Gore Vidal occupies a unique position among American men of letters. By birth and social position he is an insider, given to invoking his personal relationships with the rich, the well-born, and the famous: the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, Anaïs Nin, Norman Mailer, Anthony Burgess. The afterword to this new book explains how it grew from a long-ago conversation about the Founding Fathers with President Kennedy, whom he addresses as “dear Jack” (Vidal and Jacqueline Kennedy had the same stepfather). Vidal’s insider status gives an edge to his critical assessments when he steps outside the circle to scrutinize what his friends have been up to. His judgment of the Kennedys in 1967 as “the Holy Family” was that they devoted themselves too exclusively to appearances, the President no less than the others:
Not until the second year of his administration did it become plain that Kennedy was not about to do much of anything. Since his concern was so much with the appearance of things, he was at his worst when confronted with those issues where a moral commitment might have informed his political response not only with passion but with shrewdness.
The ability to look critically, even cruelly, at beloved friends and relatives is extended to Vidal’s appraisal of historical figures with whom he has become intimate in the way that historians can. During the years he must have spent with Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries, Vidal came to know and, I would say, love the man. In his novel Lincoln he never speaks with Lincoln’s own voice but with the less enigmatic voices of his close associates, some friendly, some unfriendly. The result is an insider’s recreation of the man that wins both our sympathy and our acceptance. Criticism of Vidal’s depiction of Lincoln by my fellow historians seems to me beside the point. When Vidal’s novel departs from the historical record, it is only in nonessentials. Everything that matters, everything that affected Lincoln’s achievement, is there.
Vidal’s posthumous intimacy with his subject has not affected his personal judgment, reflected only in the last sentence of the novel when he places in the mouth of John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, the chilling conviction “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.” The novel has only subliminally prepared us for a Lincoln whose achievement was as terrible as it was great. But this, I think, had already become Vidal’s own view, excluded from any direct statement of it by his novelist’s faithfulness to his characters. He has no hesitation in expressing it in essays. Lincoln, he wrote in these pages in 1993, “preserved the Union by destroying it.”
Vidal’s intimate understanding of the Founding Fathers of the Republic (whom he has studied with the same care he gave to …