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Book Review 300: A Treasury of Great American Scandals

November 15, 2013 - Harry Eagar
A TREASURY OF GREAT AMERICAN SCANDALS: Tantalizing True Tales of Historic Misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and Others Who Let Freedom Swing, by Michael Farquhar, 321 pages, Penguin

I don’t know how great all these scandals are, but Michael Farquhar is fun to read. I had expected “A Treasury of Great American Scandals” to be a Grub Street horror, but, no, Farquhar (an editor at The Washington Post) is an elegant writer. I also like that he quotes at length from the documents (often letters) that reveal the “scandals.”

“Scandals” in quotation marks because I don’t see the suicide of Meriwether Lewis (if that’s what it was) as scandalous. Mental illness ending in a gunshot is tragic. Though usually scrupulous about giving a fair shake to Americans who went down in public opinion as terrible (specifically, Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp), Farquhar surprisingly does not mention the alternative theory that Lewis was murdered.

Though for the most part Farquhar is retelling tales that are already more than twice-told, he does a superior job of doing it again. His restatement of the Salem witch trials is as good a summary as any I have seen.

But when it comes to Tricky Dick Nixon, he throws up his hands in despair. Not a word about Helen Douglas or any of Nixon’s other victims. All he does is quote three dozen sentences from the tapes. It makes you wonder about the character of the people who worked for him.

Though he wrote in 2003, Farquhar gave himself a cutoff date of 1980, on the grounds that “history needs a little time to percolate, after all.”

Too bad, since he denied himself the pleasure of reviewing the Reagan scandals. Reagan was not the most disgusting man ever to be president (that was Andy Jackson, well reviewed in this book), but no other president comes near the rich variety of Genial Ronnie’s scandals: bleating endlessly about freedom but shirking when people were really standing up for it; “astrologically influenced First Ladies” (as Farquhar delicately puts it in the introduction where he explains why Reagan did not make the cut); Iran-Contra; the Bitburg speech; the “young bucks” campaign story endlessly retold; the pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Miss., not a city of brotherly love -- and those are not all.

I disagree with Farquhar; those bits of history are ripe now; they were ripe as they came out of Genial Ronnie’s mouth.


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