In 1974 John Updike published a long, fascinating closet drama, Buchanan Dying, about his fellow Pennsylvanian, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States, a figure generally viewed as Lincoln’s sorry predecessor. In the politically hysterical “secession winter,” the four months between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his assuming office in March 1861, Buchanan was caught between his pro-Southern sympathies—three leading members of his cabinet were Southerners supporting South Carolina’s secession—and the tortured legalisms with which he defended his position that while he abhorred secession there was really nothing in law that ordered him actively to resist it.
Buchanan never married and is reputed to have been the only lifelong virgin ever to occupy the White House. This certainly distinguishes him from the usual run of Updike’s dedicated satyrs. Near the end of his new novel, which consists of Professor Alf Landon Clayton’s supposedly professional but actually very personal and lubricious “memories of the Ford Administration” (he is also trying to get on with his much-delayed book defending the Buchanan administration), Alf wildly says that he loves Buchanan because he was a virgin.
Were there other reasons to “love” Buchanan, even to find him interesting? Well, Buchanan had mismatched eyes, a habit of tilting his head to the left, a white streak in his hair. Although he had grown up on the Pennsylvania frontier where it was so harsh that his mother used to bell him like an animal when he walked in the forest, he learned to speak French acceptably to the Tsarina when he was minister to Russia from 1832 to 1833. And of course he was a notable lawyer, always the lawyer, cautious in speech and manner. He was once engaged, to Anne Coleman, the altogether charming young daughter of a Lancaster tycoon, but she broke off the engagement when, in an unintended slight to her, Buchanan found himself having tea with another young lady when she expected him to call. In Updike’s novel the heartbroken Anne accidentally commits suicide when she takes too much laudanum to soothe her grief. The bachelor President at official receptions was always accompanied by his niece Harriet Lane.
Of course Updike uses such details to bring the much discredited Buchanan to life. I am not sure that he ever does, or that anyone else could do so. Buchanan is interesting to us, like Kerensky, simply because he occupied a key position at the most critical time in his country’s history without being able to do anything with it. We remember him as the futile occupant of the White House who came before Lincoln, just as we are likely to remember Gerald Ford in the White House because of Nixon.
But it is exactly because Buchanan was caught in the White House between North and South that Updike is drawn to him, and not just as a traditionally dim figure whom he is determined to turn into a dramatic character. In Buchanan Dying, and in the “Afterword” to the “play,” Updike makes clear what fascinates him about Buchanan the Pennsylvanian—and there is a direct connection between the “Afterword” and the present novel. As Pennsylvania was once the key middle state, the sensible, safe, keystone of the Union between the abolitionist hotheads of New England and the proslavery hotheads of the South, so Buchanan was destined to have a tragic part in history because in a time of national convulsion his appeal was always to reason, to law, to tradition, to caution, and to safety. Even his religious views were tentative rather than conventional—he wanted his pastor to show him the logic of Christianity before he could make a full confession. On the central point of South Carolina’s “right” to secede, Buchanan the legalist saw a “silence” in the Constitution. There was not a line in it actually forbidding a state to secede.
So whatever his protestations that the Union was sacred to him, Buchanan in his last message to Congress on December 3, 1860, blamed the anti-slavery forces for the impending disunion of the country
The long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects…. It can not be denied that for five and twenty years the agitation at the North against slavery has been incessant.
Updike does not quote this in his novel and perhaps does not need to. Buchanan in his account was the man of peace when so many violent minds in the country were not. He had proposed extending the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific Coast and having the territories themselves decide for or against slavery in their midst. He was confident that they would not choose slavery. Why was this not enough?
I shall try in a moment to explain why this was not enough for the country, for Lincoln, for the future of the United States, and why Buchanan could no more have appeased the South than Chamberlain could have appeased Hitler. But this is the place to explain why a novel so interesting about Buchanan is also less interestingly Alf Landon Clayton’s “memories of the Ford Administration,” and what Updike seems to be saying in writing about 1860–1861 from the standpoint of 1974–1975.
The play Buchanan Dying could not have been performed; it was too intricate and dense, required too much knowledge of historical events and characters on the part of the audience. But it is obvious from the “Afterword” to the play that the novel about Buchanan Updike was longing to write needed a modern frame to balance and lighten the story of Buchanan’s difficulties.
