Say, did you know that President McKinley would casually drop a silk handkerchief over his wife’s head during dinner parties when she had an epileptic seizure? Or that Theodore Roosevelt became vice president largely because the New York Republican boss wanted the pesky governor out of his state? Or that President McKinley prevented William Jennings Bryan from campaigning in 1898 by refusing to grant him a discharge from the Army? I must confess that the reason I love Gore Vidal’s novels is that I share his appetite for historical morsels like these that appear in his latest, Empire. His books are peppered with anecdotes that are as fun as they are revealing.
Really taking delight in Empire, or any historical novel, means having a certain faith in the author. In other genres, the author’s credibility is of secondary importance. So what if the poet Ezra Pound spent the last years of his life in Washington’s St. Elizabeths hospital for the mentally ill; it doesn’t make his Cantos any less powerful. But when you pick up a historical novel you know it’s a mix of fact and fiction; you hope the author will sort out the two and that the history will be largely accurate. If the author doesn’t do that, the thrill is gone. The work becomes distracting, leaving one wondering what’s real and what isn’t. You lose the great strength of historical novels: the feeling that You Are There.
That’s why Gore Vidal ought to shut up. He should skip the book tours, stop writing for popular magazines, and refuse interviews. Shortly before I began Empire, I made the mistake of picking up a Washington Post profile of Vidal in which he explained how the world is run by a cabal of bankers and publishers. He went on to call on the U.S. and the Soviet Union to unite economically as white people to fight what he’s called the “grimly determined asiatics .” I put the article down.
Up to that point I had carefully avoided reading his outrageous Nation article accusing Norman Podhoretz of retaining “first loyalty” to Israel instead of being an “assimilated American” That may be Vidal’s idea of irony— his editor Victor Navasky says it was—but he is so reckless and so offensive so much of the time that you cannot easily discern wit from idiocy. In an essay for Newsweek on the Iran-contra scandal, Vidal not only excoriates Oliver North, but the entire Marine Corps. Add to this Vidal’s notorious histrionics, like his squabbling with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, and you’re pretty fed up. He’s like some drunk who shows up mysteriously at your party, scarfs your cheese, drinks your booze, and keeps picking fights until you send him off in a cab.
Yet Vidal’s novels are so well executed that you forget he’s the same loon you just saw on “Dick Cavett.” The great irony of Vidal’s writing is that his fiction is more truthful than his non-fiction. Many outrageous lines in Empire turn out to be nearly exact quotes from the letters, diaries, and news accounts of the times. Remarkably, he even deals sensitively with anti-semitism, having one sympathetic character support Captain Dreyfus, the Jewish officer convicted of treason by the French government in 1894. Vidal’s Henry Adams throws tantrums about the “refuse of the Mediterranean, the detritus of Mitteleuropa, and the Jews, the Jews . .” Sounds like Vidal.
We fact-checked several points in the book, including those opening anecdotes, and found that Vidal hadn’t made anything up. That’s important, especially for couch potatoes like me who have spent more time with TV Guide than with Richard Hofstadtar. For years, I assumed Abraham Lincoln was a naive pacifist because of one “Star Trek” episode in which the former president, allied with a great Vulcan hero against Genghis Kahn and some furry-faced alien, innocently blundered into the villains’ trap. Moreover, after many viewings of “Citizen Kane” I was certain William Randolph Hearst’s childhood sled led to the sinking of the Maine. And because of my frequent viewings of the musical “1776,” I became convinced that John Adams tricked Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration of Independence by making sure the Virginian had lots of sex.
Vidal’s history is largely accurate, but it’s not complete. He limits his work to the powerful, not dealing with how most citizens behaved or why. He is no Dickens. Although Empire takes place at the turn of the century, a traumatic period of mass immigration and industrialization, those forces are rarely mentioned. Vidal is the Hugh Sidey of novelists—chronicling the leaders, the presidents, the power brokers, and the wealthy.
Cloning a nose
Much of Empire is devoted to the presidencies of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, a time when the U.S. flexed its industrial and military muscles from Cuba to the Philippines. Through the lens of two fictional characters, Caroline Sanford, a newspaper publisher, and her brother Blaise, who works for William Randolph Hearst, we watch the titans of the period struggle with themselves and the issues confronting an Empire.
