After winning control of the House in 2010, Republicans opened the next session of Congress by reading the Constitution. They were drawing on the widespread conservative sense that the U.S. under President Barack Obama was drifting from the principles of its founding leaders and documents.
The Tea Party, named for the most famous anti-tax revolt in American history, was the clearest expression of this Revolutionary nostalgia, and for many voters this year, 2012 will be an election about returning to what they see as the values of 1787.
In “All the King’s Men,” however, Willie Stark learns to dismiss the idealized portraits of the Founding Fathers in American history textbooks: “I bet things were just like they are now. A lot of folks wrassling round,” he scoffs. That line could serve as the epigraph to one of the most entertaining novels ever written about American politics, Gore Vidal’s “Burr.” Vidal, who died July 31 at the age of 86, published what many regard as his best novel in 1973, when Vietnam and Watergate were dealing Americans’ confidence in their government a series of blows from which it has yet to recover.
“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.
The very choice of Aaron Burr as a subject — and, for much of the book, a narrator — makes a statement about Vidal’s view of American history. Burr was the third vice president, but he is best remembered as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on the bluffs of Weehawken, New Jersey. His reputation ruined, the usual story goes, Burr turned traitor, working on a far-fetched scheme to detach the new Western states from the union and unite them with Spanish Mexico, with himself as king. His plans thwarted by President Thomas Jefferson, Burr escaped conviction for treason but spent the next several decades in exile, before dying a forgotten man.
In the novel, on the other hand, 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. The sections of the novel set in the “present” allow Vidal to re- create the rude spectacle of New York City in the 1830s: a time like the 1970s, it turns out, full of ethnic riots, political corruption and sensational tabloid murders.
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.)
It is in the chapters that ventriloquize Burr’s memoirs, however, that Vidal is at his most cutting. Aaron Burr first achieved fame early in the Revolution, when he distinguished himself in the American siege of Quebec, under the headstrong general Benedict Arnold. As seen through Burr’s eyes, this campaign was a mere botch, a series of bad decisions by Arnold leading to a pointless loss of hundreds of American lives — a miniature Vietnam.
The same thing is true, on a grander scale, of the Revolutionary War as a whole. Historians credit George Washington with keeping his army intact in the face of overwhelming British superiority; to Vidal’s Burr, this matters less than his failure ever to win a pitched battle against the British. If Washington had been replaced by General Horatio Gates or General Charles Lee, he opines, the war might have been over years sooner.
After independence, Burr moves to New York and makes his fortune as a lawyer and politician. Politics in the early republic, Vidal suggests, were a simple matter of patronage and party infighting; Burr rises because of his skill at playing off factions against one another. The high point of his career came in the election of 1800, when he tied in the Electoral College with Thomas Jefferson. The election was sent to the House, where the majority of state delegations chose Jefferson the victor. From then on, Vidal suggests, Jefferson was determined to crush Burr. Indeed, Vidal’s Jefferson reminds the reader of no one so much as Richard Nixon: Both are vindictive and paranoid, willing to run roughshod over the Constitution to get at their enemies.
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.