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Sunday, November 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vidal looks at nation's messy beginnings

Special to The Seattle Times

"Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson"


by Gore Vidal
Yale University Press, $22
Many comedies end in marriage because what follows is usually a messy business filled with disagreements, finger-pointings and the occasional throwing of crockery. It's probably for this reason that we celebrate 1776. What immediately followed was truly a messy business.

Thankfully, Gore Vidal, born into America's ruling class and for more than half a century a thorn in its side, has never shied away from messy business.

His latest book, "Inventing a Nation," is subtitled "Washington, Adams, Jefferson" but could just as easily have been subtitled "Our Bitchy Beginnings." In it, the founding fathers — who, as the centuries have passed have both receded and grown in the collective mind until they've become tiny gods — are recast by Vidal as (gasp!) human beings, with egos and foibles and ... did I mention egos?

George Washington, for example, is forever determined to appear reluctant in accepting what he always wants. John Adams, for all his intelligence, is often easily duped — and often by Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, who moves through the first half of the book like a Vidalian hero, the "professional orphan, instinctively using his intellectual and personal charms to enchant potential protectors," and through the second half like Iago, manipulating men and events behind the scenes in order to secure a strong federal government with strong ties to England.

It's the contradictory Thomas Jefferson whom Vidal has trouble pinning down. The originator of the ringing phrase "all men are created equal" was a man who (like Washington) kept slaves. The fierce anti-Federalist doubled the size of the nation with the purchase of the Louisiana Territories from Napoleonic France.

The major issues and events in the first creaky days of the republic are dealt with here: the Constitutional Convention; the writing of the Federalist Papers by Hamilton and James Madison to convince the nation to be a nation; debates over whether to establish a monarchy. Ben Franklin, for example, felt that any form of government would eventually wind up in despotism, "when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other." Vidal then draws several bold lines to the occupants of the current White House.

Once the new government was up and running in New York and then Philadelphia (we didn't get to the Potomac — a sop thrown to Southerners — until Jefferson's presidency), the issues became less philosophical. At one point, Vidal describes Vice President Adams presiding over congressional debates on molasses, loafsugar and salt, and adds sardonically, "The days of discussing Hume and Montesquieu were over."

Yet the early days were still cursed with interesting debates: the Jay Treaty and the Whiskey Rebellion, a kind of boozy Tim Eyman affair, just to name a couple. There was also the Alien Act, which, at a time of sabre-rattling with France, "empowered the president in wartime to seize, secure, or remove from the country all resident aliens who were citizens of the enemy nation," as well as the Sedition Act, which, ignoring the nascent First Amendment, declared that anyone could be prosecuted for "printing, writing, or speaking in a scandalous or malicious way against the government of the United States. ... " More bold lines drawn to the USA Patriot Act.

While Gore Vidal has written a host of historical novels ("Burr," "Lincoln"), "Inventing a Nation" is more of a booklong essay, whose dual purpose is to both humanize the founding fathers while demonizing the Bush administration, both worthy tasks in my mind. Unfortunately, some of the lines he draws to the current White House aren't so much bold as stretched thin, while his normally snappy prose, can, at times, be awkward and flowery. He even begins the book with a bad joke about "pheasants" and "peasants." All in all, this is one of Vidal's weaker books.

At the very end, though, there's a surprisingly touching scene between Vidal and President Kennedy in 1961, in which Kennedy marveled that our backwoods country "with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the eightenth century — Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton." It leaves us to marvel at a U.S. president with the intellectual curiosity to actually marvel about this.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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