Near the conclusion of Gore Vidal's "Washington, D.C." (1967), a political thriller spanning the years 1937-52, the novel's hero, Peter Sanford, expresses irritable despair at the human condition as he has observed it in his treacherous hometown: "There was never a golden age. There will never be a golden age and it is sheer romance to think we can ever be other than what we are now." Now, 33 years later, Sanford pops up again as the protagonist of another Vidal novel, set in the same place and roughly the same time, and readers familiar with the author's career-long penchant for ironies will in no way be surprised to hear that the new book is called "The Golden Age."
"Irony is unAmerican," a character in The Golden Age (Doubleday; 467 pages; $27.50) warns Sanford, and that comment is, of course, intended ironically as well. But the novel completes a very American literary project that, for all its various humors, Vidal takes seriously indeed: a fictional history of the U.S. as portrayed through the conduct, mostly bad, of its elected leaders. This best-selling saga started with "Washington, D.C." and continued with "Burr" (1973), "1876" (1976), "Lincoln" (1984), "Empire" (1987) and "Hollywood" (1990). "The Golden Age" wraps up the long story and includes a flash-forward to earlier this year, when Peter Sanford, overweight and 77, visits the Italian villa of his old friend Gore Vidal to tape a television program of shared musings under the direction of a young man named A. B. Decker, a descendant of Aaron Burr.
A novelist who puts himself into his story is either a Postmodernist or uncommonly vain. Vidal is not a Postmodernist, but he probably deserves a place in his chronicle. He knew or met a number of the real, historical people Eleanor Roosevelt, Joseph Alsop, Tennessee Williams who move through the pages of "The Golden Age." He has been, for the past half-century, an uncommonly public literary figure: a near ubiquitous television guest and, twice, an unsuccessful candidate for elective office. Living well is Vidal's revenge, which he does much of each year at La Rondinaia, his spectacular house in Ravello perched 200 feet above the Amalfi coast. His mornings are customarily spent writing in a room filled with leatherbound copies of all his books and framed magazine covers bearing his face.
But Vidal has left that secluded luxury to begin, just a few days shy of his 75th birthday, another golden period in the limelight, making a publicity tour for "The Golden Age." A revival of "The Best Man," his hit 1960 play about infighting at a national political convention, has just opened on Broadway. And despite Vidal's deeply held atheism, there must be a God, or god, showering his current visibility with reflected glory. A distant cousin (fifth, Vidal thinks) is the Democratic nominee for President. During the party's August convention in Los Angeles, the author told reporters, "I do believe they are nominating the wrong Gore."
The remark was both funny and not made entirely in jest. Vidal is anything but a gadfly in his preoccupation with U.S. public affairs. He brings to the topic a mixture of nostalgia and estrangement. He inherited strong political yearnings; he idolized his blind maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas P. Gore, a populist Democrat from Oklahoma (who makes a cameo appearance in "The Golden Age"). But the young Vidal's firsthand glimpses of power as he accompanied his grandfather around Washington were eventually succeeded by the realization that he lacked the temperament to achieve such power himself. That is why his sympathy in his political novels goes out to history's losers, starting with Burr betrayed, in Vidal's retelling, by the coldly ambitious Thomas Jefferson all the way up to Adlai Stevenson, who twice played Hamlet to Dwight D. Eisenhower's Henry V. "Yes," Sanford notes in "The Golden Age," "he couldn't make up his mind but at least he had one to make up or not."
But if worthy people are destined for defeat, what does that make of the winners? This question hums throughout Vidal's historical series, particularly as it applies to the biggest winners, U.S. presidents. Burr casts both Jefferson and George Washington in a harsh light. "Lincoln" portrays its protagonist as almost diabolically unknowable in his use of power; "Empire" makes merry with the boisterously ambitious Theodore Roosevelt. Vidal's fiction strives mightily to transform the faces on the Mount Rushmore monument into rubble and scree.
The second Roosevelt in the White House receives similar treatment in "The Golden Age." As the novel opens in 1940, FDR is shown secretly maneuvering the country toward a war in Europe that the people would, if consulted, totally reject. Sanford's Aunt Caroline, a major character in "Empire" and "Hollywood," is a friend of the Roosevelts and a frequent guest at the White House. She is charmed by the President but also chilled by what she sees as his inexhaustible deviousness. "There is a curse on power," she blurts out to the First Lady. Mrs. Roosevelt replies, "Not when used for others, or so I like to think." And then Caroline's question: "Where does one's own self leave off and that of others begin?"
Vidal's big sprawling novel about America's transformation during and after World War II coats its ethical inquiries with plenty of narrative sweeteners: the sweep of history, celebrity walk-ons, conspiracy theories and reams of conversation, much of it witty, some lumbering. But the issue of power and who should hold it is never far from the surface. Sanford confronts the scheming and ambitious Congressman Clay Overbury, who also appeared in "Washington, D.C.," and asks, "Why must you be President?" To Overbury, the answer is obvious: "Some people are meant to be. Some are not. Obviously you're not." A similar moment occurs in "The Best Man," when the win-at-all-costs Senator Joe Cantwell tells former secretary of state William Russell, his higher-minded rival for the nomination, "I knew from the time I won my first election I was going to be President and nobody was going to stop me."
Vidal did not tinker with or update his 1960 play for its current Broadway incarnation, preferring to offer it as a period piece, a reminder of a time when important decisions were actually made at political conventions. He says he still had some faith in the U.S. political system when he wrote "The Best Man," but no longer does. If he were to put the current situation onstage, "it would be set in a boardroom of something like ITT, General Electric. You'd watch the directors of this big company auditioning politicians, maybe actors. Maybe they'd go directly for an actor. Why not? It's happened before." Vidal says the contemporary corruption of politics by Big Money could be halted "by one act of Congress, which is to require the networks and cable television to provide free time for an eight-week period, let's say, for the presidential election, and not allow anybody to buy any time. But Congress will never pass such a law, because no burglar after he gets to the second story ever kicks the ladder away."
Observing the current presidential campaign, the author has some uncharacteristically kind things to say about "Cousin Albert." Among them: "He is a serious politician. He understands the issues." He returns to form on the topic of George W. Bush: "Imagine coasting on his father's name. His father was a failure as a President. I mean, where is Herbert Hoover Jr. when we need him?"
Vidal compares himself with Mark Twain and Henry James, other writers who looked askance at American imperial expansion. He would have preferred to play a role in turning back this progress but instead became its disapproving chronicler. Regrets, he has a few, but he also takes comfort in the role that fate assigned him: "Writers have to tell the truth as they see it, and politicians must never give the game away." In his writing, the game goes on. With reporting by Curtis Ellis/New York