Lincoln Fiction & Fact

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This interview took place at the end of May in William Safire’s office at the Washington bureau of The New York Times. Safire is a trim and affable man of fifty-seven. We had first met in 1971 at the house of the Washington columnist Rowland Evans, Jr. Our host had advertised Safire in advance as the compulsively alliterative speech writer for the then Vice-President, Spiro T. Agnew (“the nattering nabobs of negativism”), and also as one of the few members of the Nixon troupe who dared circulate at large in Georgetown. While disapproving of Safire in principle, I found him, as too often happens, quite amiable in practice.

My suspicions were not, however, entirely dispelled. When the Times took him on as a columnist a couple of years later, I reproached Arthur O. Sulzberger, the Times publisher, and predicted that the paper would regret the decision. I could not have been more wrong. While I don’t suppose I agree very often with Safire’s political ruminations, I have come to admire him for his independence of mind, for his capacity to dig out news as well as to opine about it, and for his literary exuberance and wit.

What subverts those who deplore Safire’s politics most of all is his infatuation with the English language. Even his most resolute critics succumb to his weekly column on linguistic use and abuse in the The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Safire’s Political Dictionary is a most valuable and entertaining work. The first edition came out in 1968 under the title The New Language of Politics. The Political Dictionary, a third edition, was published ten years later. I keep urging Safire to get out another edition in order to incorporate new words added to the language of politics by the Reagan administration, such as sleaze.

Safire’s zeal for politics and for words is matched by his zeal for American history. He is a buff of the first water. In 1985 he founded a society of former presidential speech writers, and seeking a name for the group, he uncovered the forgotten figure of Judson C. Welliver, who adorned the administration of Warren G. Harding as the first full-time White House speech writer. (At the last annual banquet of the Judson C. Welliver Society, Welliver’s delightful daughter appeared and stole the show.) Safire’s bookshelves are lined with scholarly monographs, and he relishes unmasking professional scholars as much as he relishes unmasking professional politicians. He is hardly infallible on either political or historical questions; but his mind is open, his apprehension is quick, and his curiosity unlimited.

I am still not clear how he ever found time both to ride daily herd on politicians and weekly herd on writers and also to turn out Freedom, his twelve-hundred-page novel. Anyway, there it is—and every enthusiast for the history of the Republic will find both instruction and enjoyment in it.

Freedom is a historical novel about Lincoln and the Civil War. You must have been in mid-passage when Gore Vidal’s Lincoln came out in 1984.

Right, and I worried about whether he would cover the same themes that I was covering. But I relaxed when I read it because he covers four years of the Presidency and I cover twenty months. He sticks to Lincoln and I go out in the field. We’re dealing with the same characters, but our themes are different.

Do you feel that you’ve learned anything from the historical novelists?

I learned a lot about frustration. I would read a historical novel and wonder what was true and what wasn’t; and it bothered the hell out of me. I resent it when writers use history and overlay it with a special point of view and sometimes twist or warp it. I’m hooked on full disclosure. And I decided that the best way to achieve it is to say to the reader: “This is true; this is not true; this character’s real; this character’s not; here’s what I’m doing. Join me. And if you don’t like it, write your own book.” At least I’m not misleading the reader.

I think that your appendix of sources and commentary, which you call the “underbook,” is a brilliant device that I’ve never seen before. Was that in your mind from the beginning?

Freedom had a long genesis. I started about ten years ago and made my deal with Doubleday about eight years ago, just on the basis of an untitled novel about Abraham Lincoln. That got me started putting the words together. My pledge to myself was that I was going to do an underbook. I didn’t call it that at first, though; I called it “source notes.” I could do as a novelist what I could not do as a columnist, which is to reveal my sources. I guard my sources carefully in my column, but in a book the fun is to say, “Here are four sources, the fifth one is unreliable, and here’s what I think of the sources.” Historians do that all the time. I’m doing it for the novel reader. By putting it in an underbook rather than footnoting, I’m saying, “This is a novel.” Read the novel first.