of the author and cousin of the current presidential candidate) sums up the political climate: “Eighty percent of our people don’t want us to go back to Europe for a second world war and nothing will ever persuade them, no matter how many of our ships the Germans sink…. But to get the Japanese to strike first is true genius—wicked genius.”

His companion points out that “our Pacific Fleet won’t be ready for war until at least mid-December…. When we are [ready], we’ll deliver our ultimatum whatever it is. We want them to have sufficient fuel for a major strike but not for a major war. This leaves the timing up to the President.” In other words, Franklin Roosevelt somehow was planning the war.

The question to be decided is America’s role. It is a nation destabilized by the Depression, in the hands of an executive comfortable with, possibly too interested in, power, and with a de facto dictatorship or lifetime regency for Roosevelt a real possibility in the minds of some. What will be done about joining the war, and what will be done about containing communism, issues that made many people welcome a strong third- and fourth-term president.

For a tale spanning sixty years we need several sets of sentient observers, made-up protagonists who mingle with the historical personages, beginning with Timothy X. Farrell, a director and documentary filmmaker the reader may recognize from Vidal’s novel Hollywood (1990), and Caroline Sanford, a newspaper publisher on the order of Cissy Patterson or Katharine Graham, familiar from Washington, D.C. (1967), Empire (1987), and Hollywood (and she is the former lover of Timothy, who has married her daughter; for there will be sexual liaisons to track, marriages, divorces, all the recombinations of which history is made). But the love stories, and indeed all the made-up characters, are incidental to the politics, and to the vivid vignettes of the real ones saying and doing “essentially what they have been recorded as saying and doing.” Vidal’s lively account of the elections of 1940 reminds us of an age when political conventions had a function and a vitality they have now lost. Thomas E. Dewey, Wendell Willkie, and Robert Taft seriously contended for the Republican nomination. Conventions could be stampeded, ballot after ballot ensue, the outcome be in doubt.

Even greater drama in 1940, when Eleanor Roosevelt addresses the convention in behalf of Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s unpopular choice for vice-president, and ominously tells the assembly in her “high fluting” voice that “whoever you now nominate for vice president is…very apt…to become himself the president and I am sure you will want that president to be the man my husband has chosen to get us through a perilous time and to a safe shore.”

If there is an epistolary novel, there is also a novel of dialogue and dialectic. The novel proceeds by conversations—Harry Truman chatting on a train, Herbert Hoover become cynical, witty bon vivant. The characters speculate, often incorrectly, on what is happening or will happen. “I think Willkie has a good chance of defeating Cousin Franklin. Of course, we won’t allow that.” Such things must come from a wealth of research or from the retentive memory of someone who (as a youth from a Washington family connected by marriage to the Kennedys) was there. It is doubtful that history would record that Laura Delano, a cousin of FDR’s, had purple hair, just the sort of detail that would strike the young Vidal, on whom little was ever lost.

The interpretative consciousness at the conversation between Senator Gore and his friend is the invented Peter Sanford, Caroline’s nephew, also a publisher who has taken over from Timothy Farrell. (In fact, the sensibility, or at least the turn of phrase, of many of the characters is rather like Vidal’s own, as when the lawyer Ernest Cuneo remarks that Hitler was a believer in astrology, “and so are most of the people who read Walter Winchell with moving lips.”) Later Peter ponders the historian’s task, wondering

how history could ever be written without knowing the motivations of those who appeared to be making it. How to know the unknowable obviously had been too much for Henry Adams. But suppose that personal motivations were unimportant. Peter tried to remember what Hegel had written; then realized that he’d never read Hegel….

Gore Vidal obviously has.

We know that by the end of the century, American hegemony is secure, if inadvertent. The novel ends with a remarkable millennium monologue by Gore Vidal, himself a minor character in his narrative. Partly he talks to us, partly to some of the fictional characters who are paying him a visit in the Italian hill town of Ravello, where the real writer lives. He and Peter Sanford are in a documentary, and the filmmaker (“A.B.”—a reference to Aaron Burr, the central figure of the first of Vidal’s chronicles of American history) is asking them about the thesis that Roosevelt knew about but failed to warn the fleet about the coming Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As history itself is the protagonist in this novel, Vidal has saved the dramatic climax for this passage. Vidal and Sanford more or less agree that Roosevelt planned the war. “At burdensome length, Peter and I put the case for Roosevelt’s amoral mastery of world politics and his ability to get what he wanted. I admired him quite as much as I deplored him….”

Peter Sanford says, “He did what no president has ever done. Set us up. To be attacked.” The filmmaker defends this on pragmatic grounds: “But didn’t it end well? We won the war. We got the world. We saved as many of Hitler’s victims as we could. So some old ships got sunk.” Peter objects. “Some three thousand men got sunk too,” he says, “and died.” A.B., the filmmaker, is not bothered. “Drop in a bottomless bucket.”

Even I winced at that,” says Vidal. “‘The fact that you take all this so casually is the principal fallout.’ I became sententious, something that can happen when one means exactly what one says with no iron door left ajar to escape through, like quotation marks.” The novel is never sententious, but Vidal’s account of the historical process is probably not ironic, either.

The suggestion of Roosevelt’s foreknowledge and even contrivance has been around in one form or another since the Fifties, most recently in Day of Deceit, by Robert B. Stinnett. In his afterword, Vidal says he has placed a certain amount of trust in the Washington, D.C., “whispering gallery.” Vidal does not assert the truth of the things his characters say on the issue, but his own beliefs are made clear when he reminds us that he had written about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings in 1973, years before the recent exposés. He had been told by the eminent Jefferson scholar Dumas Malone that “no gentleman in the antebellum South would ever go to bed with a slave.” “Thus a national tall tale is firmly based on a false syllogism,” says Vidal. Here the syllogism would be, “No American president would ever allow an attack on his own forces.” He wonders, he says, “why so many American historians become so frantically unhistorical when a national icon is placed in too severe a light,” and he takes note that “many bold fictioneers reside in Clio’s grove,” with which the reader of The Golden Age will have to agree.

  1. *

    The first six books in Vidal’s American Chronicle series—Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C.—have just been reissued in paperback by Vintage.

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