Some of it is familiar turf: William Randolph Hearst’s Yellow Journalism, Teddy Roosevelt’s international ambitions. But if you’re like me, you’ll probably be most enlightened by Vidal’s portrayal of William McKinley. Just about all I could remember of him was that he was assassinated by some anarchist (or was it a disappointed office seeker?) with a difficult-to-pronounce last name. I had no idea why he was so popular or how he behaved as president. Vidal’s gift is that he breathes life into this non-descript, black-and-white-photo of a president. Vidal, of course, didn’t know everything McKinley thought or said. But Vidal does what historical novelists have done since Herodotus, “the father of history.” Based on what he does know, he devises a plausible interpretation. It’s a little like the doctors in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” who attempted to clone an entire body from a single nose. Vidal takes facts and spins them into a fully formed body and personality.
His McKinley is a cross between Buddha and Boss Tweed—reserved and religious, but also a political animal. He opposes imperialism until he senses its popularity. While pondering the annexation of the Philippines he visits Omaha, Nebraska, stronghold of his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan:
“‘I’ll beard him in his own town, and I’ll persuade the folks to. . .’ The president paused.
“‘To welcome the annexation of the Philippines?'”
“I’ll see what I find there first!'”
In the end, of course, he takes the Philippines—not with congressional authorization, but, with the approval of a higher authority. “I think God answered me the other night,” he said. After explaining to God the various policy options:
God answered me. I heard myself saying, aloud: Number four, in the light of numbers one through three, as I have just demonstrated, Your Honor—God, that is—we have no choice but to take all the islands and govern the people to the best of our ability, to educate and civilize them and to Christianize them—and in my sudden certitude, I knew that God was speaking to and through me, and that we would all of us do our best by them, or our fellow men for whom Christ also died.
That passage sounds like Vidal-the-Crank ascribing the fate of nations to insomniac ramblings. In fact, it’s Vidal-the-Scholar; McKinley’s actual words were very similar. Instead of skipping past tidbits like these, Vidal underlines them, reiterating a great truth about history: it unfolds not according to the careful reasoning of statesmen but through the deeds of teeth-clicking egotists like Roosevelt and religiously political (or politically religious) men like McKinley. This goes for Hearst, too. For him, the real battle is not to extend democracy across the globe, but to use the war to beat Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Vidal, though, is not so blinded by cynicism as to provide a large cast of anti-imperialist characters; that would leave the impression that substantial numbers of Americans protested our overseas conquests. Few did. Sadly, most Americans agreed with Roosevelt, who quips here, “We can do them only good. They can do themselves only harm.”
Hearst as assassin
Even in a book about empire, Vidal devotes much attention to the role of history and storytelling in our lives. Much is made of the Perclicaris incident, so memorably portrayed in “The Wind and the Lion,” starring Sean Connery, Brian Keith, and Candice Bergen. In 1904, a Moroccan bandit named Raisuli abducted Ion H. Perdicaris, the son of a South Carolinian lady and a Greek. Roosevelt threatened Morocco with war unless they released the American. In Empire, Secretary of State John Hay, with some satisfaction, reports to Roosevelt that his staff has discovered Perdicaris is not an American citizen, so there is no need to send in the troops. Roosevelt, panicking about the upcoming Republican convention, is apoplectic: “This ruins everything. Everything! I had counted on a powerful telegram to wake up the convention, the country, the world, to the fact that no American citizen anywhere on earth can be harmed without a bloody reprisal and now some fool clerk in your office comes up with this . . . this nonsense! No!” (Most of the exclamation points in the book are used up in Roosevelt diatribes.) Under Roosevelt’s orders, Hay sends off a telegram: “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” The Republican convention is suitably awakened.
If it seems farfetched that elections might be steered by lies, remember the “Canuck Letter” that did in Edmund Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign. Vidal shows how disinformation and exaggerations can change history every bit as effectively as fact.
