My father, as he lay dying, was astounded when I told him that I was writing a memoir, with its claims on the tradition of a Bildungsroman, and perhaps he was right to be skeptical. What is ordinarily wanted from someone like me are observations about consequential people, and certainly I have my impressions of famous men and women, and how it was to be quite near them for a time. I will get to that. But there are other matters that need explanation, wounds that still require stitches.
I'm in my study on a bright day in October at the end of the century. On my shelves are the mementos that one collects (photographs, prizes); I'm surrounded by books, most of them history and biography (the important David McCullough), along with a smattering of excellent fiction. I began to jot down my recollections after a conversation with George Bush the elder, at a cocktail party in the home of a wise Cabinet officer, one of those happy occasions when everything is "off the record," when we're Americans first and antagonists second.
"I've always thought that you tried to be fair, Brandon," Bush said, chuckling gamely. "Not that you weren't tough, but you always put your country first."
I nodded with gratitude and, as a white-jacketed black man passed us with a pewter tray, reached for a spinach quiche the size of a half-dollar. The former President looked lank and fit. As we spoke, I sensed that others close by were trying to overhear, perhaps in the hope of learning yet another detail about matters of which I've never spoken publicly. I disappointed them.
"You've had an interesting life," Bush continued. "I was talking about this only the other day with Bar, and we were saying that Brandon Sladder must know everyone who matters. We never missed your column. Of course, you guys in the media get the last word."
Now it was my turn to chuckle, for it is a commonly held view that we have that advantage.
"I've been lucky, Mr. President," I said, and saw that he was pleased at the honorific. Over the years, I've discovered that people enjoy hearing their titles: Mr. Ambassador, Senator, what-have-you.
"It's more than that," said Bush, and he gave me a warm look. "You've been there, Brandon. You were there when I met Mr. Gorbachev, but you were there when Kennedy sat in my favorite chair."
I knew Jack Kennedy, of course, and supposed that I had a story or two to tell about him. But I knew Jack only slightly; he belonged to another era -- to men like Joe Alsop and Scotty Reston. I quickly corrected the former President on that score.
"You still ought to write it down, Brandon," Bush continued and he patted me softly on my right shoulder, letting his fingers linger there for an extra, affectionate second. "Don't hold back," he added.
A few minutes later, I spoke to our host. We'd known each other for years, and he looked at me with enormous sympathy as he told me about an important policy change toward another of those hostile little nations that remind one of poisonous insects. By this time, though, my thoughts were elsewhere -- on my next column, of course (I permitted myself a quick, private tour d'horizon), and what I'd say on my television appearance that very evening. As I drove to the studio, I found myself haunted by the former President's suggestion that I could add considerably more than a footnote to a chronicle of our time.
Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Frank
The Columnist is Sladder's attempt to burnish his image for posterity. What emerges is something else: the misadventures of an irresistibly loathsome man -- self-important, social climbing, dangerously oblivious. He seems to be remarkably destructive to those who know him best -- employers, rivals, lovers, and family. In Brandon Sladder, Jeffrey Frank has created one of the most memorable rogues in contemporary fiction.
By turns hilarious and dismaying, The Columnist is a dead-on, elegantly written portrait of the media and politics of the second half of the twentieth century.