‘Lincoln’ By Gore Vidal


One of his most famous novels (second only, these days, perhaps, to Burr), but I was somewhat disappointed. The quality improves immensely towards the end, but I am trying not let the magnificent writing of the last quarter of the novel (and recency bias) to make me overlook the first seventy-five percent. Part of the improvement is that he mostly drops – until the very end – a subplot about one of Booth’s fellow conspirators: a callow fellow named David. The less of him the better!

His Abraham Lincoln is compelling but too distant. Aaron Burr loomed large and his young protege interested; and in my own favorite, Julian, the titular emperor and his two chroniclers are compelling, catty, and captivating. No one steps up so in the absence of Lincoln.

The writing is good, but not great. I believe that he understands the politics of the time pretty well and he is a good commentator on the realpolitik of eras predating ours. And his small details are wonderful. For example, we generally see General George McClellan as a ditherer, who let the war drag on. But Vidal portrays Washington society as worshipful of the man they called ‘Young Napoleon.’ I hadn’t realized he was so young, much less that he was ever compared to Napoleon, but I trust the author enough to believe it (though I will hold my fire on the venereal controversy).

But it is not enough. Perhaps one wishes that he had dived deeper into Lincoln’s psyche and written from his perspective.

To the reader, Lincoln sits opaquely, fascinatingly at the center, but for much of the book, the characters who orbit the man view him as a weak figure, easily stymied by his generals and hangers on and a man of wan, waffling convictions. I mention this because though I cannot for the life of me remember the title, I recently read a review of a newish history that suggests just that: Lincoln was actually rather weak and most of the credit for victory should go to the so-called Radical Republicans.

‘A Warning’ By Anonymous


Anonymous is not an intellectual. S/he is not a member of the conservative intelligentsia. You may think that this is a good thing. A good advisor to the president need not be one, but it just seems to me that s/he wears their learning, such as it is, not so much lightly as shallowly. A few sprinkled quotes from the Founding Fathers and great leaders of the past (a bit of classical “learning” and the occasional snippet from the Gipper or, rather, his speechwriters) but their understanding of ethics, as a field of study is thinner than even that annoying Starbucks philosopher talking to loudly to his embarrassed girlfriend. They refer to classical thinkers because they both need to pad their moral case and because they want to show they know that stuff (I don’t think they really do; I don’t think they actually read Cicero’s De Officiis. I think they did more run just read a Wikipedia article, but something much less than actually reading him. Which, by the way, you should. He’s really good.

Anonymous could be seen as, despite their protests, another kind of emblem of Trump’s inability to attract the best, or even adequate, people. They seems like the kind of frat boy douchebag who was hoping for a Marco Rubio presidency. Someone shallow and shamelessly political, who has never had a real job, but who can do a passably tolerable impression of a man with some principles for the kind of reader who doesn’t read beyond the first two paragraphs of any newspaper not about a hockey fight or one of Marco’s Sunshine State compatriots doing something blissfully stupid involving alligators, the highway patrol, and a can of coffee that has been repurposed to hold his dope.

The anecdotes are frequently a mixture of the nonspecific and publicly known. You don’t need a senior administration official to tell you that John Kelly had a horrified look on his face when His Obesity defended the Nazis in Charlottesville.

There was one newish sounding nugget, though. When Trump is about to push a lawyer to do something patently illegal, he scans the room for people who might be taking notes and screams at them to stop.

Also, I think they are a man. But that’s neither here nor there and based on my own hidden prejudices, I suspect.

So why did I read another one of these Trump histories? I have sworn off them more times often than I have sworn to delete my Facebook account.

Well, the short version is that we were at the Northeastern Library (the little one was getting her first library card), which is an awesome library. Better, frankly, than the other two I visit regularly. The selection of books visible upon even a cursory examination were so exciting. Including this one. I should have known something was up when there wasn’t a waiting list, when it was just sitting there. Typically, these kinds of self flagellatory tomes have a longish waiting list of people ahead of you in the queue.

A sidebar or a point of personal privilege, perhaps. Anonymous gives us some classical tidbits. If you’ve ever seen the movie or the play The History Boys (and I highly recommend it), you might remember the term ‘gobbets.’ Little bits of poetry or seemingly irrelevant knowledge used to illustrate a point or just liven up the text. Anonymous does a lot of that.

