Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bachmann's Burr

Which of the Tea Party politicians is the most unhinged? The most unprincipled? The most dangerous?

Disconcerting as it is, this is a game you can play for hours. But perhaps the strongest candidate in all three categories is Michele Bachmann, the Congresswoman from Minnesota, whose grasp of reality calls to mind not so much her fellow tea-partier, Sarah Palin, but Charlie Sheen.

One hardly knows where to begin. There’s her cartoonish ignorance of basic science, her paranoid fantasies about monetary policy, her rank dishonesty about healthcare and predictably enough, the disgusting charge that her political opponents share the common cause of radical Islamic extremists. Is Bachmann is merely an embarrassment for the Republican Party or is she actually dangerous for the nation? That’s an argument to be had. But either way, she’s proof that in the United States, you can never dumb it down too much, and a train wreck never wants for media attention.

But one recent remark stood out for me. The reason Bachmann became a Republican is because she read a novel, Burr, by Gore Vidal:

“He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, ‘What a snot,’” she said. “I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican."

That’s some pretty deep political analysis.

I delighted in the remark because Burr is one of my favorite books. It’s exactly what good historical fiction should be. The novel takes revered historical figures, pulls them from their marble pedestals and, drawing on historical research, humanizes them. It tells their story with such verve so that we are spellbound even though we already know most of it.

I find it doubtful that Bachmann actually read the book. More likely, she named Burr because the author, Gore Vidal, is one of those gay elite commie bastards of the left. Now I can hardly blame someone for taking issue with Vidal’s political views. Indeed, some of his more recent anti-government conspiratorial rants have left even liberals scratching their heads, wondering aloud if the old gadfly hasn’t himself become unhinged. But his writing is first rate, most especially, his historical novels, Lincoln (1984) and Burr (1973).

It’s a bit puzzling that any calculating politician would attribute her political awakening to the reading of a novel, much less one she didn’t like. When liberal politicians talk about what made them liberals, they don’t say “Well, I read Atlas Shrugged or The Lord of the Rings and then realized I was a Democrat.” They talk about personal struggles and influential events like the civil rights movement. Similarly, conservative politicians tend to attribute their political origins to real life experiences and to inspirational examples like Ronald Reagan. To the extent, inspiration comes from books, one might expect those books to be written by the likes of Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley. But this quaint notion presumes that an individual’s political ideology is shaped by actual political ideas. Not as a reaction to snotty fiction writers.

But let’s give the representative from Minnesota the benefit of the doubt and assume she actually read the book. What about it offended her? What’s the connection between the novel and her own political identity? Well, according to Bachmann, the book mocks the Founding Fathers. (I have taken care to capitalize the term, lest I too be charged with mocking them). Of course the book does nothing of the kind. But it does present them as three dimensional human beings with the foibles that all humans possess. George Washington is vain and calculating. Alexander Hamilton is ruthlessly ambitious. Thomas Jefferson is charming but duplicitous. Is Bachmann aware that these characterizations come from none other than the Founding Fathers themselves? Gore Vidal is far more generous to these great men than they were to each other.

Needless to say, Bachmann misses the obvious. The defining feature of the book is the unique point of view - telling the story of the American Revolution and early years of the republic through the eyes of the Aaron Burr. The portrayals we see of Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson are the glimpses of men who were Aaron Burr’s political enemies. The great strength of the book is that because it is fiction, it does what only fiction can do - it breathes life into the past by offering a fascinating and unique perspective that cannot be found in history books or any surviving documents.

For Bachmann and her tea partiers, the hagiography of the Founding Fathers is holy writ. The irony is that when it comes to the historical and constitutional foundation of the United States, Bachmann is a staggering ignoramus.

In a speech she gave in January, Bachmann credited the Founding Fathers with abolishing slavery:

“we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

This is puzzling news to anyone who paid attention in high school social studies class.

Standing alone, this sort of deceptive half-truth coming from a politician would be unexceptional. What makes it noteworthy in the case of Bachmann is 1) the frequency with which nonsense and dishonesty pours forth from her mouth, and 2) the fact that she claims to revere the Founding Fathers and their vision of America, but doesn't know the most basic facts about American history (much less our Constitution).

Bachmann is now considering a Presidential run. Earlier this month, she addressed a crowd in New Hampshire and said:

“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."

Astonishing. Yes, there is a "Concord" in New Hampshire - it's the state capitol. But every elementary school kid learns that Lexington and Concord, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, are in Massachusetts. This was no mere speaking gaffe. This was a prepared speech and she repeated the error several times.

It sounds like fiction, but you couldn’t make this stuff up.


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