From Washington D.C., by Gore Vidal, 1967. (Novel 6 in the 7-novel "Narratives of Empire" series.)
Washington D.C. follows the fortunes of a political family in the years 1937-1952--in the time of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the early Cold War. Characters include the anti-New Deal Democrat Sen. Burden Day, Peter Sanford, his sister Enid, and her politically ambitious husband Clay Overbury. Peter is rightly described by Harry Kloman of The Gore Vidal Index as "more [Vidal's] alter ego in spirit than in autobiographical fact."
In a jonquil yellow dress his sister Enid materialized in the room, pale face flushed, eyes huge from pleasure, hair still full of rain.... Her return had gone unnoticed, a fact unusual in itself since the whole point to Enid was that she was always noticed, with no effort on her part. [Peter asked,] "Where have you been?"
"At the poolhouse." He was startled by her condor, and then by the swift serenity with which she lied. "I took a walk after dinner and got caught in the storm. My hair's still wet. Listen to that thunder."
Brandy was served; cigars appeared. [Sen.] Burden [Day] sat down between Blaise Sanford and an Englishman whose name sounded like Lord Garbage. They complained of the heat.
Like the others, Burden found it an effort not to stare at President [Roosevelt], who looked fit if somewhat overweight, the famous smile flashing on and off as though controlled by a master switch. Earlier, when Burden and Kitty had been presented, the President had given him the widest of smiles and then turned to the King and said in a stagy whisper, "He wants to live here, too!" The King looked faintly unsettled.
Blaise and Lord Garbage were discussion friends in England. Lord Garbage (that couldn't be his name) was assuring Blaise that an old friend had not really gone insane. "He just doesn't like people, which is perfectly normal. He lives alone in the country. And reads Carlyle to the pig."
Burden did not at heart dislike the British, differing from many of his Senatorial colleagues who resented England's eminence. Southerners still recalled with bitterness England's betrayal of the Confederacy, while in the Northern cities any politician with not much to say could always count on the Irish to applaud if he threatened to punch King George in the snoot. Burden looked at King George's long distinguished snoot and felt protective.
"Listen," she said, taking the glass. "I don't want a divorce. Do you?"
"No. I never did." He had to say this; and yet, in a way, he meant it.
"Then why did you move out?"
"How could I stay? Besides, you wanted me to."
"I did not! Why do you say things like that?" She stared at him reproachfully. "You moved out just to spite me. Father put you up to it, and don't say he didn't. He's getting back at me for having married you. Oh, he's sly as they come, and never forget it and never start thinking you can manage him like that Senator of yours, because you can't. Not Daddy. He's managing you, to hurt me. Why don't you come with me to Harold's tonight. It ought to be fun."
Clay had never got used to her sudden changes of mood, not to mention her dazzling dialectic. Starting with a false premise, she could build such a logical case that by the end she had almost made the premise itself seem true. Even more virtuoso were her sudden revelations, always egocentric, usually false, and yet often perceptive. On the face of it nothing was more absurd than that her father should take up with him to get back at her. But Blaise was mysterious and passionate. Enid had deeply offended him by marrying Clay (or so it had seemed), and now by taking Clay's side against Enid he could at last get back at her. For want of a better theory, Clay accepted Enid's; otherwise there was no understanding Blaise, who supported him while believing Enid to be the injured party. Clay had told no one the truth about the adultery on the excellent ground that it is not the aggressor but the victim the world despises and fears. The more Enid told her story of Clay's adultery "in my own bed with the baby in the next room," the less sympathy she was able to evoke even from those strangers whom, after three martinis, she took into her confidence.
The leisurely pace of prewar Washington was now replaced by a positively New York surge of people coming and going, particularly women hurrying to do manly jobs: their short skirts revealed knees, whole mountainous hair fell to padded shoulders, despite urgent warnings that long hair, by getting into machinery, not only slowed down production thereby delaying America's inevitable victory over tyranny, but scalped its owner. The hair, however, was necessary to maintain a femininity compromised by so many hundreds of thousands of women fitting altogether too easily into the jobs of absent husbands and lovers.
Lately Peter found himself, to his disgust, using jargon words like "relationship," picked up from Aeneas and his friends who, to a man, were addicted to the opulent vocabulary of psychiatry, a pseudoscience now in vogue, even more than phrenology had been during the previous century.... The first victim in these storm quarrels had been the English language. Eager to illuminate interpersonal activity, words were made up exactly as if this elaborate game were a science in which new things heretofore unknown must be named. One of the great discoveries, the Vinland of the bold voyagers, was "relationship," a word Peter personally found less appealing than the as yet uncoined "connectionship" or "loveship."
"Now what are you smiling at?" She pulled herself up on one arm.
"Erotic pleasure. Normal reflex of the aroused male."
"No, it's not. They scowl."
"Dilettante!" Harold had the popular writer's unerring ability to select the one word which vulgarizes even as it characterizes, sacrificing accuracy to mere vividness.
Suddenly, after a year of Washington, Aeneas discovered the natives. "You know, there are some interesting people here, simply as specimens of course. The sort you read about in novels by ladies with three names, or in Henry James who was a bit of a lady himself. There's one in particular I like. She's the Old America at its best, if that's not a contradiction in terms. She only invites people to her house who can read without moving their lips. That means none of your beloved politicians."
Image (top): Charles Weever Cushman. Photo of Washington D.C., 1940. Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection. Indiana University Archives / Digital Library Program. Click here for a 1000 x 600 pixel JPEG of the photograph.
Image (lower): President Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Germany, Dec. 11, 1941. Library of Congress. Click here for the image in various digital file formats.