In America, the political has been personal ever since the Revolution. Though they're writing about three wildly different eras -- the 1850s, the 1960s and the 1990s -- these authors all work the territory where self meets body politic.
An Unsentimental Education
If anyone could claim to have politics bred into the very fiber of his being, it was Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents. Besides having John Adams and John Quincy Adams as major branches on the family tree, Henry Adams also had a father, Charles Francis Adams, who served in Congress before going to London in the 1860s as America's ambassador. The Adamses were the Kennedys of their day: a political dynasty, something the youngest Adams felt keenly. The legacy could be burdensome, as Ira B. Nadel suggests in his introduction to Adams's third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (Oxford, $10.95), one of the classic primers on what it means to be American, especially a privileged one. Nadel writes, "As the fourth-generation heir to America's most illustrious family name, Henry Adams possessed a system of order he called `the family mind,' which sometimes challenged his need for independence. Surrounding him were constant reminders of what he inherited in terms not only of accomplishments but of possession and relationships: the family home known as The Old House purchased by John Adams in 1788; the many aunts and uncles who repeated stories of past successes; the histories, diaries, and autobiographies written by preceding generations of Adamses."
No wonder that life in and around the clan's headquarters in Quincy, Mass., and Boston got claustrophobic. Adams escaped to Washington, D.C., where he could enjoy "the excitement of political life and foreign affairs" along with a social life he found wider and more congenial. He and his wife, Clover, "at their Lafayette Square home, across a park from the White House . . . presided over a salon of distinguished national and international guests from ambassadors to politicians and writers."
Adams grew up so close to American politics that perhaps he never felt the need to run for office himself; he was already part of the process. In the Education he recalls a boyhood visit to his future home, the nation's capital: "This first step in national politics was a little like the walk before breakfast; an easy, careless, genial, enlarging stride into a fresh and amusing world, where nothing was finished, but where even the weeds grew rank. . . . He was taken to see President Taylor. Outside, in a paddock in front, `Old Whitey,' the President's charger, was grazing, as they entered; and inside, the President was receiving callers as simply as if he were in the paddock too. The President was friendly, and the boy felt no sense of strangeness that he could ever recall. In fact, what strangeness should he feel? The families were intimate; so intimate that their friendliness outlived generations, civil war, and all sorts of rupture. . . . As for the White House, all the boy's family had lived there, and, barring the eight years of Andrew Jackson's reign, had been more or less at home there ever since it was built. The boy half thought he owned it . . . He felt no sensation whatever before Presidents. A President was a matter of course in every respectable family. . . . any one could be President, and some very shady characters were likely to be. Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, and such things were swarming in every street."
A Woman's Trials
Privilege doesn't sit so easily on the shoulders of Lyssa Dent Hughes, the central character in Wendy Wasserstein's play An American Daughter (Harcourt Brace, $10). Forty-two years old, a respected doctor and the daughter of a Republican senator from the Midwest, liberal Lyssa has been nominated for surgeon general and, as the play opens, anticipates a relatively painless confirmation: She's pro-choice but moderate and has an impressive record in public health. She has two sons and a husband, Walter, a professor of sociology. They seem happy, in the slightly uneasy, self-aware style of those who know they're among the elite. "Are you happy, Walter?" asks one of his former students, to which he replies: "I live in one of the nicest homes in Georgetown. My wife is Ulysses S. Grant's fifth-generation granddaughter. My children are both at the Sidwell Friends School and floating through cyberspace, and my five-year-old book is a standard for deconstructing liberalism. Am I happy. . . ? I want a Bloody Mary. Okay with you?"
As that passage suggests, there's trouble nearby, and it erupts during a TV interview meant to be a puff piece on the nominee. Walter and a family friend, Morrow McCarthy, a conservative gay commentator who's a rising media star himself, let slip that Lyssa once threw out a jury summons -- absent-mindedly, it seems -- and it's "Hello, Jurygate."
Wasserstein wrote "An American Daughter" inspired in part by Nannygate, the debacle of Zoe Baird's nomination for attorney general, and in part by Hillary Rodham Clinton's trials after she went on TV "and made the fatal error of admitting that she didn't want to stay at home and bake cookies," as Wasserstein recalls in her introduction to the play. "In my mind there was a connection between the image of the chastened first-lady-to-be and the attorney general who tried so hard to do it all that she missed a glaring detail. They were both accomplished professional women who seemed completely prepared for life's obstacles. Whereas their contemporary femininity seemed at first their strength, it became their downfall." Not always subtle in making its political point, "An American Daughter" also gets at the personal politics of feminism and the perfidy that may lurk in the hearts of husbands, friends, even younger feminists -- those outwardly supportive of the ambitions and accomplishments of a woman who's worked hard to have her shot at having it all.
Far more frolicsome than Wendy Wasserstein but -- in his manic New Journalist way -- no less serious a social observer is Tom Wolfe, whose novel A Man in Full (Bantam, $8.50) is now out in paperback. The novel, as hefty as Wolfe's '80s blockbuster Bonfire of the Vanities, follows big-chested Atlanta real-estate developer Charlie Croker through the hell of seeing his empire and his well-padded life collapse under the weight of hubris and high expectations. As usual, Wolfe swings for the fences, not always hitting one out of the park: Alongside Croker's downfall and regeneration the book anatomizes the racial and social politics of late-'90s Atlanta and, by extension, contemporary America.
Give Wolfe points for ambition: In the person of Conrad Hensley, a lowly employee of one of Croker's other businesses who loses his job as a result of the mogul's attempts to save his real-estate ventures, he even incorporates the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. More interestingly, Bantam has also reissued Wolfe's earlier books, including his first, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby ($14.95), which Kurt Vonnegut called "an excellent book by a genius who will do anything to get attention." Not a bad description. The title essay, about a hot rod (varoom! varoom!), was Wolfe's first foray into magazine writing and is one of the Ur-texts of the New Journalism.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ($14.95), Wolfe's trippy look at Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and the '60s acidhead scene, still has its high points, though from this late-'90s, substance-free perspective the acid trips of 30 years ago don't seem worth all the Day-Glo descriptive effort. I was happy to discover that another classic slice of Wolfian observation, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers ($12.95), does stand up to the test of time. The "Radical Chic" half of the book does, anyway, though its subject -- social New York's fleeting passion for radical causes like the Black Panthers in the late '60s -- might seem quaint now. What saves "Radical Chic" from period-piece irrelevance is Wolfe's anthropological and satirical skills (the best thing about his fiction) and his deft dissection of High Society's bleeding-heart hype, which he diagnoses as nostalgie de la boue, "nostalgia for the mud."
Reading about Leonard and Felicia Bernstein hosting the Panthers at their Park Avenue penthouse is still absolutely delectable, darling: "The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny's duplex like a rogue hormone. . . . Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d'oeuvre trail? . . . For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro . . . is he, a Black Panther, going to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia's Mary Astor voice . . . ?" Delicious, baby.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.