'Scandalmonger': sex, sleaze, history

January 23, 2000|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"Scandalmonger," by William Safire. Simon & Schuster. 496 pages. $27.

George Washington, portrayed in "Scandalmonger" as a hypocrite who likely defrauded the federal government, actually gets off easy. Other American icons, notably Thomas Jefferson (an "atheist and fanatic") and Alexander Hamilton (an "illegitimate brat") are cheerfully swiped off their pedestals in William Safire's latest historical novel, and tossed into a rollicking political saga in which revered Founding Fathers behave pretty much like, well, President Clinton.

That is, they lie about serial sexcapades, plant vicious smears of their enemies, pay hush money as needed, all while dodging sleazy tabloid reporters. And when one reporter is particularly troublesome, United States Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, in a blatantly rigged case, simply locks him up.

As not-so-subtly hinted by the cleavage on its cover, "Scandalmonger" is about sex scandal, partisan press and sharp-elbow politics. A pro-Jefferson polemicist exposes Hamilton's adulterous affair, and later, disillusioned, reveals Jefferson's own liaison with slave Sally Hemings. (Jefferson, anticipating the Clinton play-book, responds by promising "a steady pursuit of economy and peace.")

Still, anyone drawn to this book by its cover will be disappointed. It's mostly about serious history, not sex, and even the fictional portions are solidly based on historical fact, as documented by 46 pages of meticulous footnotes and an extensive bibliography.

For example, Safire does not simply report that yellow fever regularly ravaged early America. Rather, he describes how the federal government moved from the mosquito-filled swamps around Philadelphia to Trenton for the summer, and reports that men, women and even children often smoked cigars, carried cloves of garlic and camphor/vinegar-laced sponges to ward off the disease.

Safire's stated goal in "Scandalmonger," his 25th book, is to dramatize the origins of muckraking journalism in America. But he accomplishes something much larger, dramatically demonstrating that the survival of American democracy in the period of 1792-1803 was, on numerous counts, breathtakingly serendipitous.

Examples: Washington might well have become king. Sweeping sedition laws could easily have choked off a free press and led to a one-party system. Congress or the president, rather than the Supreme Court, might have ruled on the constitutionality of laws, with profound consequences. And instead of buying the Louisiana territory from France, the United States came close to going to war with France.

Occasionally, the exhaustive research that makes "Scandalmonger" a noteworthy historical accomplishment slows down the fictional story. Major characters reflect a lot, a cumbersome technique used to sprinkle in historical detail. Similarly, some of the dialogue, while doubtless authentic in its phrasing, nevertheless occasionally seems contrived.

Readers who have not skimmed the Federalist Papers recently will have a tough time remembering who is in which political faction -- and it matters. And the author strains to work in the surprising contemporary reputations of some relatively minor characters; the legendary Dr. Benjamin Rush is a "murderous quack" and "Dr. Death," Noah Webster is a "pompous fool."

But those are quibbles. Safire shows a virtuoso mastery of his voluminous material, and his zest for the characters and the era is infectious. "Scandalmonger" may be more popular with history enthusiasts than general readers, but it is undeniably an impressive triumph of scholarship.

David W. Marston is author of "Malice Aforethought," an analysis of abuses in law practice, and co-author of "Inside Hoover's FBI," with Neil J. Welch. U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, Marston is now a Philadelphia lawyer in civil practice.

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