136 of 143 people found the following review helpful
Twistery is the word used by the Author, William Safire, to qualify where he strayed from known facts. He provides a detailed explanation at the end so there is no confusion. It is impossible for me to judge, but I am confident that to the extent he twisted known history, it is a small part of this book. If he had stayed absolutely faithful to facts as they are known, but continued the novel-like style, as opposed to dry recitation of fact like many textbooks do, the book would be diminished just a bit.
The Players are not new, nor are the stories. Mr. Safire's gift is his ability to transform what can often be the tedious study of dates and facts, into a thrilling read. If he were to write textbooks, without literary license, the study of our Country's History would reach new levels of popularity.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe, Dr. Benjamin Rush, all old and familiar, but all new here. Duels, stolen letters, written admissions of guilt, peculation, and pecadillos, these bits are all true. The Alien and Sedition act, one of the most notorious pieces of legislation in our Country's History plays a prominent role. Add then murder, wrongful imprisonment, treason, and trials with "The Hanging Judge" Samuel Chase.
And to bring the story into the present, the analyses of certain persons DNA to at once settle 200-year-old questions/accusations. Or do they not?
It may sound strange to say that I don't want to give any of the book's stories away, for how can you give away what is historical fact? But with or without the twistery, the book makes old information fresh, and shows that our elected officials today, and the press that follow their every breath have changed oh so little.
Buy it, you'll love it!
66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2000
This book continues to prove that Safire is: (1) smart; and (2) thorough. Through this book, Safire demonstrates that a scandal seeking function is not unique to the modern press, but was alive and well in the era immediately following the Revolutionary War. Almost everyone knows the historical legacy of Hamilton, Jefferson, Monroe, Adams and Madison, but this book reminds us that even our founding fathers were susceptible to the weaknesses for which we condemn our current leaders. The book was best when it focused on the lives of the principal characters and bogged down occasionally when imparting the political climate of the era. All in all, though, I learned alot by reading it.
40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2000
Wow! Want to get beneath the saccharine veneer most historians put on America's Federal Period? Want to see politics-as-usual so bad that you'll think today's politics-as-usual is positively altruism? Want to find out what life was like for newspaper editors in the days when truth was no defense against libel suits? Read Safire's Scandalmonger. Using their own letters and speeches, Safire gives us the Founding Fathers as we never saw them in our school rooms: the proud George Washington obsessed with his public image, the erratic and volatile John Adams, the dreamy and sensual Thomas Jefferson, the practical and flawed Alexander Hamilton, the crafty and self-assured Aaron Burr, the naive but loyal James Madison, and the coldly calculating, slightly reptilian James Monroe. And through it all walk two of the most remarkable, powerful newspapermen in American history, William Cobbett and James Callender, bitter enemies in politics but accidental allies in promoting freedom of the press. Adding to the book's educational and entertainment value, Safire reveals his sources and separates truth from fiction at the end of his novel. Novel? Well, maybe.
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
William Safire's novel Scandalmonger brings to life the clash between the press and politicians two centuries ago, and in doing so holds up a mirror to our own times. It is not likely to be a surprise to readers that the Founding Fathers were as subject to human failures as politicians in our own time or that the press, then as now, was more concerned with sales than with truth. What is fresh and novel about this book is the focus on James Callender, the "scandalmonger" whose writings break the stories that impact the political fortunes of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and Maria Reynolds, who was central to both one of the scandals (having had affairs with both Hamilton and Burr) as well as becoming central to Callender's bleak life. What fascinated me was how unbelievable, yet demonstrably true, this story is. Relying heavily on letters, journals and published documents of the time, Safire recreates a story of clashing political ambitions, illicit sex, corruption in high places, coverup, deception and murder.