And what a contrast we have between the virgin, stolid Buchanan and the historian Alf Landon Clayton, who teaches at a woman’s college in southernmost New Hampshire. Alf, named for that other loser, whom FDR so famously defeated in the 1936 election, is distractedly trying to get on with his vindication of Buchanan while writing “Requested Memories and Impressions of the Presidential Administration of Gerald R. Ford (1974–77)” for the triquarterly journal Retrospect of the Northern New England Association of American Historians, Putney, Vermont.
Alf’s memories of the Ford administration are largely about bed. He has left his wife Norma, “the Queen of Disorder,” and their children for Genevieve, “the Perfect Wife,” who is married to a premature, and nasty, deconstructionist. Norma’s own lover is in the music department. Alf is “faithful to marriage” if not to his spouse—meaning that he does not neglect his kids and would just as soon sleep in his old house with his old wife when his wife wants him to and his mistress is otherwise engaged. When Genevieve’s husband is appointed to a job at Yale, she dismisses Alf, and he goes back to his life with Norma.
Apparently it is this comfy new style of adultery that distinguishes the Ford administration for Alf. No Vietnam in his “memories and impressions.” No Kissinger dominating foreign affairs even more than he had under Nixon, while undertaking countless missions of his own, so much “shuttle diplomacy.” No Nelson Rockefeller improbably serving as vice-president and having publicly to be taught how to preside over the Senate. There are no Nixon aides being tried for obstructing justice. No Attorney General Mitchell is sent to jail. There are no “WIN” buttons for the “Whip Inflation Now” campaign, which contained no mandatory action and of course was useless. The rise in unemployment figures in April 1975 to 8.9 percent is not mentioned; nor is the New York financial crisis, with the famous Daily News headline—“FORD TO NEW YORK: DROP DEAD!” Nor are the illegal activities in the CIA, FBI, IRS, and Army Intelligence.
If Buchanan was the one lifelong virgin to occupy the White House, the nonelected President Gerald Ford was the first to boast of his virility. He was once publicly asked how often he made love: “Every chance I get.” So maybe there is something of historical significance to the consumer’s appetite with which Alf Clayton describes every stage in sexual intercourse with other men’s wives, gratified as a teen-ager to find the ladies so efficient, if cool.
No doubt about it, our public history (and not just from August 9, 1974, to January 20, 1977) has, from the awakened point of view, been dominated by sexual gratification (from almost any source) as long-delayed entitlement, more a matter of polemic than volupté. (The enemies of the “movement” popped up in full force only with the reemergence of God in American life under Reagan.) The academic novels of the Seventies were concerned with discreet wife-swapping and faculty-student affairs (with the “girls” usually playing seducer to show their indifference to homework as well as the lasting advantage they had attained over teacher).
Memories of the Ford Administration is a domestic tale, sentimental about every bed Alf Clayton has just departed, carefully documented with the furnishings and manners of two eras a century apart. But because there is no unified instinct behind the book, the shift from century to century seems only whimsical. In the “Afterword” to Buchanan Dying Updike portentously wrote, “I wanted to seize Buchanan’s life so as to apprehend its shape—his ‘fate’—with my own hands.” When things go badly for Alf with “the Queen of Disorder” or even with “the Perfect Wife,” he sighs over his bogged-down study of Buchanan and makes upbeat observations on contemporary America that reflect not his own bewildered psyche but the author’s strained optimism. Updike has always been stronger on the domestic character of American life than on the national issues that have been veering in our time toward the irremediable. As usual, he is elegant in description to the point of being euphuistic. The sharpness of observation is the most living thing in the book. Updike, the fastest draw in the East!
As I sat there watching Nixon resign I had the illusion that the house we were in, a big Victorian with a mansard roof, a finished third floor, and a view from the upper windows of the yellow-brick smokestacks of the college heating plant, was still mine; its books, a collection beginning with our college textbooks, felt like mine, and its furniture, a child-abused hodgepodge of airfoam-slab sofas and butterfly chairs with canvas slings and wobbly Danish end tables and chrome-legged low easy chairs draped on their threadbare arms with paisley bandanas and tasselled shawls, felt still like mine, along with the cat hairs on the sofa and the dust-balls under it, the almost-empty liquor bottles in the pantry and the tattered Japanese-paper balls that did here and there for lampshades, all of it in our wedded style, my wife’s and mine, a unisex style whose foundation was lightly laid in late-Fifties academia and then ornamented and weathered in the heats and sweats of Sixties fringe-radicalism.
