The Middle Way

Memories of the Ford Administration

by John Updike
Knopf, 371 pp., $23.00

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…

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