Several of their ‘gobbets’ are about Athens. Going beyond the Athens of Socrates and Pericles, the city remained famous for centuries as the center of philosophy. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if it became a sort of university town in later antiquity. De Officiis is in the form of a letter to Cicero’s son (in fairness, they also knew this) who is studying in… Athens. Cicero slight laments that his son is studying under a Stoic teacher and asks him to look kindly upon the Skepticism of his own training. Gore Vidal writes, in Julian, about the titular emperor (in his pre-purple days) similarly going to Athens as a sort of intellectual finishing school.

Might not that Athens, the Athens long past its imperial glory and the days chronicled in Platonic dialogues, have also been wonderful? A place of nearly pure learning. To go as a young man and learn the arts of being virtuous or as an older man and bask in the golden light of a culture of philosophical inquiry? I say ‘man’ because I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t have been so nice to be a woman there, if better than many other places.

Oh, and someone, not me (I don’t write in books; not even my college textbooks), did a little freelance copyediting.

The Plot To Betray America


I thought I was done with these kinds of books, but I read a good review and the wait to get it from the library wasn’t long, so here we are.

While acknowledging that, yes, Trump is incompetent and ignorant of the sort of basic facts known to a person who reads the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer once a month, the focus is on the creeping influence of Russian intelligence agencies over him. It’s nothing we didn’t already know, but set down so clearly and altogether… it creates a sensation of, oh yeah, I forgot our president is basically a Russian asset. Followed by a sensation of, well, that sucks, doesn’t it?

Jefferson’s Three Laws


In an otherwise only marginally interesting answer to the question of whether the United States should renounce its treaties with France until it had established a government. While it’s not clear who needs to establish a government, because both countries had some ups and downs, the date of 1793 suggests it was France that needed to sort itself out.

In terms of practical politics, of course, America needed to adhere to its earlier treaties, barring some truly exceptional occurrence (the French Revolution, arguably, would qualify).

Here is what caught my eye:

The law of nations, by which this question is to be determined, is composed of three branches. 1. The moral law of our nature. 2. The usages of nations. 3. Their special conventions.

It’s an interesting bit of morality, couched in enlightenment terminology (Lockean?), which seems out of place in the Jefferson I have been reading.

Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny


I was forced to confront that I did not know as much Roman history as I assumed. Watts documents the breakdowns in republican norms that ultimately led to Augustus, nee Octavian, Caesar.

He is also, one assumes, drawing a bright line between Roman acceptance of the collapse of norms and our current crisis of democracy. Admirable, if maybe a bit tacked on. History does not exist to fit our notions.

The earlier crises are better reading than the final crisis, because I was left with a sense of knowing figures like Pompey the Great, Sulla, and Tiberius Gracchus. But vital, late players like Marc Antony and Octavian remain opaque in Mortal Republic.

For you Ciceronians, this quote might amuse or gall:

Cicero was an equestrian with a gift for long-wonder, self-congratulatory orations that nevertheless often proved extremely persuasive.

Cicero does not come out of Mortal Republic with much dignity intact.

Biographical Sketches Of Famous Men


The only three included (I don’t know if there were more, but I must assume so) are of Washington, Franklin, and Wythe. Franklin here suit my own preconceived notion of him as a sort of wise clown, deflecting conflict with humor and contributing through a sort of peacemaking between parties. One wonders his feelings on the underlying subject of the Washington sketch, which is, like war, politics by other means: Republicanism vs Federalism.

Notes On Virginia


You can see Jefferson’s regular topics and conceits clearly here. A chapter on religion is mainly about the religious freedom he so assiduously (and successfully; he wrote the statute) championed in Virginia. On education, it reflect the inadequacy of both the physical and curricular structure of William & Mary, then the state’s only college; arguments no doubt in support of his quest to establish the University of Virginia at the base of his mountain. You see Jefferson the amateur scientist (and a fascinating digression into some amateur archaeology that he undertook on a Native American burial mound.

On manufacturing, his disdain for large scale production is clear (despite the fact that very nearly his only profitable venture was a nail factory he built on his lands). It feels a little naive, to disdain creating finished goods here, beyond basic items, but it fits with his pastoral/agricultural republicanism. Like Socrates, he seems to think smaller polities are better.

On race… the less said the better. He was at a point where his views were evolving and not for the better. He is open to the idea that the native peoples could achieve a cultural status close to whites, but that “generosity” only reminds the modern reader of the anti-black racism running through his brain.

Takeaway quote (from the religion section):

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

And you know what? In this day, his vigorous, anthropological critique of religious oppression may seem commonsensical today, in the eighteenth century it was far more daring and outre.

Doesn’t make up for the racism, though.