Updike can write like an angel, but angels are indifferent to politics and I suspect Updike is, too. The book is a pussycat on the central subject of American decay at the end of the twentieth century. As a historian of the Ford period, Alf Clayton has to admit at the end, “The more I think about the Ford Administration, the more it seems I remember nothing.” We can understand Alf’s forgetting what went on then; he was not alive enough to history as public drama. As the tidal movement of history replaced James Buchanan while remembering him because of his successor, so history replaced Ford with Carter because of Watergate and Carter with an American right wing that had been simmering and would soon come to a boil.
Ford and Carter both will be remembered as fall guys, or at least as part of the transition to the main event, Reagan. Of course, if you think of an administration as making day-to-day “decisions” rather than policy, as this dummy historian Alf Clayton says he does, you come to think of history as a lot of old magazines. Which is why Updike’s Seventies characters, as well as his lopsidedly detailed documentation of the period, particularly by its popular songs, seem so ephemeral. Alf Clayton never does finish his book defending Buchanan. He can’t, since he sees Buchanan at the end as a battered figure helplessly appealing for time as he is caught between the pro-Union Pennsylvanians in his cabinet, and the secessionists formerly in it now representing the independent State of South Carolina. The Pennsylvanians supported the presence of a Federal garrison on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The secessionists insisted that Buchanan had given them his word not to allow Major Anderson to occupy the fort.
Updike fully dramatizes the dispute from all the material he has read, not only by the modern historians he discusses at length in the “Afterword” to his play but in his research in the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But the dispute was a charade. Updike said in his “Afterword” to Buchanan Dying, “The South’s long hold on Washington had been broken.” In fact, the South had long before made up its mind. If the North did not support the extension of slavery and stem the agitation against slavery itself, the South would secede from the Union. And while Buchanan was begging for time and praying to the God he was not sure he believed in, secession had in fact begun. And Lincoln had only to take office in March for Sumter to be fired on a month later.
Poor Buchanan, by early 1861 the oldest man to serve in the White House, now relegated to the dustbin of history! He had not always been this negligible and Updike could have said more about some of his actions and allies. As a senator from Pennsylvania in 1834, he had voted for the bill to exclude antislavery literature from the mails, and approved the annexation of Texas. He opposed the Wilmot Proviso, which would have excluded slavery from any territory acquired from the Mexican war. As Polk’s secretary of state between 1845 and 1849, he was a leading figure in negotiations leading to the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico. In 1854, as minister in London, he joined J.Y. Mason and Pierre Soulé in signing the Ostend Manifesto, which urgently proposed the annexation of Cuba. In fact, he wrote it, saying:
Cuba is as necessary to the North American republic as any of its present members…. We should be…recreant to our duty… should we permit Cuba to be Africanized and become a second St. Domingo, with all its attendant horrors to the white race, and suffer the flames to extend to our own neighboring shores seriously to endanger or actually to consume the fair fabric of our Union.
Buchanan endorsed the proslavery Lecompton constitution for Kansas, which broke up the Democratic Party. As presidential candidate he proclaimed the finality of the Compromise of 1850 and endorsed the principle of noninterference by Congress with slavery in the territories. As president, he supported the Dred Scott decision and appointed three important future Confederates to his cabinet. John Floyd of Virginia as secretary of war had arms transferred to Southern arsenals, just in case. In his brilliant eyewitness account, “The Great Secession Winter of 1860–1861,” the twenty-two-year-old Henry Adams wrote of Floyd,
Long known to be dishonest, and long suspected of being a traitor, his course during this winter would, in any other country or time, have cost him his life. With this man at the head of the War Department, pledged to effect by any means, honest or dishonest, the destruction of the Government,…it was no wonder that the people of Washington believed themselves lost.
Poor, helpless Buchanan.
December 17, 1992