This is well understood by Vidal’s Hearst, who is obsessed with changing history, not just publishing it. “What Hearst arbitrarily decided was news was news; and the powerful few were obliged to respond to his inventions.” Throughout Empire Hearst struggles to be a protagonist, not just a storyteller. His ambitions are relentless. He gobbles newspapers around the country in part to build a political base; he buys letters hinting that Standard Oil influenced Hearst’s enemy Teddy Roosevelt; he cuts deals with Tammany Hall in New York, after having railed against it for years.
Hearst is elected to Congress, makes a strong run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and almost wins the governorship of New York. But the Yellow Journalism that propels him ultimately topples him.
Fearing Hearst, Roosevelt dispatches Elihu Root, his secretary of war, to New York shortly before the gubernatorial election. Before the New York media, Root blames Hearst’s Yellow Journalism for McKinley’s death, repeating the infamous quatrain penned by Ambrose Bierce, a Hearst-employed journalist, before McKinley’s assassination. After a Kentucky governor had been killed, Bierce had written:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Cannot be found in all the west;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
“So it was on the charge of regicide that Hearst was to be brought down at last. Blaise marveled at the exactness with which Roosevelt, using Root for knife, struck the lethal blow.”
The screeching owl
As Vidal explores shabby journalism, he also uses it as an elegant literary device. Historical novelists must explain the forces of history without disrupting the narrative flow, but that’s difficult to pull off. Since both Blaise and Caroline Sanford are journalists, they have an excuse to be recording historical events and asking questions. Roosevelt’s strategy for gaining the vice presidential nomination becomes clear because Blaise Sanford, trying to cover the 1904 convention, asks a veteran political reporter to explain what’s going on. He explains that, to help Roosevelt, the New York delegation voted against him so he wouldn’t be seen as a pawn of the state bosses.
Occasionally, Blaise and Caroline come perilously close to tripping over the historical furniture. As they become increasingly important in the lives of the real people, it starts to feel like one of those science fiction movies in which time-travelling adventurers alter the course of history by stepping in front of assassins’ bullets. Caroline, for example, contemplates publishing the letters in her newspaper accusing many politicians, including Roosevelt, of being in the pockets of Standard Oil. And Blaise is a top aide to Hearst throughout most of the book. But Vidal usually stops them just before they derail history. Hearst, for instance, tends not to listen to Blaise. Ultimately Blaise and Caroline have the same effect Walter Cronkite did when he interviewed some warrior in the middle of a Napoleonic battle during the “You Are There” shows: they are recognized by the greats of history but don’t affect their actions.
Vidal’s treatment of Teddy Roosevelt is less skilled. Roosevelt is rendered a near-hysterical hypocrite, a “screeching owl,” who rants about reform but does little. “Roosevelt suddenly began to click his teeth rapidly, alarmingly; he was like a machine, thought Blaise, wondering how on earth he could describe, in mere words, so odd a creature.” There is historical evidence for most of those contentions, but that’s just one side of Roosevelt. The brave, determined Theodore Roosevelt of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or the progressive of John Morton Blum’s The Republican Roosevelt is ignored. It’s fine to have a particular historical interpretation; historians do it all the time. But Vidal also fails to show the qualities that, for better or worse, got Roosevelt very far, very fast.
Despite its occasional misses, I can’t help but think that Empire would be as good a read in the classroom as it is on the beach. Schools do teach historical fiction, often assigning Shakespeare’s Henry IV, for example. But they are taught as literature, not history. Vidal’s novels are certainly more interesting than the history textbooks I read in high school, and they do a better job of unraveling history as well. As for the danger of poisoning innocent minds with falsehoods, the very process of separating fact from fiction could be part of the assignment, an exercise a good deal more stimulating than memorizing dates.
Even the exercise of distinguishing fact from interpretation could be fruitful, forcing students not just to determine whether Roosevelt took the nomination on the first ballot but also whether he should be considered a progressive or a scoundrel. Most high schools teach history as an agreed-upon set of facts. Through Vidal, students could confront different views of the world. Oscar Handlin, a Harvard historian, wrote in Truth in History that Vidal’s Burr was simply a “poisonous portrayal of the early Republic in a fantastic tale of corruption, greed and sex.” Other historians, such as Lawrence Goodwyn of Duke, call Vidal “our best chronicler of power.” Students could join the fray. It would be fun and educational—as long as you keep the kids out of his Nation articles.