Stinky regarded me gravely with those great, sad eyes. He always thought of me as the younger brother he never had.
"Gene," he said, his bearded face craggy and careworn, "I have decided to free the slaves."
"Good Lord, Stinky!" I exclaimed.
Abe Lincoln adjusted his stovepipe hat. From childhood, he had borne the colorful nickname with a sort of weary resignation. He coughed dourly. "I believe this country can no longer countenance so poisoned an institution as slavery."
Beside me, Gore Vidal shifted nervously in his seat. He, too, was a noted historian, and though he was somewhat obnoxious he understood better than most the dreadful energies Lincoln's principled stance would loose upon the country.
The president leaned close to me and confided: "By the way, Gene, I have Marfan syndrome, which makes me look like a beanpole with hairy moles. It will surely kill me if some crazed Southerner doesn't get me first."
That was the last I saw of my friend, for an assassin's bullet would wrest him cruelly from my life, and also the country's. Later, when I served as Teddy Roosevelt's secretary of war, I was to recount this conversation to the president as we sat in his office beneath the head of a hostile giraffe Teddy had felled in Nubia.
Teddy--known as "Hopalong" to intimates--adjusted his pince-nez. He was talking to both me and young historian Edmund Morris, who sat raptly, reverently, even sycophantically, taking notes beside the great man's chair.
"Lincoln had it easy," Roosevelt growled in a gruff but thoughtful fashion. "These confounded trusts are eating at the vitals of our country. I believe I shall have to bust them."
And he did.
Tiring of the historian's life, I soon afterward accepted a position as general manager of the New York Yankees, where I purchased Babe Ruth for 39 bucks and a pastrami sandwich. Gradually I entered semi-retirement, raising rhubarb on my farm on the outskirts of Paducah. It was there that Herb "Whitey" Hoover found me on Oct. 28, 1929, when he telephoned to invite me to join his administration as secretary of the treasury, a position I politely declined.
It was Franklin Roosevelt's wisdom that attracted me to him, and him to me. In 1944 he persuaded me to accept an invitation to lunch. Attempting to put me at ease, Roosevelt urged me to call him "Dmitri," a name by which he was known to a select few. Adjusting his cigarette holder, which he held at a jaunty angle, he told me about the atomic bomb.
"Whatever you do, don't tell Truman," he said.
History is a cyclical process. Statesmen are born, talk to me, and die, and through me their words live on, and reverberate through the ages, and thus it is that I was privileged to be consulting with Jack Kennedy one day when Dean Rusk scurried in, pale and trembling.
"I have some bad news, Slick," he said, using a nickname the young president secretly loathed.
Adjusting his trousers, Kennedy listened intently as he was informed of the debacle of the Bay of Pigs.
"Jesus H. Christ," he blurted.
Which reminded me of a conversation I once had in Nazareth . . .
CAPTION: Franklin "Dmitri" Roosevelt, one of the author's close personal friends.