Callender, a refugee from press persecution in Scotland and down on his luck, is selected to break the story of Alexander Hamilton's supposed financial impropriaties at the Treasury Department. This becomes a fascinating story when the "facts" of the case intersect with Hamilton's secret sexual relationship with the wife of his supposed accomplice and he allows the sexual scandal to be used to coverup (and "explain") the financial one. To oversimplify the book's complex story lines, Callender goes from success with his Hamilton expose to being the subject of government pressure to silence him. The Sedition laws are passed. He is charged, tried and imprisoned, but this just makes him more popular and his writings, secreted out of prison by visitors, are published and republished across the country. He believes that when Jefferson is elected President, due in no small part to Callender's efforts at embarrasing the party then in power, that he will be rewarded and has even picked out a modest post that would grant him and his young children a predictable income. But that is not to be, and believing himself abandoned by those he had worked so hard for, he turns his pen against them. The result is the Sally Hemings revelations that charge Jefferson with having a black mistress with whom he fathered many children. That story, of course, continues to this day. The story of James Callender ended shortly after and until this book was forgotten except for historians.
Unlike one of Gore Vidal's historical novels that lavish attention on character and place, this book is long on talk and short on description. But the talk, because it is based so often on the character's actual words from letters or diaries, is often quite good. The overall style is somewhat stiffer than I would have expected but perhaps Safire felt he had to try and match the tone of the character's conversations. The portaits of both Hamilton and Burr that emerge are fascinating, but Jefferson and Washington both come off seeming rather cool and remote, perhaps both, in their own ways, rather Machiavellian.
This is a book I expect to reread from time to time. For anyone interested in the history of American politics, or in seeing a more human side of our Founding Fathers, I highly recommend this book.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2002
Format: Audio Cassette
If the book receives a five '*' then the audio version should get a ten!!! The reader is an actor who successfully portrays women, men, foreigners, Southerners, New Englanders with equal virtuosity. This format made the already good historical novel a great one.
The philosophical infighting and political cat-fighting of the period are not hard to find if one scratches the surface. This book traces the origins of the two party system through the lives of those who stood out in this era - Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe but particularly Jefferson, Hamilton and the hilariously outrageous newspapermen of the day.
Some are shocked to hear these icons so bitterly detested one another and in particular the many shenanigans of Jefferson who always contradicted his grand ideas with smarmy deeds. But the novel sets off in a new direction and the muckrakers become the heart and soul of the story. The language is incredible for its fidelity to the style of the time - though some are actual quotes from letters and papers - and indeed it reads like a historical diary.
The story is also told from several points of view - Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams and best of all, the glorious muckrakers. It sounds odd, but the story had pathos, excitement and incredible amounts of humor. Especially considerate was the appendix at the end that traced the lives of the main characters in the novel.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2001
I vaguely recall reading some articles by Mr. Safire, but I've never read any of his books before. Well, I shall certainly remedy that. If Scandalmonger is any sign, William Safire might just be one of the most able writers in the US today.
Seriously, it must have been six months since I've last enjoyed a novel as much as I have enjoyed this one. Written with clear, powerful and well thought of prose (In the afterwords, Safire reveals some of the tricks that he used in order to convey the atmosphere without falling into the use of anarchonisms), this book is always thrilling and often witty, for those of us who enjoy subtle, sharp irony.
You don't have to reach the appendixes in order to realise the width of Safire's knowledge of the topic. Safire is clearly very well versed with the history of the period, and it shows. Not a very descriptive writer, Safire clearly knows alot about the personality of each and evry character in the novel. Writing with a Historian's dedicacy, even Safire's lies are rarely more than half truths.
The Pacing and prose of Scandlemonger are perfect. It is a page turner, very well written and planned. Safire never lets his grip loose, and every word counts.
The parallels between the US of the 1790s-1800s and the US of the 1990s-2000s are overwhelming, and surprisingly, you feel some appreciation to the history of journalism. I think it is impossible to read Scandalmonger without thinking about Monica Lewinski, but the novel will still be every bit as good when Lewiski, like Sally Hemmins, will be left as no more than an ancedote in US history.
I can not recommand Scandalmonger enough. In each and every aspect it is a masterpiece of fiction. In one word: TRIUMPH.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2000
A popular, charismatic politician cannot be proven guilty of financial misdeeds. His enraged enemies keep digging and digging until they find personal dirt.
