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NC Legislature Earns ‘Commendation’ for Self-Hating Political Mendacity

The term Jim Crow is rightly loaded down with racial connotations, but it’s important to recognize that, at its core, Jim Crow was a political system. Yes, a central byproduct was a social system that consigned black folk to second/third class citizenship. But this social construct was enabled and perpetuated by overarching political power. At its elemental core, Jim Crow was a system of voter suppression and nullification that allowed a political minority of white southerners to wield unchecked political power and maintain a culture of white supremacy in their respective states — not merely election to election but for a period of some 100 years.

With this in mind and the November elections behind us (pending a few recounts and lawsuits — you were always a rank choice, Bruce), Republican-controlled legislatures today are busy trying to similarly subvert the will of voting majorities while they still can, however they can. Accordingly, it’s high time we bestowed the next Harris Nightmare Award (HNA) for nakedly self-hating political mendacity.

Our choice for the 2018 post-electoral HNA: The GOP-controlled North Carolina legislature, which, in the face of U.S. Circuit Court rebukes and the failure of state and federal investigations to identify meaningful in-person voter fraud, have succeeded in amending the state constitution to permanently suppress the vote via strict voter ID requirements.

This effort alone would not distinguish the NC legislature from dozens of other Republican-controlled bodies across the nation, but for the fact that November’s election in North Carolina did manifest what appears to actual voter fraud — of a kind that 1) the newly ratified amendment would not begin to address; and 2) appears to have been perpetrated entirely by consultants directly employed by Republican Mark Harris, a U.S. Congressional candidate whose razor-thin victory over opponent Dan McCready was apparently enabled by brazenly illegal efforts centered on absentee ballot vote suppression.

Republicans generally and the North Carolina legislature in particular have cited rampant in-person voter fraud as foundational to their arguments for requiring photo ID. There’s still vanishingly little evidence of such fraud; these claims are rhetorical cover for efforts (in the shameful tradition of Jim Crow) to hold down or nullify the votes of Democrats and independents.

But lo and behold, we’ve finally identified actual voter fraud and it’s specific to NC Republicans themselves!

In a striking note of bipartisan resistance, North Carolina’s State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement — a body comprising four Democrats, four Republicans and one independent — has unanimously voted to postpone certification of the Harris election (which he won by 905 votes) pending an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Dec. 21, 2018.

Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The Harris Nightmare Awards call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations, like the HNAs.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day-to-day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence the need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, our humble attempt to shame the unshameable.

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I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK: Walker Earns Inaugural Harris Award for Political Nihilism

With this communication, we introduce and inaugurate the random presentation of the Harris Nightmare Awards (HNAs). Named for Dr. Thomas Harris, author of the 1969 pop-psychology treatise I’m OK—You’re OK, The HNAs will henceforth call out the cynical, pre-emptively tit-for-tat nihilism that has informed Republican politics since Newt Gingrich executed his hostile take-over of the party in the mid-1990s. In the Age of Trump, this phenomenon has been raised to high art. Hence the need for suitable commendations.

Most folks will be familiar with the title of Harris’ book, which refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates the good doctor’s coinage, but they go together: For one cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one does not possess a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK—You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK—You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Go here for a more lengthy treatment of why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that supports it. In short, right wing media have decided there is more to gain politically, in the long run, by asserting the rampant political motivation and outright fakery of all media. By doing so, they stake out their own position and self-worth quite clearly: “We’re fake; they must be fake.” Or even, “We’re fake because they’re fake.”

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

But this phenomenon extends well beyond right-wing media circles. Hence our need for the Harris Nightmare Awards, whose first designee is the inimitable Scott Walker, inert presidential candidate from 2016 and two-term governor of Wisconsin now running for a third term. His opponent this fall will be former state superintendent of schools, a Democrat named Tony Evers. Walker remains unfazed.

“I’m not worried about who runs for governor on the Democrat side,” he told a group of followers in Reedsburg earlier this month. “Because they’re all about the same, they’re all just as liberal as the others. What I worry about are outside groups—names like Barack Obama, and Eric Holder’s group, people like Tom Steyer and George Soros, the billionaires from outside the state who are dropping millions of dollars in the state.”

Behold, our first but oh-so worthy HNA designee (because politicking this nihilistic produces no “winners”).

