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Bachmann and “Burr”

Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann is generally viewed by liberals as yet another not-ready-for-primetime Republican Tea Partier. The front-page New York Times feature about her today, however, treats her possible presidential candidacy with great seriousness, especially since she seems to have a leg up in the crucial Iowa caucuses.

Bachmann, who has been beating the bushes in the Hawkeye State recently, is a native Iowan and thus can claim native daughter status as well as being from a neighboring state. And though, as the Times notes, she is not liked or respected by the GOP Congressional leadership, she has been impressing voters on the hustings. Admittedly, the standard by which she is being judged is not a high one. Most of the praise for Bachmann seems to be that she is more substantial than Sarah Palin.

One part of her stump speech, as the Times reports, has the leftist blogosphere worked up.

Bachmann likes to tell audiences that she was once a loyal Democrat who worked for Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976. But unlike other conservatives who saw the light after reading William F. Buckley or even Ayn Rand, for Bachmann it was novelist and onetime liberal cultural icon Gore Vidal. According to the congresswoman, her epiphany came when reading Vidal’s 1973 bestseller Burr, a historical novel in which the founders’ story is turned upside down. The treacherous Burr is Vidal’s hero, while Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton are depicted as wicked bunglers and fakes. Her reading of this book was the moment when she realized that liberals hate America, Bachmann says, and that it was time to cross the aisle.

The conversion narrative may be a little unusual, but it does tell the familiar story of a liberal who has been mugged by reality—Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative. Predictably, though, Bachmann’s Vidal-bashing has provoked much laughter on the part of leftist wits at Alternet and Talking Points Memo, who have praised Burr for its sophisticated view of American history and abused Bachmann for her Parson Weems approach to our past.

It’s been decades since I myself read the book. I remember finding it entertaining but hopelessly cynical. Those who would like a sharper view of the novel could do no better than Jane Larkin Crain’s review in the March 1974 issue of COMMENTARY. Crain acknowledged the book’s entertainment quotient, but observed that its “primary energy” derived from the author’s hatred for America. She concluded by expressing the hope that the great numbers of Americans who bought the novel would “never take Vidal’s lofty contempt for their country to heart.” Perhaps it is Bachmann, then, and not the leftist wiseacres who has the surer grasp of the book.

The historical Aaron Burr was, as a recent biographer noted, a truly modern political figure. His ruthless cynicism and willingness to switch positions to suit the whims of the electorate foreshadowed our contemporary political culture. Burr was an outlier among the generation of founding fathers, because unlike the giants with whom he fought, he found the purpose of public life in self-aggrandizement rather than in promoting enduring principles.

Bachmann’s personal narrative—in which she was transformed into a conservative by the liberal glorification of a low politician who deserves his villain status in American history—makes not only for good politics, but may reveal a finer mind for literature than the leftist wags who have put her down as yet another conservative dunce.


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