Reason #379,000 Why Michele Bachmann Is An Idiot

Her hatred of the Gore Vidal novel Burr reveals the Tea Party as a deeply anti-constitutional movement.

Okay, we’ve all known for a while now that Michele Bachmann has no place anywhere outside of a sanitarium, much less the House of Representatives.  So it comes as no surprise that she recently said she became a Republican because of a “‘snotty” Gore Vidal novel.  But it’s worse than that.

First, the book in question is Burr, which in point of fact is a truly excellent novel — maybe the best historical novel I’ve ever read.  When I was in graduate school, the professor assigned Burr as reading in his class on the early national period: he cautioned us that it is, well, a novel, but it really reflects the political culture and issues of the period. (This was before the appearance of, say, Elkins’ and McKitrick’s The Age of Federalism, Ellis’ Founding Brothers, or Freeman’s Affairs of Honor, all of which I highly recommend.). If you are going to determine your political allegiance based upon a bad book, I’d suggest, oh, any of these.  Bachmann’s statement seems to me similar to saying, “I decided that I hated literature after reading Moby Dick and To the Lighthouse.

But it’s worse than that.  Burr is a superb novel because it brilliantly makes it clear that the Framers were, above all, politicians — incredibly smart, far-reaching, and patriotic politicians, but politicians nonetheless.  They weren’t gods.  They were upright, principled, intelligent, committed — and vain, venal, deceitful, and power-hungry.  And the Constitution did not come directly from God, but rather from a series of carefully crafted — and often sloppily thrown-together — political compromises. which referred directly to the issues of the day with little reference to ours.  Put another way, it provides context for understanding the republican experiment.  That’s why it is such a richly rewarding read.

Little wonder, then, that Tea Partiers like Bachmann hate it so much.  They desperately want a group of heroes who always provide simple, clear answers for complicated problems that just so happen to align perfectly with their own preferences.  Burr makes it clear that that never was what the Constitution was about.  Bachmann says that Burr “mocked the Founding Fathers”.  It doesn’t do anything of the kind: it just explains that they were real people.

So it’s not just the case that Bachmann hates Burr. She hates the Constitution, too.  Back to the sanitarium with her.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

23 thoughts on “Reason #379,000 Why Michele Bachmann Is An Idiot”

  1. Has anyone read Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier? I would value the opinion any RBC reader has of this book; it is very recently published. Thanks in advance.

  2. I must confess to not hating Burr; Might have something to do with not having read it.

    OTOH, might have something to do with not thinking the founding fathers were demigods, too. It's not so much that I think the Constitution is some miraculous document, as that I think it's the constitution we actually have. And that we have only two choices which are consistent with the rule of law: Following it, or changing it.

    Lying about what it says isn't a very good option, as it requires we be ruled by liars.

  3. Bless 'em, some are my friends, but a lot of the Tea Party types take a fundamentalist approach to the Constitution quite like that stereotypically attributed to religious fundamentalists. All questioning of the word and its prophets is not just a mistake but heresy.

    It's too bad because, indeed, the real Founders are more interesting than the statues. I read "Burr" in college and can't honestly say I remember it well, but "Founding Faith" is also excellent in a similar (and non-fiction) vein.

  4. "Negro President" by Garry Wills is about certain aspects of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the Tea Party's favorite president–you know, "That government is best which governs least" (OK, maybe that was Thomas Paine), and that stuff about refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants. You have seen the T-shirts and posters amid the Gadsden flags. But Wills discusses at length how Jefferson went about enforcing the Embargo Act, how he used the Army to enforce laws against civilians engaging in trade, and how he practically accused Thomas Pickering of treason for simply, and rationally, opposing the embargo. As Wills dryly notes, "The man who thought that expressing opposition to government was not seditious when Adams was president had certainly changed his tune."

    The Tea Party cannot be bothered to read such books, because they learned in school that the founding fathers were the greatest men of all time, and could do no wrong. The Embargo Act (not to be confused with the later one we all remember from high school, the Non-Intercourse Act) went so far beyond anything that recent administrations have done in the way of getting on the backs of its citizens, that the comparison would ruin their little world view.

  5. None of Vidal's American history novels can touch his Julian. They all seem to me tinged with deep regret that America happened, and that the Vidals and their fellow plantation-owners are no longer in charge.

  6. That's not my reading of Burr, Mark; the most despicable character in that novel is clearly Jefferson, whom Vidal accurately sees as an extraordinary hypocrite, loudly proclaiming liberty as he does his utmost to preserve, protect, and defend the slave power.