To call Walker’s opposition to out-of-state political spending “highly ironic” would be to spectacularly understate the matter. Since his first run for governor in 2009, Walker has been the pet project of billionaire libertarian donors Charles and David Koch, whose views on campaign-finance laws, among other things, Walker has dutifully promoted with legislation in Wisconsin — for a price. They don’t live in Wisconsin. Since 2009, the Koch’s very own “outside group”, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), has backed Walker’s three runs (he prevailed in a recall election back in 2012) to the tune of untold millions — untold because in our post-Citizens United era (another AFP pet project), we don’t have any idea how much AFP actually provided.

We do know how much the 2018 campaigns of Walker and Evers have spent so far: Outlays on the Republican side since the primary are about $5.4 million compared with roughly $2.2 million for Democrats. The Republican Governors Association (by definition an “outside group”) has reserved $5.7 million in TV ads for the final two months of the race while the Democratic Governors Association (yet another) has booked another $3.8 million. Americans for Prosperity on Tuesday announced a $1.8 million television and digital ad buy.

In Walker’s warning of “outside groups” unduly influencing Wisconsin elections, we see the longstanding, one-sided dynamic that produced the HNAs — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at immoral equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, but has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing mendacity in the context of campaign spending, gun-control, media bias, labor law and dozens more realms. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to favor or otherwise advance a right-wing cause will surely do so, will do whatever it takes — in large part because he/she reasons, cynically and inaccurately, that counterpart left-leaning types are already operating on the same mendacious level.

I’m Not OK—You’re Not OK.

Until last month, no poll had ever shown Walker trailing a declared Democratic opponent by more than a few points in any of his 3-plus gubernatorial races. NBC/Marist released a poll in July showing Evers ahead of Walker by 13 points. Another poll, from Emerson College, had Evers ahead by 7.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Stand up, Badgers sing!

Right-Wing Media Mantra: I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK

Since the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich and his para-parliamentary faction initiated its take-over of the Republican Party, I’ve struggled to describe (or identify a lucid framework to help me articulate) what sort of pathology had infected the GOP, its rhetoric, and its attitude toward the liberal left, national media, and our government itself.

With help from the Washington Post and Project Veritas, I think we’ve finally stumbled upon the words to describe this larger framework: I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK.

Refugees from the 1970s will perhaps recognize this reference to Thomas Harris’ 1969 pop-psychology treatise, “I’m Ok — You’re Ok”, whose title refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates Harris’ coinage, but they go together: One cannot hope to treat his/her neighbor well if, to begin with, one doesn’t have a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK — You’re Not OK) and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK — You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Let me describe why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that support it.

By now the failed failed frame-up of the Washington Post in November 2017 whereby a right-wing “media watchdog” group, Project Veritas, was caught red-handed trying to feed the newspaper a false story re. Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate, Roy Moore — qualifies as old news. The intent of the unabashed dirty tricksters at Project Veritas (PV) is undisputed: WaPo — which had led the reporting on Moore’s sordid, cradle-robbing past — would knowingly publish the fake story; Project Veritas would call out the paper for its lack of reporting acumen borne of liberal bias; the newspaper would then be discredited in the narrow context of any further reporting on the Alabama U.S. Senate race, but also in the broader context of all its political reporting.

The whole thing backfired, of course; WaPo’s reporting process (a fact-based process) proved to be anything but the partisan exercise PV would like to have alleged.

But PV’s strategic thinking here is yet another example of a longstanding dynamic — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, as the WaPo example and hundreds more would capably illustrate. But the underlying rationale behind this behavior and attitude from the right, this I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK sociopathy, has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing media bias for 30 years. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to tilt media coverage (to favor or otherwise advance the right) surely will do so — in large part because he/she alleges counterpart, left-leaning media types are operating on the same mendacious level.

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What the Willfully Blind Fail to See, Working Just Fine, All Around Us

Can we please stop talking about Bernie Sanders’ policy suggestions as if he were by some kind of unhinged fantasist? Sanders recently introduced to the Senate a bill that would expand Medicare to include citizens under 65 years of age — and you’d have thought he proposed changing water into wine. Hey, obstinate right-wingers: What Bernie has proposed is more or less the working model for the existing healthcare systems now operating in every industrialized nation on earth — that is, every one but the United States. What’s more, as the facts relay (in spite of reflexive carping from actual fantasists, those of the Randian variety), nearly every one of those socialized systems delivers health care for less cost per citizen than the system we Americans currently deploy (the ACA) and the largely private one it replaced.

