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Fiction as historical journalism. Safire's `you are there' account of Civil War events

Freedom, by William Safire. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. 1,125 pp. $24.95 LEAVE it to the irrepressible William Safire, regarded by many as the best political columnist in America, to invent a new kind of historical fiction - or at least raise it to an art form.

Call it historical journalism.

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Reading this enthralling novel is like reading a daily newspaper over the first 20 months of the Civil War. If that plain-vanilla description doesn't invite comparison with ``War and Peace'' or even ``Gone With the Wind,'' it is only because ``Freedom'' occupies a sui generis niche in the genre. The book is a triumph of historical imagination.

Understand, the one-man newspaper that is Bill Safire is no commonplace rag. It has a competent staff of battlefield correspondents (though there's no Ernie Pyle among them) who file graphic copy from the bloody fields and orchards of Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. It has a crackerjack Washington bureau: There's not a crevice, let alone corridor, of power from which its reporters are successfully barred. Its writers' grasp of history and political philosophy rival Lippmann's - they go far beyond who, what, where journalism.

Safire recreates, in stunning detail and nuance, the period between the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 and President Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. The halting, agonizing, but ultimately inexorable chain of events that culminated in that momentous act - which changed the focus of the war and the course of American history - is the spine that holds the story together.

The point of historical scholarship is to penetrate, from the high ground of research and perspective, the smoke, confusion, and terrain irregularities that obscured contemporaneous views of past events - in short, to find historical ``truth.''

One of the purposes of historical fiction (at least, of the nonromantic sort) is almost the opposite. It is to restore that ancient smoke, to smudge and fudge and disjoint, to reinter the hidden nuggets that historians have mined so laboriously. Great historical fiction also seeks to reveal ``truth'' - the truth as it was known by those who lived the events.

If historical scholarship is essential to our understanding of the past, it also, however unwittingly, lays a deadening hand on the past. Its tidying removes from the past the messy, lived-in feel of one's own life and time. It bestows an aura of inevitability on the problematic and lends itself to bottom-line tallying of what were, at the time, running accounts.

Safire's historical journalism breathes life into the period by resurrecting its uncertainties and equivocations, its blind curves and restricted horizons. It's a novel, and yet it isn't: There's not a fictional character in it, other than a few orderlies, messengers, and other walking props. The persona are Lincoln and a vast array of the generals, politicians, and other wielders of influence in both the North and South who bore America's greatest crisis. In addition to the familiar names - Seward, Stanton, Chase, McClelland - of the people who battled for control of Lincoln's heart and mind, there are deftly drawn portraits of central figures who will be unfamiliar to many readers, including 'eminence grise Francis Preston Blair, pamphleteer and strategist Anna Ella Carroll, Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow, and John C. Breckinridge, the former vice-president under Buchanan who became a US senator and a Confederate general.

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(As if to emphasize that he is not engaged in traditional fictionmaking, Safire includes a 130-page ``Underbook,'' where he documents in the historical record every significant event in his ``novel.'')

Safire uses the trained eye of a Washington insider to show us the characters' tentative political and military gropings based on limited information and sketchy precedents. In scenes that ring with the backward echo of modern Washington, we see the participants' visions, ambitions, infighting, and duplicity, their brilliant miscalculations and stupid wisdom, their moments of greatness and moments of pettiness. We feel the crushing burdens of their responsibilities - burdens made even heavier by the horrific battlefield casualties that left barely a household in America untouched by tragedy.

If there's anyone left who still thinks that Abe Lincoln woke one morning and, in a bolt of righteousness, freed the slaves, he or she should read ``Freedom.'' The tortuous trail that led to emancipation is illuminated bleeding footstep by bleeding footstep, evasion by half-measure. It's made clear that Lincoln abhorred slavery and resisted its spread, but that he also would have done anything to save the Union, including leaving intact the ``peculiar institution.'' The story is not about freeing the slaves, but about ending slavery: There's a difference, and recognizing that difference perhaps sheds light on America's stilltroubled race relations.

Yet when Lincoln - forced by events as much as by conviction - finally signs the proclamation, it is with a surge of relief and a clear conviction that his ``war measure'' would, by enlisting moral energy in the fight to preserve the Union, be all the more effective for being right.

So pivotal is the event, and so satisfying are the dramatic resolution and emotional release that accompany it, that it takes an act of will to recall that the carnage of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and the siege of Richmond lay ahead. If, as Lincoln tells himself when he signs the document, right makes might, that might remained to be exerted over a long national ordeal.

Our scribe tells this monumental and heartbreaking tale in a way one won't soon forget.

James Andrews edits politics for the national news desk of the Monitor

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