The Franklin Affair: A Novel

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9781400061983: The Franklin Affair: A Novel

“Three may keep a secret if two of ’em are dead.”
–Poor Richard’s Almanack[pg. 27 of mss]

R Taylor arrives in Philadelphia for the funeral of his longtime friend Dr. Wally Rush with a heavy heart. Not only has the world lost one of its preeminent, Pulitzer Prize—winning American Revolution historians, but R has lost his mentor, the man who led him to devote his life’s work to the study of “The First American,” Benjamin Franklin. The bond between them was sealed when R did Wally a favor that could never be revealed. But Wally saved one final secret for R, disclosed in a letter conveyed by the will’s executor.

Written in the slow, painful script of the professor’s last days, the note delivers an incredible bombshell. Wally, it seems, had stumbled upon twelve handwritten pages in a code commonly used by spies during the revolutionary war. The pages refer to George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, and level a shocking charge–that Benjamin Franklin committed a heinous crime.

Wally, not wanting to foul the image of his lifelong hero, had kept this monumental secret until his death. But as R races to unravel the mystery, he faces an onslaught of obstacles. Vicious blackmail, a threat of sabotage against his own career, and grave personal doubts threaten to overtake R as he struggles with a discovery that has the potential to completely alter the fabric of American history.

Rich with revelations, rife with the darkest depths of deceit and mystery, and enlightened by the unparalleled insights of America’s first patriots, The Franklin Affair is a tense, constantly surprising novel about the ultimate quest for truth and justice.

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About the Author:

This is JIM LEHRER’s fifteenth novel. He is also the author of two memoirs and three plays and is the executive editor and anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his novelist wife, Kate. They have three daughters.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

Rebecca Kendall Lee, on the attack, made an obvious point of staring at Reginald Raymond Taylor.

“Less than five percent of the aphorisms in the almanacs of your own great Ben Franklin were original,” she said. “The rest were filched—plagiarized—in meaning if not words, isn’t that right, R?”

“R” had long ago become Taylor’s preferred way to be addressed because he detested both of his given names.

More important at this moment, he detested Rebecca.

She stood at her place at a table in a room at the Cosmos Club, a private club in Washington, for this early morning confrontation with R and three other historians of the American Revolution. They were looking into formal accusations against her that had arisen from the recent rumble of newspaper reports on alleged plagiarism and other crimes of creation by some popular writers of American history.

R succcessfully fought off any automatic reaction to her almanac claim. He didn’t smile or frown, shift his head, or move an eye, an eyebrow, or any other part of his body. He also didn’t repeat the fact, definitely known to Rebecca, that Franklin openly admitted to taking most of what appeared in the almanacs from other sources. He just assembled and printed.

Rebecca raised her gaze from R to the others and declared, “So who really knows who takes what from whom? Let any of you or—to borrow a bit from Tennessee Williams’s Cat—any reporters of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, or any other damned Times who has not snatched an idea, a thought, or a form of words cast the first stone.”

Her defiance was reinforced naturally by her physical presence. Rebecca, who was in her late thirties, was at least five feet ten inches tall and large-boned—almost husky—and wore her long black hair hanging down her back like an Indian warrior in a 1950s movie, a look that had also helped make her a forceful television personality. She was a former colleague of R’s who had, in fact, begun her career with a small book on the hundreds of sayings in Ben’s many editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack. She moved on to be a Ronald Reagan historian and conservative TV political commentator.

R had hoped that Rebecca had demanded to appear before this special committee of the American Revolution Historical Association as a prelude to her accepting some kind of quiet sanction. He should have known better.

When no one responded to her, she added, “I hereby challenge each and every one of you who dares sit in judgment of me to rise now before the God of Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard, or any other person or event of American revolutionary history and swear you have not also similarly sinned.”

R did not rise and swear to anything. Neither did the other three. Only once had they stood, and that was to begin the meeting with a quick toast—sherry, tea, and coffee were available on the table—to the memory of Wallace Stephen Rush, who had died the night before in Philadelphia. Wally Rush was one of America’s leading Franklin scholars, as well as R’s great friend and mentor.

“If you are waiting for our tearful confessions, Dr. Lee, I suspect you wait in vain,” said John Gwinnett, the chairman, breaking the silence of the committee. “This is not a television program, so I suggest you be seated, so we can go about this unpleasant business in an orderly and efficient manner—and so our colleague, Dr. Taylor, can be on his way to Philadelphia.”