Sanders’ call for “free public college tuition for all” during the 2016 campaign also elicited no small amount of tittering from observers on both the right and left — despite the fact that, as recently as the late 1970s, the U.S. itself offered public higher education for close to nothing. Let’s first examine what Bernie actually said: free PUBLIC college tuition (no one, including Sanders, is suggesting we subsidize anyone’s matriculation at private institutions). Second, we already offer free primary and secondary education as a matter of course; in terms of prepping workers and citizens for lifelong utility (to the culture, to the economy) why should college be any different? Last, check the stats: The average annual in-state public university room, board and tuition in 1977 — $2,067. That’s not “free”, but even when inflation is accounted for, that is highly affordable (the average price of a new car in 1977 was $5,813). More to the point, that was a four-year education debt load of some $8,200, a sum any college-educated student could expect to chip away at quite substantially — over their summers! It’s certainly nothing like the crushing debt load graduates encounter today. Why the discrepancy? Because we subsidized (read: socialized the cost of) public colleges to a far greater extent not just in the 1970s but throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. This was not some government decision, mind you; we THE PEOPLE decided it was worthwhile to make higher education attainable and affordable. Starting with the Reagan administration, fewer and fewer people saw the value in socializing the cost of higher education. Bit by bit, that socialization was dismantled and/or reduced, to the point where today the average annual room, board and tuition cost for the public, in-state college student is $20,090.

I’ll be honest: Maybe it’s my somewhat watered down but still vaguely Mediterranean complexion, but I never felt the Bern to any great extent. At 76, he was and remains too old to have been a viable two-term president. He fixates on certain issues to the exclusion of others — which is what senators do, a role that suits him. I’m not sure he plays particularly well with others, a trait we can see the value of today. He looks and sounds way too much like Larry David. And his carping at the Democratic National Committee seemed to me churlish and misplaced. [Of course the DNC favored HRC; she was a Democrat after all and Bernie wasn’t. Lest we forget, political parties in this country are private organizations. I don’t see why the DNC is obliged allow anyone who isn’t registered with the party to seek that party’s nomination. If an independent candidate like Bernie is allowed to compete for delegates, he should not be surprised when establishment Dems bend the rules to favor one of their own.]

But I’ll say this, god bless the man. For the entirety of my life — for the entire post-WWII era — the mere inkling of anything nominally socialist here in America was met with howls of derision and irrational fear-mongering (thanks, Russia). The mere existence of Bernie (and his policy proposals) have gone a long way toward demystifying the term and curing our nation of this impractical, hypocritical phobia — because we already socialize all sorts of costs and risks in this country: schools, highway construction/upkeep, libraries, congressional and veterans’ health care, Social Security, all branches of the military, police and fire departments, the court system, the Centers for Disease Control, public transportation and yes, even PBS. Socialized medicine and low-cost, subsidized public higher education are not fantasies. Variations on these specific themes are functioning to great effect in the real world, all around the world, even here in America once upon a time. Which is more than we can say for trickle-down economics and its fanciful enabler, the Laffer Curve.

Take your political temp with an awesome new game!


Neo-Hegelian idealist philosopher, educator and fascist Giovanni Gentile. It was he, not Mussolini, who explained, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

Hey, Kids! Time to play a fun and revealing new game we’re calling, “You Might Be a Fascist!” Follow along and respond. If you’re not careful, you may learn something about yourself before we’re done (!).

Here we go. Complete this statement with candor: When Hillary Clinton conceded the election on Nov. 9, 2016, did you think her speech and the tone of that speech…

  1. Displayed respect for our country’s centuries-old traditions re. the peaceful, orderly succession of power?
  2. Stood in contrast to the concession speech her opponent would not commit to making had the tables been turned (“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”)?
  3. Didn’t impress me one way or another?
  4. Revealed her to be weak?

If you answered 4, you MIGHT be a fascist!

Here’s another one: When then president-elect Trump claimed on Twitter that, contrary to all demonstrable evidence, he actually won the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally for his opponent, your gut reaction was:

  1. Authoritarians typically exaggerate their popular support to increase the perception of their legitimacy, for the deeper objective is to weaken democratic institutions that invariably limit their power.
  2. Actively eroding confidence in voting and elections (to say nothing of representative bodies and establishment media) gives would-be authoritarians a freer hand to wield power.
  3. Hell yeah! And that bitch was clearly behind all that voter fraud — and the child sex ring, plus all those murders. Lock her up before she kills again.

