INVENTING A NATION: Washington, Adams, Jefferson

Gore Vidal, Author . Yale Univ. $22 (208p) ISBN 978-0-300-10171-3

In this concise but hardly cohesive effort, the achievements of America's most venerable founding fathers—and a large supporting cast, including Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin—are eclipsed by their personal, psychological and political foibles. Our nation is often portrayed as a finished product, having been birthed by great thinkers and selfless patriots. Vidal illustrates that the new nation was, in fact, a messy, tenuous experiment, consistently teetering on the brink. Vidal sheds light on the shaky alliances, rivalries, egos, personal ambitions and political realities faced by the men who became the first three American presidents. Unfortunately, Vidal's greatest strength, his novelist's flair, runs amok here. At John Adams's inauguration, for example, Vidal asserts that Washington "won his last victory in the Mount Rushmore sweepstakes" by forcing Jefferson, the vice-president, to exit the hall before him, so Washington could claim the larger ovation. This is divined from a record that merely states, "Jefferson was obliged to leave the chamber first." Correspondence is used to support Vidal's acerbic appraisals, but without source notes, readers are left to wonder in what context the extracts were originally penned. Vidal's antipathy toward the "American Empire" and contempt for the American public drips thick from his sentences and shows up frequently in annoying parenthetical asides and interjected screeds. He sneers that the "majority" of Americans "don't know what the Electoral College is" and compares Truman to the bloody Roman tyrant Tiberius. This book was surely intended to be thought provoking. Unfortunately, it provokes more thought about its author than its subjects. Still, one has to appreciate the irony of a noted icon-smasher launching Yale's new American Icons series. (Nov.)

Reviewed on: 09/08/2003
Release date: 10/01/2003
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