Memories of the Ford Administration
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First edition cover
|Cover artist||Chip Kidd|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardcover) and (audio-CD)|
|LC Class||PS3571.P4 M45 1992b|
Set in the early 1990s, it concerns a historian and teacher, Alfred Clayton, and his response to a national survey requesting "memories and impressions" of the administration of Gerald Ford. The novel is presented as Clayton's improbably long and incredibly personal response, submitted to his professional association, the Northern New England Association of American Historians (NNEAAH). (Clayton teaches at a junior college in New Hampshire.)
Clayton idealizes the Ford years and the sexual freedom they represented, and the novel cuts between his memories of the 1970s and scenes from his uncompleted biography of James Buchanan, which he was writing at the time. Although Buchanan's life and times are discussed in great detail, to the point where Clayton (and Updike) crosses over into the realm of imagined thoughts and dialogue, there is next to nothing said about Ford or his administration in the novel. Rather, the Ford-era part of Clayton's memories centers almost entirely on the professor's personal life, above all his romantic involvement with the wife of an English teacher on campus. Sexual encounters are described in loving detail, leaving the reader to think that Clayton must be off his rails to be enumerating such dalliances before members of the NNEAAH. And he is off his rails in another way, too, namely, in being unable to constrain himself in writing about Buchanan, someone generally thought to have been rather a dud as a person and a president. Yet Clayton believes that Buchanan was largely wrongly blamed for bringing about the American Civil War through his weak leadership, and the historian questions how correct the general perception of Buchanan's character as related by most historians actually is.
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The novel is a tour de force in the genre of mixed history and fiction, or rather in the writerly craft of stretching historical description to (and beyond) its accepted limits. No one seems to know more about Buchanan than Clayton/Updike, and this apparently is one reason why Clayton never could finish his Buchanan biography: he simply could not imagine his subject in any but the most intimate of terms. Writing a standard biography would have been too objectifying an act. He needs the prompt of "memories and impressions" concerning another president to get him going.
Clayton also notes the way that sexual mores had changed during his lifetime, recalling that while in the 1970s it was considered common for teachers at colleges to engage in sexual liaisons with their female students, by the 1990s this was deemed to be totally unacceptable and even criminal behavior. He vaguely laments the loss, although now back with his wife in the era of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and comes across as a chastened man.