Vidal has said that he was born to be a writer but was trained to be a politician; he grew up in the environment he describes in Washington, D.C. The origins of the United States fascinate him, and he uses his historical novels to trace the evolution of the nation’s history. Vidal keeps his focus on the elite, as he believes that the masses of people have little to do with shaping the course of American national history. He confronts one of the oldest and hardest questions that historians face: Do individuals (the “great” men and women) shape history, or do impersonal forces (such as the rise of nationalism or the intertwining of global economies) shape history and sweep individual leaders along with the tide? Vidal says, “A good ruler in a falling time falls, too, while a bad ruler at a time of national ascendancy rises,” then adds, “But, men certainly affect events. . . . the only moral life is to act as if whatever one does is of great moment.”

Washington, D.C. moves through the years of the Great Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the Joseph McCarthy period of anticommunist hysteria, and the Korean War. It opens in July, 1937. A fictitious southern senator, James Burden Day, has successfully led the fight to block an attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) to pack the Supreme Court with supporters of his New Deal program. Day, who has similarities to Vidal’s grandfather, Senator Gore, is being pushed for the presidency by anti-Roosevelt conservatives, and he wants to save the republic from FDR. He and the president represent two opposing principles, Day says: FDR believes that government must do everything...

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