No, this was not the Clinton scandal. It was what happened to Alexander Hamilton during Washington's presidency - and he was forever barred from higher office thereafter. That is just the beginning of the story. John Adams looses a chance for a second term after a diplomatic scandal, but that's nothing compared to the skeletons that will arise from Thomas Jefferson's closet. Will all be revealed?
After reading this book, one truly believes it's a miracle that our country survived it's infancy. Think about it - this mudslinging was going on before anyone even knew if England was going to invade anytime soon. After all, the Revolution was only a generation old.
The story is riveting from beginning to end, and these are not your elementary school founding fathers. James Madison comes off likable, if weak willed; and you feel bad for Adams, who for all his faults stayed on the straight and narrow. But most of the rest are a veritable viper's den. Monroe is the ultimate Machiavellian; and Jefferson is much, much worse - at least Monroe knows what he is - Jefferson doesn't even realize what he has become.
The shocking ending is based on fact, but much is Safire's conjecture. It's up to each reader to decide how close to the truth he's hit - but you leave with the uneasy feeling that he may be uncomfortably close to home.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2000
In a perfect world, New York Times political columnist William Safire would give up writing his witty but ultimately pedantic essays about English grammar and the occasional spy novel and devote all his energies to what he does best--historical fiction. Freedom, his hefty 1987 novel about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, was a magisterial blend of historical fact, informed speculation and perverse whimsy. In his new novel, Safire dishes up more of the same, although not quite as well or on near so grand a scale.
The "scandalmonger" of the title is James Thomson Callender, one of a long-dead breed of fearless, poison pen-wielding newspapermen who enlivened the American political scene in the days of Adams and Jefferson. (It was Callender who first exposed Jefferson's longtime affair with teenage slave Sally Hemings.) Scandalmonger is captivating on two levels: first, as a sensational survey of the scandals (sexual and otherwise) that rocked the young republic at the dawn of the 19th century; second, as a fascinating examination of the seminal role the press played in shaping the political discourse of the day. Newspapers weren't the corporately owned, advertiser-driven enterprises of today but the mouthpieces of competing political factions and as such harbored no pretensions of journalistic objectivity. A partisan attack by one scandal sheet would be answered with an equally vociferous counterattack in another, all in a scabrous style that would make the typical tabloid exposé read like a puff piece from Parade magazine.
As he did with Freedom, Safire provides an "underbook" of notes at the end of the novel that allows the history-minded reader to separate fact from fiction, as well as a portrait gallery that tells what later happened to the major characters in the book. Scandalmonger secures Safire's place alongside Gore Vidal and E.L. Doctorow as one of our greatest living historical novelists.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
William Safire attemps in his latest tome, "Scandalmonger" to bring us to the 'gates' of the founding of our country by illuminating scandals that plagued the Founding Fathers. Ah, to sit back and reminisce about the olden days, and how perfect everything was back then. Balderdash. As Safire points out, early American politics were strife with gossip, rumors, and a media out for blood. It's makes that whole Clinton thing pale in comparison to adulterous behavior, extortion, and other juicy tidbits which shaped our destiny, almost bringing down the Nation as well.
Not five stars because of a challenging read, Safire often sprinkles names throughout the story that I found sometimes confusing. For the casual history buff, or the more experienced devotee, "Scandalmonger" is sure to please!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2001
I usually love this kind of novel, but Scandalmonger offers precious few of the usual novelistic pleasures. There is very little scene-setting, all of the characters seem two-dimensional and generic, and the dialogue is stiff. Here's the work of a man who's done all the research, and has the intelligence to cobble it all together into a plot, but who sorely lacks the ability to bring his material alive as a work of art. My advice: For historical fiction of this type, stick with Gore Vidal (e.g. Burr, 1876, and the truly wonderful Washington DC). Vidal may be a little looser with the facts, but he offers a far more satisfying reading experience.