That’s right, if you answered 3, you’re almost certainly a fascist. (You’re getting really good at this! To think that only 15 months ago, you fancied yourself a mere Libertarian!)

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Published Letters and Iberian Slang

A bit of housecleaning here at First, I coined a useful, new word a while back. See below and feel free to deploy as part of your common parlance going forward:

Smoor n. archaic, 13th century Iberian slang for a mixed-race resident of Andalusia during the Muslim occupation of what is now modern Spain; one of mixed parentage with chocolate-, graham cracker-, or, less frequently, golden marshmallow-colored skin; one who stands to be roasted over an open fire for this crime of miscegenation.


Next, I had a couple letters to the editor printed this spring in the Portland Press-Herald, not technically my “local” paper (those have folded) but published only 20 miles south and still the largest daily in Maine. See below, and if you want to check out the comments, visit here (you’ll find a pretty typical right-left troll exchange therein).

To the editor:

In this day and age of reckless, willfully obtuse, anti-government bloviation, it’s important to be clear about how/why government functions as it does, why it’s rarely “perfect”, but why it is nevertheless worth defending and maintaining. Today’s case in point: Kevin Miller’s April 25 story re. L.D. 1379, which would allow the Dept. of Marine Resources to more actively police (via GPS) disputed fishing boundaries. I’m no lobsterman. I’ve no dog in this fight. But here we clearly have an industry that cannot or will not police itself in civil fashion. All parties agree that escalation, even violence will ensue if nothing is done. Like so many prickly deals in a country of 330 million people, responsibility for any potential solution falls to government.

This scenario is typical. Government action is by nature reactive. It works slowly. It can be unwieldy. But when there’s a problem — when human nature and/or the “unerring” profit motive fail to address (or utterly pervert) that problem — it is the authority of last resort. That’s the story with L.D. 1379, and it’s the story behind 90 percent of the regulatory measures on the books today. Right-wingers are convinced that bureaucrats sit in rooms all day wondering how they can extend their unelected influence over this business sector or that public domain. That’s just not how it works. Observe the gestation of L.D. 1379. That’s how it works.

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Candide’s Political Shuttle of the Absurd, Philly Edition

A federal Homeowners Loan Corporation 1936 security map of Philadelphia showing redlining of lower income neighborhoods. Households and businesses in the red zones could not get mortgages or business loans.

So I was preparing to fly back home from Philadelphia last week when I briefly made the acquaintance of someone on the rental-car shuttle bus. I never got his name. He was sitting up front, in the passenger seat, a huge, broad-shouldered white dude of middle age in a blue blazer and buzz cut. The poor sap had a flight leaving in less than an hour, whereas I had plenty of time, so we commiserated over this inequity before eventually getting to the obligatory, “You headed out or headed home?” He was headed home, to Cincinnati, after attending a “military justice convention” in southern New Jersey. Unbidden, he indicated that he couldn’t get out of Philly fast enough.

I asked him what he meant because, with Clara in school there, Sharon and I are spending legitimate time in Philly for the first time and we’re frankly a sucker for its many charms. “It’s just so dirty here,” this guy said, adding that while Cincinnati has its own problems, “there are just so many homeless people here. It doesn’t feel safe.”

Doesn’t feel safe?

“Like you feel when you’re on the south side of Chicago.”

Well, this was all the code language I cared to exchange with this fellow, a 265-pound military justice professional who presumably has an understanding of actual war zones but nevertheless is made uneasy by urban — or, more likely, by the sensation of minority status in a country one believes to be “white”.

This is where we are today, people. Rhetoric matters. How does one avoid tying this guy’s attitude directly to having a political candidate, and now a president, who talks incessantly about the “carnage” of American urban life? [When he’s not talking about the bodily fear we should feel in the presence of brown people, be they Hispanic or Arab.] For more three years now he’s been trotting out this fear-mongering (as opposed to solutions) from a place of high visibility and authority. Seems to me it has colored the way a whole lot of white people view urban areas, people of color, homeless people, even the global universality that is urban grit and grime. More likely, they’e long felt this way and now feel emboldened to verbalize it.

The south side of Chicago reference was the kicker: Straight from Steve Bannon’s white nationalist gob to this guy’s ear, via Twitter and Fox News.

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Pledge This: ‘I Support The SoPo Three’

Pledge This: ‘I Support The SoPo Three’


This is how kids pledged allegiance to the flag pre-WWII. Honest.

