Decades ago, I reviewed the first volume of Henry Kissinger's memoirs by classifying The White House Years as the finest political novel of our time. I was wrong. Kissinger is not only upstaged by Thomas Mallon's series of novels about recent Republican presidents; he is accorded a risible bit part in two of them. Mallon's trilogy chronicles the administrations of Richard Nixon (in Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Finale) and George W. Bush (Landfall). His books are beautifully crafted but also deliciously crafty, purporting to give us the inner voices of the leading figures - voices of conscience, but not only that. Mallon looks behind and beyond the historical evidence to imbue his characters with plausible life and palpable breath. In an inspired touch, Mallon nominates relatively obscure figures (Fred LaRue, Alice Longworth and Bob Dole) to observe and commentate, much like a Greek chorus or a Fool in Shakespeare. Nothing of the kind has ever been published in Australia, and hardly anything comparable anywhere else outside the United States. (I make an exception for Eric Vuillard's The Order of the Day.) Mallon thinks deeply, and fairly, about his nation's leaders, then unravels and decodes them for us. Apart from Howard Hunt (a prolific writer himself, tainted by Watergate) and Laura Bush (a person of substance, as well as a keen reader of Mallon's novels), Mallon knew few members of his cast. He provides no insider scoops or gossip. Mallon is the anti-Bob Woodward, concerned to discern and deduce character rather than to amass leaks. Mallon contends that his works "have operated along the always sliding scale of historical fiction", but stories told his way - just as much as scandals, rumours and the settling of scores, let alone tendentiously self-serving memoirs - can illuminate what has happened. Mallon operates on a canvass broader and larger than Canberra's. In his Washington, ambitions and self-esteem are even more swollen, the stakes higher, the personalities more brash and bold. Those, however, are not critical differences. Replicating Mallon's technique here would be impossible because of the constraints of our libel laws. Mallon advised me that none of his living subjects had reacted in a hostile way to their depiction in the novels. He argued that those principals operate at such a "mega" level of fame, and have endured so much of the rough-and-tumble of politics, that books like his "are barely worth their notice". Another important consideration is that Mallon's portraits of the powerful are so consistently rounded, fair and knowing as to make us think again about the complexity and ambiguity embedded in those leaders. The first amendment, Americans' constitutional protection of free speech, is a wondrous sword and shield for a writer. Not too many of the putative subjects here would ignore a slight or forego a suit. Take Landfall, which includes a sex scene for the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in addition to a secret plot by the president (Bush) to start a war with North Korea. Which Australian writer would dare try tricks like those? Art might imitate life, but it can also stretch, tease, invert and jumble events of record. Australia's libel laws, though, make cowards of us all. We can mock and jeer at politicians (remember The Gillies Report), turn their antics into song and dance (Keating: The Musical), diminish and even deride them in cartoons (Bruce Petty's still the best), or closely analyse their backgrounds and beliefs (David Marr's longer-form work especially). Fair dealing and the public interest certainly take us that far. To go farther, in Mallon's direction, would entail opening up our leaders, imagining their thoughts and feelings, recreating what they might or should have said. More wit, with the double connotations of that noun, would be required. For his part, Mallon seems bluffed only by "the essential unknowability" of Reagan, "the real spookiness to this genial, aw-shucks figure". In the US itself, Mallon's novels have few peers or predecessors. Mallon noted that Gore Vidal's series on the moral decline of the republic gave historical fiction "some literary heft". That sequence is "the closest model" for Mallon's trilogy. Nonetheless, only two episodes in Vidal's take on America possess undisputed literary merit. (They would be Burr and Lincoln.) The others are too often polemical and, a less forgivable sin, ponderous. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men may be higher art but ends up as a cardboard morality play. By contrast, Mallon makes the reader think and care as he does. However diverting Condoleezza Rice's interlewd might be, a reader is likely to remember more the chronic disappointment Mallon conveys through his Bush about her perceived risk aversion, dependence and lack of initiatives. Mallon is depicting politicians taking politics seriously: Nixon trying to decipher how Watergate was sucking him down; Reagan fumbling towards possible abolition of nuclear weapons; Bush looking for some kind of durable solution in Iraq. What if none of those presidents (as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama with them) possessed the full repertoire of skills necessary to do their job? What if all that Vidal stuff, about hubris and nemesis tainting and stalking the republic, turned out to be true? "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman wakes but in vain." The point to such scepticism is that Donald Trump is President. For Mallon, "Trump is an utterly loathsome figure who has broken my political heart". All the subtle, sophisticated shading of character that Mallon invests in his three other presidents would be wasted on Trump. The intrinsic superficiality in Trump comprises an insult to Mallon's technique, to his professionalism, as well as to his principles. His trilogy therefore constitutes a reminder of what the republic has placed at risk.