William Safire”s “Scandalmonger” tells the tale of James Thomson Callender, initially a Jeffersonian-republican journalist, who exposed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton”s marital infidelities and thus prevented him from seeking the presidency in 1800.
Although Safire invents a little dialogue to liven up the story and fill in the gaps left by old letters, newspapers and debate transcripts, the novel really is a work of history.
If you feel like you miss a little of the scandal that always seemed to be around under the Clinton administration, this book will provide you with your fix.
Callender frequently claims that it is not Hamilton”s private affairs that he is after. Rather, it is Hamilton”s association with two speculators who purchase state debt (at one-tenth of the printed value) from the original bondholders who believe (with just cause) that the certificates will never be redeemed. When the federal government decides to assume the debts of the states, these certificates become a bonanza for the new owners.
During the Congressional investigation, Hamilton admits to an affair (although crying blackmail), but Callender suspects that this is just a ploy to fend off the charges of insider trading. In any event, the insider trading charges don”t stick but Hamilton is too embarrassed to run for president. Callender is given credit for Hamilton”s political demise.
But eventually Callender decides he”s sacrificed enough and not reaped the benefits for towing the republican line including spending time in jail for violating the Federalist”s Sedition Act and, after Jefferson is elected president, not receiving a coveted postmastership. He decides that the shoe stinks no matter which foot it”s on, that power corrupts republicans (not to be confused with modern day Republicans) and Federalists alike, and that he must expose wrongdoers, whoever they are.
What makes Safire great at what he does is his ability to brilliantly portray the changing mindset of the various characters, such as how Callender turns on the Jeffersonians and how they turn on him (and how they both justify these things). The writing skills of the New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter, who has also written several books on the English language, are not lost on the reader.
This is how he describes Virginia Gov. James Monroe”s realization, at Jefferson”s plantation, that Callender”s accusations of Jefferson fathering children with slaves, might be true: “The alert, fine-looking boy bore no special resemblance to Jefferson, the Governor decided, other than the light skin. And the red hair. And the self-assured, languid way of carrying himself.”
Other than being a good read, the book also serves as a good history book, because although Safire does take certain liberties with history (such as shifting dates around and converting written correspondence into conversational dialogue), he conveys the drama and the importance of the events more effectively than a textbook.
The two big scandals in the book, those of the adversaries Jefferson and Hamilton, bear a strong resemblance to the Clinton impeachment scandal. The Hamilton scandal begins as only a Congressional inquiry into financial dealings by a leading politician, but becomes ten times messier with Callender”s Drudge Report-esque publicization of the affair. Jefferson, like Clinton, always seems to have an ability to skirt controversy no matter how many things go wrong.
For example, “Despite all the suspicions of preachers about his supposed atheism despite the sea change of opinion in America that turned against the bloodthirsty French radicals and despite the growing distaste in the North at the way the author of “all men created equal” continued to support human slavery the President seemed to float above it all. Why?”
It almost sounds as if the Comeback Kid took a time warp to serve as Jefferson”s image adviser.
The strongest criticism that can be leveled against Safire is that he sometimes has too many characters involved in too many different subplots at once. But this is a minor point, since some of the side stories are quite informative and entertaining. One of these subplots has Callender”s Federalist nemesis and publishing rival William Cobbett advising him not to have renowned physician Benjamin Rush or any of his colleagues operate on his wife. The advice is disregarded, the operation is performed and Dr. Rush”s colleague bleeds Mrs. Callender to death.
Then as now, the soundest advice usually comes from one”s political enemies.