Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bachmann and Burr

I actually had another blog topic in mind, but I just read Gail Collins' op-ed on Michele Bachmann in today's New York Times, and I couldn't resist saying a few words, since--a rare occurrence in the pages of the Times, and the annals of political history--a historical novel figures in it prominently.

It seems that Michele Bachmann's turn to the right started when she was in college and she read Gore Vidal's historical novel, Burr--which centers on, as you might have guessed, our third Vice-President, Aaron Burr. “He was kind of mocking the founding fathers, and I just thought ‘what a snot,’ ”Collins quotes Bachmann as saying.

Okay, where to begin? Well, it's nice to know that a historical novel can wield such power, but Bachmann's got it all wrong. First of all, as Collins notes, Bachmann's view that one can say no ill of a founding father "strips the founding fathers of their raw, fallible humanity." (Not to mention that, as I said in an earlier blog post, there's nothing less appealing than a novel with an infallible protagonist.)

But beyond that, Burr himself wasn't even a founding father, at least not in the strict sense of the term. He didn't sign the Declaration of Independence, he wasn't present at the Constitutional Convention, and it's not clear that he subscribed to any particular ideology other than his own self-promotion. More of a founding opportunist, you might say.

That's not to say there was nothing to admire about Burr. For one thing, he had remarkably advanced views on the role of women (way more advanced than the views of most of the real founding fathers, who, as Collins points out, would have been shocked to find someone of Bachmann's gender with a seat in Congress). But basically--and as deftly portrayed in Vidal's wonderful novel--Burr was a lovable rogue, a charming and urbane scoundrel. Not exactly what Bachmann has in mind, presumably, when she utters the phrase "founding father."

And infallible? Even many Burr's contemporaries--actual founding fathers among them--held him in the utmost contempt. And with good reason. When, in the election of 1800, he tied for the Presidency with Thomas Jefferson--a result nobody wanted, since Burr was supposed to be running for VICE-President--he allowed the ballotting in the House of Representatives to go on through 35 rounds rather than do the gentlemanly thing and take himself out of the race. Later he was tried for treason for concocting a scheme to separate part of the United States and, apparently, set up his own empire (the details of this scheme were never clear). And let's not forget that in 1804 he fought a duel with a real founding father--Alexander Hamilton--and killed him. All in all, not exactly a model for our times.

What would Burr himself think of his part in Bachmann's conversion? I suspect he'd have a good laugh. I wish I could find it that funny myself.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent context here, Natalie. One of the great qualities of Burr is EXACTLY that he was willing to talk about the Founders' feet of clay. I'm just appalled that I missed this whole exchange -- my own take on Burr will be released by Simon & Schuster on October 4: "American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America."