Times change, faces change, politics stay the same

Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.

The Washington novel has two forms. The first is familiar enough: the breathless thriller featuring hatchet-faced national security advisors, rumbustious generals and an alarmed president who avert Armageddon at the last minute. The second, and more enlightening, is the satire that seeks to pull the drapery away from the stage and reveal the hurly-burly of politics and journalism, whether it’s Gore Vidal’s “Washington, D.C.,” set in FDR’s Washington, or more recently, Jeffrey Frank’s saucy “The Columnist.”

The creator of the latter genre was Henry Adams. It would be hard to think of anyone better prepared to explore the interstices of Washington politics. Adams, who was born in 1838 and whose presidential ancestors were great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams, epitomized the noblesse oblige, reformist instincts of the Brahmin class.

A Harvard graduate, he worked as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, in Washington and London, before making a name for himself as a highbrow reforming journalist. Adams was wistful for the halcyon days of an aristocratic political elite and dismayed by the turn the U.S. took after the Civil War under President Ulysses Grant, from an agrarian society to an industrialized one controlled by political parties and corporate trusts. Together with his wife, Marian, he moved to Lafayette Square, where he decried the great twin evils of American democracy -- the subservience of Congress to special interests and the spoils system -- but ended up leaving Washington in frustration for a teaching post at Harvard in 1870.

The Modern Library’s reissue of Adams’ “Democracy: An American Novel” thus arrives at an opportune moment. The political figures may have changed, but the plutocratic excesses Adams mocks have not. Long before the U.S. supposedly lost its innocence during Watergate, Adams punctured the pretensions of official Washington. Adams’ whimsicality extended to the release of his roman a clef; he instructed the publisher to release it on April Fool’s Day in 1880. It was an instant bestseller, published anonymously, prompting Washingtonians to speculate feverishly about the author’s identity. Adams’ protagonist is the young, gorgeous, wealthy widow Mrs. Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, who has grown bored with New York philanthropy and heads for Washington. “What she wanted,” Adams writes, “was power.” But Lee is not intent on power for its own sake. She is a moralist who, in quintessentially American fashion, wants to “know whether America is right or wrong.” To answer this question, she sets up a salon in Lafayette Square that includes John Carrington, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who fought for Virginia in the Civil War; Silas P. Ratcliffe, a senator from Illinois; and the cynical Old World diplomat Baron Jacobi. She is initially horrified to discover, at a White House reception, that the incoming president and his wife are little more than wind-up dolls subject to the whims of their nominal inferiors.


But perhaps the stentorian eloquence of Ratcliffe can provide the key to understanding how power is exercised. Ratcliffe could hardly be further removed from Lee’s social standing. A widower of 50, he lives in a Washington boarding house and has a white frame summer home with iron stoves, oilcloth carpets and an engraving of Abraham Lincoln in the parlor. But he is also a prominent statesman who knows how to tie the hands of the incoming reformist president even before he has entered the Oval Office. In contrast to Lee’s high-toned moralism, Ratcliffe is a connoisseur of skulduggery who believes that the only thing higher than party allegiance is national allegiance. He admits that on the eve of the Civil War he rigged the presidential election in Illinois to ensure the preservation of the Union. In a showdown with Jacobi in Lee’s salon, Ratcliffe declares: “No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents .... [T]ry to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate failure.” The Baron responds: “I do much regret that I have not yet one hundred years to live .... I should find myself very content ....[T]he United States will then be more corrupt than Rome under Caligula; more corrupt than the Church under Leo X; more corrupt than France under the Regent!”

As narrator, Adams never quite comes down on one side or the other. In a dramatic set piece, he has Lee, Ratcliffe and Carrington, among others, go on an outing to Mount Vernon in February. To Adams, Mount Vernon represents the old virtues of the American republic that have gone by the boards in Washington just across the river. This hallowed ground means nothing to Ratcliffe. In fact, he soils it by engaging in a little historical revisionism, dismissing Gen. Washington as “a sort of American Jehovah” who had no real military or political genius. In response to Carrington’s dry remark that what the senator really means is that “Washington was too respectable for our time,” Ratcliffe declares: “If Washington were President now, he would have to learn our ways or lose his next election.... If virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office....” Machiavelli could hardly have put it more succinctly.

Lee is confused. Soon enough she is being led by Ratcliffe rather than leading him, succumbing, step by step, meeting by meeting, to the miasma of corruption that pervades Washington. Ratcliffe wishes to marry Lee and woos her by appealing to her belief in the public weal. She wonders: “If he, in his isolation and his cares, needed her assistance, had she an excuse for refusing it?”

In truth, one suspects that Lee is talking herself into a marriage that she is secretly attracted to for the promise of being able to wield power through the instrument of her husband. She comes close to succumbing to Ratcliffe, but a letter detailing Ratcliffe’s acceptance of a bribe from a steamship company on behalf of his party is too much for Lee to swallow. In a brutal showdown with Ratcliffe, she tells him, “For one long hour I have degraded myself by discussing with you the question whether I should marry a man who by his own confession has betrayed the highest trusts that could be placed in him ... when in justice he should be in a State’s prison.”


Ratcliffe storms out only to be met by Jacobi, whom he attempts to shove out of his path. The Old World redresses the sins of the New World: Jacobi strikes him flush in the face with his cane.

But is Ratcliffe really such a bad fellow -- or does Lee, in her luminous honesty, adhere to an impossibly high standard? Democracy can’t survive without some measure of corruption or at least compromise. In Oscar Wilde’s splendid play “An Ideal Husband” (1895), for example, Lady Chiltern, who has moral standards every bit as exacting as those of Mrs. Lee, comes to recognize that she must forgive her rising star husband, Sir Robert, for a youthful transgression involving stock jobbery that set the stage for his political success. One character even instructs Lady Chiltern, “I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.”

Ratcliffe was crude and vulgar, but he got things done. Reformers like Adams were ineffectual, because, as James P. Young notes in his perceptive “Henry Adams,” they were what was known as Mugwumps -- prissy New England reformers who had no political base and shrank from direct political combat. Another Adams biographer, Ernest Samuels, even called Adams’ belief that Ulysses Grant should defy Congress over the spoils system “insane.” It wasn’t until the boisterous Theodore Roosevelt, whom Adams regarded with some horror, led the Progressive movement that real reform became possible. Adams’ “Democracy” is as much a warning about the flaccidity of the reform movement as it is about the shortcomings of the American system of government.