  7. I enjoyed Vidal's "Lincoln" … again not for its portrait of Lincoln, which is good but not accurate. However, it provides a brilliant portrait of Civil War Washington.

    This has decided me to read "Burr", if I can get a copy.

  8. You know, I don't particularly think that the founding fathers were demigods, or anything like that. And it's fairly easy to identify, in retrospect, problems with the constitution they left us. (Heck, they themselves identified some of them, prospectively.) In fact, if you come down to it, I think the anti-federalists proved to be more prescient than the dudes who won that fight.

    My position is more along these lines: It's not a perfect constitution, but it's the constitution we happen to actually have. It should absolutely be revised where it has problems, and I'm happy to debate proposed revisions. But until it's revised, it should be honestly enforced. Because dishonest 'interpretation' doesn't give us an alternative constitution.

    It deprives us of a constitution.

    But it does give us government by people willing to lie about the highest law of the land, which is what we've got now.

    Now, what part of that position requires deifying the founding fathers?

  9. I am a great fan of the constitution, but I often remember my constitutional law professor explaining some sloppy language: "It was summer, it was Philadelphia and it was hot."

  10. If she’d read Vidal’s “Washington D.C.” she would have sworn off politics…

    Let's all mail her a copy!

  11. Now see here, Bellmore. Over the years, it's become quite clear that you and I have very different understandings of what the words of the Constitution mean. I've no doubt that you actually believe the interpretation to which you hold. Guess what: I believe my interpretation as well. What's more, I strongly suspect that the people you call liars believe in their interpretations as well. Why? Well, my interpretation is basically the same (on most points other than executive power), and, consequently, I can't accept your starting point, which is apparently that no one could possibly believe in good faith that the words might mean what we say we think they mean.

    Call us fools if you want, but I strongly suspect that you have no basis whatsoever to call us, them, liars.

    If I haven't recommended it before, I think you would really enjoy the bio of Luther Martin that came out a few years back. A special highlight is the summary of his (losing) argument in M'Culloch v Maryland, wherein he confronts Marshall with the representations made in the ratification debates. My poor paraphrase: 'back when ratification was being discussed, I said I thought the thing might be interpreted in this expansive way, and you people told me I was nuts, and now here we are with that very interpretation being urged, and you people are telling me I'm nuts for not seeing that this is what it obviously means.'

  12. Charlie:

    I did not particlarly expect you to agree with me. Yes, I think the current interpretations of the commerce clause and N&P clause, to name but two, are not merely wrong, but dishonest. Not dishonest in the, "I know this is wrong, even as I assert it." sense, but dishonest in the sense of intellectual dishonesty, that they represent an interpretation nobody would arrive at were they approaching the document in a disinterested fashion. They are, to put it politely, the result of motivated reasoning. And of a degree which requires a fair amount of selectivity to maintain a judiciary willing to engage in it.

    But that's not the point I was making, which was merely that my position doesn't involve deifying the founders. In some respects they were better than most current politicians, in some respects, far worse, and their work product varied from fairly inspired in some respects, to fatally flawed in others.

    But, as I say, it's the constitution we have, be it ever so flawed.

  13. Brett,

    Some of us think that you aren't any more capable of a disinterested reading of the Constitution than anyone else, and so don't take your bleats very seriously.

  14. Brett,

    This seems the clearest, most accurate and succinct expression of your views I've seen here in a while. J. Michael Neal's response gets a +1 from me. Take the two together and you've captured the underlying truth underneath all the back and forth I've seen with you here.

    Might we now consider your viewpoint as stipulated, understood, and disagreed with so we can stop covering the exact same ground over and over again?

  15. Sure. Though we might, for yucks, try to find a disinterested person to read the Constitution… Maybe a citizen of some other country, who had no stake in the matter.

  16. Meanwhile, can we fix the headline on the OP so that it no longer claims that she is an idiot BECAUSE she doesn't like Gore Vidal; I don't think hating Gore Vidal _makes_ one an idiot, it just confirms the presence of a pre-existing condition.

    Better: "Michele Bachmann is an Idiot, Exhibit 379,000."

  17. "Bachmann has also attributed becoming a Republican to “1876,” another novel by Gore Vidal.

    Okay, okay, okay. You caught her, TPM. The truth of the matter is…

    Gore Vidal turned Michele Bachmann homosexual and *that* is what made her a Republican.

    Ms. Bachmann, you're on. Alright, cue tears. Cut to mea culpa. Pan to resolute proclamation to become straight through an arduous three week process. Bring on the subject changing rant about a historical novel and determined vow to chase out the un-Americans from Congress. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd… scene.

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