This is a splendidly obtuse look into one of the pivotal periods of American history, when the US was becoming the Empire of the title, in effect attempting to take over the role of the fading British Empire and essentially ending its policy of isolationism. I say obtuse because the formal political action takes place for the most part off-stage. Instead, we are treated to an hilarious novel of the manners of the ruling class, as defined by wealth and pedigree. The protagonists discuss the great decisions being made - which led directly to American involvement in the World Wars and later Vietnam - almost inadvertently, as when they are cutting a wedding cake, and purely in reference to their own careers and selfish aspirations.
The main characters are extremely good. There is McKinley (a political master about whom I knew virtually nothing and hence learned a good deal), Teddy Roosevelt (a buffoon in Vidal's hands who is also a political juggernaut), WR Hearst (a devourer of anything he desires and self-appointed "creator" of history), and John Hay (Lincoln's secretary, TR's secretary of state, and an imperialist). There are also the fictional Sanford half-brother and -sister, who appear in his other American novels, who are very funny as they struggle ruthlessly against eachother for the family fortune as well as for the same man. The peccadilloes of finely drawn characters were the stuff that made empires fall and created war, in particular in the Philippines. There are also the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, and many other giants from the Gilded Age. Finally, Henry James has two brief appearances and goes into long monologues that read exactly like his stuffy prose.
In addition to the theme of the rise of the modern media with Hearst's active creation of news - perhaps literally provoking the war with Spain by manufacturing a crisis to sell newspapers - the reader is treated to the technological changes that are going on as a backdrop (electricity and horseless carriages). It is marvelously evocative, particularly as it occurred at the beginning of the last century and inspired a sense of wonder, which is the greatest achievement an historical novel can aspire to.
Because he grew up in this milieu (his Grandfather, as one of the first appointed Senators from the new state of Oklahoma, makes a sly cameo appearance) Vidal is most convincing as he dissects the casual vanity of people in power: they are just going into the family business of politics, to which they feel entitled, and are apparently not filled with the ideals that we were taught in school, or so Vidal would have us believe. As a subtle and wholly jaundiced take on America, his is a truly original comic voice and the prose is as luminous as ever. While I disagreed with a lot of it, I laughed at least once on every page and I felt like learning more about most of the characters. That to me is another sign of the novel's success. Nonetheless, now that I have read almost all of the series, I am beginning to tire of Vidal's cynicism. There is something so relentless, even facile, about it that it makes me wonder if Vidal is playing with the reader or if the deficiency of vision is in fact his and not the subjects' he chooses to accuse of hypocrisy and demagogy.