Where did tea partyists get their fantastical ideas about our Founding Fathers? In an article published at Bloomberg.com earlier this month, Adam Kirsch, a senior editor at The New Republic, suggests that the source of the mythologizing of the Founders originated with those august gentlemen themselves — a fact that Kirsch says Gore Vidal illuminated in Burr, his 1973 novel about the United States’ third vice president:
Burr delights in subverting everything we think we know about how the country was built. With his characteristic patrician sarcasm, Vidal casually scraps the enduring notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that our politics, unlike those of the corrupt Old World, are founded on ideals of democratic equality and public virtue. If the Tea Party today looks back to the founders with reverence, Burr suggests, that is only because they did such a good job mythologizing themselves and mesmerizing posterity…
In the novel … we get an Aaron Burr created in the image of Gore Vidal himself — aristocratic, ironic, skeptical of all patriotic pieties and received truths. If he was unprincipled and ambitious, Vidal suggests, that did not make him any different from George Washington, who appears in the novel as the consummate political general, useless on the battlefield but skilled at dominating Congress, and Thomas Jefferson, who was quite unscrupulous about seizing territory for the young U.S.
Much of the work of cutting the legends down to size is done by simple mockery. In Vidal’s telling, Washington is broad- bottomed and dull-witted, while Jefferson’s famous inventions never work. The novel’s Burr ends up on the wrong side of history because he was too good a man to hold his own against such enemies — or, at least, too grandly unwilling to stoop to political intrigue.
The novel opens in the 1830s, in the last year of the Andrew Jackson administration, with Burr in his late 70s. Before he dies, he allows Charlie Schuyler, the novel’s inexperienced young narrator, to write down his memoirs … Schuyler himself, while naive, is no angel: He agrees to use his intimacy with Burr to try to confirm the rumor that Martin van Buren, the current vice president, is actually Burr’s illegitimate son. (Anyone who was appalled by the “birther” slanders against Obama can take at least this much consolation from Burr: The politics of personal destruction aren’t the invention of our own time.)
What makes Burr unique among major American political novels is not just its debunking of American legend as its sheer insouciance. “I sense nothing more” in the early republic, Vidal’s Burr says to Hamilton, “than the ordinary busy-ness of men wanting to make a place for themselves … it is no different here from what it is in London or what it was in Caesar’s Rome.”
Americans’ usual belief in their country’s uniqueness, and in the unique wisdom of its founders, becomes in Vidal’s hands a fairy tale that no grown-up could possibly credit in the first place. What is left to admire is the sheer audacity and energy of the founders, their 18th-century scale and scope. They may have been scoundrels, Vidal suggests, but the country doesn’t even make scoundrels like that anymore.
Kirsch does not mention it here but at least one tea party leader has said that she was a liberal who was driven to right-wing extremism upon reading Burr in her youth. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the tea party caucus in the House, has told her conversion tale many times. It goes like this:
BACHMANN: I had been a Democrat and I’d actually worked on Jimmy Carter’s campaign and I was reading a novel by Gore Vidal and when I was reading it he was mocking the Founding Fathers and all of the sudden it just occurred to me, I set the book down on my lap, I looked out the window of a train I was riding in and I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’m a Democrat. I think I really am a Republican.” The Founding Fathers were not the characters that I saw Gore Vidal portraying in his novel and that snotty, mocking attitude to me didn’t in any way reflect who we are as a nation.
Vidal himself resisted multiple requests — including several from the editor of his own official website — to comment on his role in Bachmann’s conversion. His only public statement on the matter was given to Justin Elliot at Salon.com. When Elliot asked him why he chose not to respond, Vidal said, “She is too stupid to deserve an answer.”
- Aug. 29, 2012