It walks! It talks! It’s alive! Here’s one panel from Gore Vidal’s long picture, and he wasn’t far from a lot of the subjects, of what lies under the marble and the reliefs and the dead writing of the political histories. That is, unapotheosized hairy human beings, drinking and lying and bribing and cheating and crashing cars and showing off and getting over and generally behaving badly. They say history is little more than the record of men’s crimes, but that’s only a fancy thought. Crimes need people to commit them; here they are.
It's the story of two families—call them Money and Power. Money is headed by Blaise Sanford, a Washington newspaper ogre from the pre-TV era, Power by a smooth but diffident Western Senator (Burden Day) and his handsome young assistant and protégé, Clay. (The Senator treats his assistant so much like a son that he might as well be one.) The families get entangled near the start of the book by the elopement of the publisher’s daughter, a monster princess named Enid, for whom Clay has spurned the Senator’s own daughter, Diana, who later takes up with Blaise’s shy, snack-loving son, Peter. Around them swirl a dozen or so major characters—rich dowagers, corrupt oilmen, ambitious journalists. All rub elbows with real presidents and kings and magnates, who are entertainingly belittled (literally so in the case of the diminutive George VI) in Vidal’s now-here-they-are-naked manner. But the book’s also basically a political version of Joseph Manckiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), with the amoral understudy from the provinces stealing the footlights from the flawed but more principled aging star—and roping in a bandwagon of writers and producers along the way. This study of what ambition does to you, and via the national control room to us all, is an ensemble, but when we’re let in on someone’s thoughts they're usually the Senator’s or Peter’s.
True to its title, the entire story is set in the capital, from the late 1930s through the Korean War, FDR through Eisenhower—mid-century modern Washington. Unobtrusively, we are shown how the coming of psychiatry, television, scientific polling, and similar novelties affected politics and life, and also how FDR’s war (as Vidal sees it) changed the formerly small Southern capital: a faster pace, more brighter and ruder people, ever more and more brighter and ruder people.
Though it’s a panorama, at least of what used to be called White Washington, it’s a compressed one. The scene’s the cloakroom, the country club, the big house, except when characters downsize to quarters like then-“Negro” Georgetown. Everyone who isn’t powerful or rich or on the way to being so is even more marginal here than Henry Adams’ Negroes and maids; whatever it is these thinking parts think and do all day, the writer isn’t about to tell us. This is partly by way of the book’s putting over the point of view of its characters. But it’s also because in Vidal’s metaphysics such people don’t really exist: what exists is only whatever, for a mayfly’s moment, moves the world’s needle.
That Washington, D.C. is entertaining yet cramped, and spirited yet joyless, has something to do with this. But it’s also got to do with the writer’s relationship with his characters. They seem to have been created, in all the teeth and claws which at times seem to be all they are, merely to be first tempted and then made ridiculous by their creator, who runs them through their paces like a martinet's corps de ballet. Although there’s plenty of I-want-this and consequent dramatic interest—and the book is never boring—the characters are rarely allowed to breathe, let alone surprise the all-knowing narrator, who (especially in the dialogues) is always two steps ahead of them with his color commentary. Much of it is devoted to anatomizing the various grades of subtlety in insult. No writer takes more care or delight in setting up and then examining slight, cruelty, and contempt—and Vidal, who was stuck with the short end of a thousand pre-Rainbow Flag slights, is good at it.
The first problem with this highly entertaining book, then, has to do with world-picture. The few people in it who think at all, and a lot of the ones who don’t, are nihilists, living for the scratching of itches, for the applause and the trophies, for the sand castle and the wind—for what the Authorized Version calls vanity and philosophy used to call divertissements. What we get, in short, is Vidal's own neo-paganism diffused through the cast, who in places talk like a group of schoolkids who’ve just stumbled onto the Wisdom Books: the lordship of futility is not argued, merely bracingly insisted upon. Technically, the trouble is that this choice allows for only a limited and tedious lot of motives. Everyone’s doing it all for nothing, even if some of them don't know it yet. As Peter tells himself in the summing-up:
The generations of man come and go and are in eternity no more than bacteria upon a luminous slide, and the fall of a republic or the rise of an empire…are not detectable upon the slide even were there an interested eye to behold [it]…
So the book ringeth throughout. But granted that it's more satirical than realistic, this is at best wildly inaccurate: at no time has nihilism been commonplace in New World heads, not even during the mid-century heyday (which it details) of materialism and positivism, Marx and Freud. This isn’t Washington then or now; it’s a vision of Washington as if it were Ancient Rome under Emperor Democritus.
The book’s second fault is not the writer's but was, as it were, thrust upon him. Unlike the author himself, the Washington People in the book are, nearly to a man and woman, philistines. At one point Vidal’s mutable poet-critic, one of the exceptions, complains about it himself. Nuts and bolts, deeds and parcels, who’s up who’s down: that's the business of the federal republic, just as it is of the fifty farm leagues where (as Vidal painstakingly depicts) the rehearsals for the Show begin. The general local practical-mindedness makes for an accurate social picture, but it doesn’t always make for the most absorbing one.
Back to the good stuff. The book’s easy to read: the plain writing is faultless, even flawless. The language isn’t showy (I admit I had to look up valetudinarian). Vidal likes to use run-on for satiric or ironic effect, and he likes to save the stinger for the tail. The plot is solidly built: no scene is too long and no one drifts offstage for too long or for no reason. If the characters’ inner lives are a bit sparely furnished, well, this is a very big 400-page book, and the emphasis is on the externals, on what people wear and eat and sit on and say and what they really mean when they say it. Years pass; people flip and flop, come and go; wives and houses and magazines and ideologies trade hands. Vidal stage-manages all this whirl brilliantly; there's no trouble remembering who's who. And he doesn't overdo the period furniture. No rumba. No baseball. There's one period car, and one or two hats on men, one of them in a movie in-joke. Period politicians, period films, and period slang, along with just-arrived ideas and technologies, carry much of the weight of the chronological scenic design. (This minimalism cuts both ways. On the one hand, the book’s departed scene feels fresh, like the present; on the other, it feels fresh, like the present.) Though it’s not a satire per se, everyone is a little cleverer and worse than he is or would be in life, and so all the dull bits are left out.