From Publishers Weekly
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.
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Much of Vidal's contempt for contemporary America may originate in his admiration of how the Founding Fathers handled human nature. At least the founders, Vidal seems to say in this sinuous essay, were not hypocrites disclaiming interest in power; rather, they made an honest attempt in the original Constitution to restrain what they saw as politicians' inevitable appetites for ambition and avarice. Long fascinated with the behind-the-scenes aspects of politics in the 1780s and 1790s, Vidal muses on Alexander Hamilton's machinations against John Adams and analyzes similar political sleights of hand by Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John Marshall, and James Madison. Along with these characteristically brilliant and acerbic reflections on power and personality, Vidal offers a generally positive portrayal of Washington, taking time to note how the Father of His Country looked with his wooden teeth. This entertaining and enlightening reappraisal of the founders is a must for buffs of American civilization and its discontents. Gilbert TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved