Monday, February 11, 2008


US Constitution Article 1
Originally uploaded by Kelly Nigro
I just finished a fascinating novel by, of all people, William Safire. He wrote Scandalmonger during the second Clinton administration, when the newspapers were having a great time with scandal, but he was thinking of a period 200 years before.

If you thought there was a Good Old Days when people behaved themselves and journalists didn’t concern themselves with personal naughtiness by politicians, Safire will disillusion you. His main characters are William Cobbett and James Callendar. Cobbett was an Englishman who, starting under the administration of George Washington, started writing viciously about the Jeffersonian clique of Anti-Federalists, alias the Republicans. Eventually libel charges chased Cobbett back to England where his journalism got him prosecuted by both major parties there, and caused William Hazlitt to nickname him the “fourth estate.” (Yes, that where that term comes from.)

Callendar, on the other hand, was a Scotsman, who monged (?) scandals on behalf of the Republicans, until they took office. Then, disappointed in their behavior (or the lack of spoils that went his way), he turned coat and went after them. He was the first to write that Jefferson was the father of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings.

This is a novel with many pages of endnotes, explaining which parts are fictional and which are based on truth. (Most of the dialog from presidents is taken from their works, which may explain why Jefferson sounds so artificial. I suppose Washington does too, but I suspect he really did sound like that.)

This is a really enjoyable history lesson, and one line made me laugh out loud. A bit of explanation. Safire sees James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution as a political naïf, while he views James Monroe as a more experienced and pragmatic wheeler-dealer. Inevitably there is a scene in which Madison defends the Freedom of the Press.

“Still, the people must be informed,” Madison put in. Monroe rolled his eyes; the man must have been reading his own amendments.

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