Gwinnett was a distinguished professor of history at William and Mary who specialized in Patrick Henry. He was in his mid-seventies, and with his flowing white hair, half-glasses down on his nose, and pure Virginia-gentry accent he was a perfect portrait of an American Revolution historian. His chop at Rebecca about television was consistent with his remarks during a panel discussion at last year’s ARHA annual convention in Boston. He said that serious historians speaking on television about subjects beyond their specialties was “a cheapening, demeaning, indefensible selling of one’s professional credentials that was comparable to whoring.” But another panelist, a young author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the Boston Tea Party who appeared often on television, had responded, “I thinketh the distinguished professor overstates from a position of neglect—and, dare I suggest, jealousy? Maybe if he studied a historical subject that provided insights into the present-day world or was prepared to relate stories of drama or interest, maybe an MSNBC, Fox, or CNN booker would beckon him to appear also. TV Booker Envy is a terrible thing to see in a colleague so distinguished—and so senior.”

Rebecca ignored Gwinnett’s TV comment now. There were clearly more important matters on the table. “I am interested in neither order nor efficiency—not even for R’s and Wally’s sakes,” she said to Gwinnett. “My only interest is in justice.”

She moved her dark-brown eyes slowly from Gwinnett to each of the other faces at the table. But then she did sit down.

The faces besides Gwinnett’s and R’s belonged to Sonya Lyman and Joseph Arthur Hooper. Sonya was a prominent Adams Family Dynasty scholar at Harvard who was a Rebecca opposite in most matters except gender, race, profession, and age. They were both active in a group of women historians, but that was it for compatibility. Sonya was small, unobtrusive, and unassuming. Her hair was beige, straight, and short. Her politics were left, academic, quiet.

Joe Hooper was a fifty-five-year-old light-skinned black man with a beard who taught economic history at Brown and had written extensively on the Founding Fathers’ attitudes toward slavery. His best-known book, The Founding Racists, was mostly an excoriation of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison for their ownership of slaves, but it also contained a grudging tribute to Franklin, whom Hooper labeled “our first abolitionist” for his antislavery leadership after the Revolution.

“We are here today, Dr. Lee, because you asked for a meeting,” said Gwinnett. “We have only begun to assemble the material that will help us resolve the professional and ethical questions that have been raised about your work—most particularly in Ronald Reagan: The Last Founding Father, your 457-page survey of Ronald Reagan’s miracles and achievements, done in an eighteenth- century context—”

Rebecca interrupted, her eyes shining. “Book. It’s a book. I wrote a book, not a survey. Surveys are taken by telemarketers who ask questions over the phone about shampoo preferences and magazine subscriptions. I spent eighteen months of hard work and thought on that book.”

Eighteen months! thought R. And she thinks that constitutes hard work and thought? She knows full well that Wally Rush spent most of his adult life getting into the head and being of Benjamin Franklin. Until recently, R himself had worked on little else in his career apart from Ben, as had many others.

“I stand corrected,” said Gwinnett, who, R knew, had labored for at least thirty-five years on Patrick Henry. “It’s a book that appeared under your name.”

“I wrote it!” Rebecca said. Her voice rose in intensity and volume to match the loathing in those two brown eyes.

“That, of course, is one of the issues now before us,” said Gwinnett. Clearly, if Rebecca thought she was going to roll John Gwinnett, she thought wrong. However, R felt the old professor was being unnecessarily provocative. There was no need to insult her so directly and so snidely.

Rebecca raised her two hands over her head in surrender.

She looked at R. “So, it’s welcome to the railroading—I could say lynching—of Rebecca Kendall Lee, is that it, R?”

R loathed it when people referred to themselves in the third person, but he put a friendly smile on his face and said, “Innocent until proven guilty lies at the heart of the system created by our beloved Founding Fathers, Rebecca. That concept will guide this committee, I guarantee it.”

“Me too,” said Joe Hooper. “I didn’t volunteer and I agreed reluctantly when chosen to perform this duty, Dr. Lee, but I can assure you that I will look at the evidence and arrive at a decision in a fair and unbiased manner. There will be no lynching. They are over—for historians as well as for black people.”

R didn’t know Joe Hooper very well personally and had not seen him in action before. He was clearly solid—and smart. R had wrongly assumed that Hooper was on this committee solely because the ARHA leadership saw a need for diversity—for a non-Caucasian face. That, of course, would run counter to the association’s claim that all four had been selected at random from a bowl that contained the names of the entire membership of seventeen-hundred-plus professional historians.

Now only John Gwinnett and Sonya Lyman were left to declare themselves as fair-minded decent human beings who would not be party to a railroading or lynching of Rebecca Kendall Lee.

It was obvious in a heartbeat that John was going to take a pass on any such declaration. He was clearly not about to make some kind of defensive statement about his ability to run a professional inquiry. His integrity went without saying.

R had to suppress a whoop at the sight of Rebecca and Sonya doing a ten-count dance of glances and stares. Finally, Rebecca aimed her brown lasers right at Sonya’s face, which was turned downward at the table at some doodling she was doing on a notepad. R was unable to see what Sonya was drawing, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if it was a stick fi...

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