[Ed. Despite a dodgy, opportunistic political history, the pledge is back in the news. Accordingly, has reposted this piece from 2015.]

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (Feb. 24, 2015 ) — The sad truth is, kids are easy targets when it comes to ideological inculcation outside the home. This time-honored strategy of ‘getting them while they’re young’ may have first been written down in Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”), but it’s a gambit that is surely much older than that. And so I was heartened to read of the South Portland, Maine girls who recently put their feet down re. the pledge of allegiance, which, I understand, is something SoPo kids — and most American high schoolers — are still expected to recite each and every morning.

Over the public address system, students at South Portland High School hear the same sort of thing we all grew up hearing: At this time, would you please rise and join me for the pledge of allegiance

In late January, however, class president, Lily SanGiovanni, made the decision to start adding what proved to be a controversial 4-word tagline … if you’d like to.

Naturally, in a country so volubly dedicated to liberty and free speech, people freaked out. Love of country was questioned. Ingratitude to fallen soldiers was charged. Educational bureaucrats wavered, then caved. The four words were eliminated.

What a steaming pile of crapola.

It’s probably been a while since most adults have taken a close look at the U.S. pledge of allegiance, or given it much thought. Revealingly, our culture does not ask adults to say these words, every morning, Monday through Friday — only our children are required to do that (if they go to public, taxpayer-funded schools). Still, we old folks can all recite it by heart: I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

There. I did that from memory (!). See how impressionable young minds are over the long term? … But seriously folks, it’s instructive to examine this pledge, in the same way SanGiovanni and two of her classmates have done. They were uncomfortable with the invocation of a Christian God, every day, as part of a public statement that students enrolled in government schools are obliged/encouraged to recite every day. They have a point, but that’s not the half of it.

Let’s start with the name: Exactly what sort of authorities, in a democratic republic, would suggest that adult citizens make such a pledge? In my view, it’s not something free peoples should ever be asked to do — especially kids, whose feelings on these matters should formed by parents, not the state. This practice strikes me as something illegitimate or otherwise authoritarian “regimes” would insist upon: maybe the Czech government in 1967, or the Khmer Rouge circa 1975, or Josef Stalin any ol’ time.

In fact, see here the Oath of Allegiance Grandpa Joe did require of the Soviet people, starting in 1939: I, a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, joining the ranks of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, do hereby take the oath of allegiance and do solemnly vow to be an honest, brave, disciplined and vigilant fighter, to guard strictly all military and State secrets, to obey implicitly all Army regulations and orders of my commanders, commissars and superiors. I vow to study the duties of a soldier conscientiously, to safeguard Army and National property in every way possible and to be true to my People, my Soviet Motherland, and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government to my last breath. I am always prepared at the order of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government to come to the defense of my Motherland — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — and, as a fighter of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, I vow to defend her courageously, skillfully, creditably and honorably, without sparing my blood and my very life to achieve complete victory over the enemy. And if through evil intent I break this solemn oath, then let the stern punishment of the Soviet law, and the universal hatred and contempt of the working people, fall upon me.

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Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

 Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.



Ambition as a Historical Catalyst:
Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington D.C.
by Gore Vidal.
Ballantine Press, $5.95 ea.

By all rights, Aaron Burr should have been the third president of the United States. If not the third, then certainly the fourth. When he and Thomas Jefferson secured the identical number of electoral votes following the election of 1800, Burr stood aside, accepted the vice presidency, and bided his time. The presidency would certainly be his eventually. Hadn’t John Adams set the executive precedent by accepting the second spot, then ascending in due course? Hadn’t Jefferson promised his support when the time came? But Jefferson would prove unfailingly vague when it came to political commitments. He was wary of Burr and isolated the vice president within his Cabinet. Jefferson wouldn’t allow Burr to resign with honor — until, that is, Burr hadn’t the time to organize a credible campaign for 1804. Jefferson then framed Burr for treason, tried him and while he couldn’t prove the trumped-up charges, the president had by then effectively obliterated Burr’s political viability, thus securing his own and, by naming James Madison vice president, a Virginian ascension.

At least, that’s Burr’s version of events.

Or rather, that’s the version laid out by Gore Vidal’s title character in “Burr,” the first of six historical novels comprising the author’s American Chronicle, which I started in August and have finally finished. By tracking Aaron Burr and his descendants through the nation’s first 150 years, Vidal illustrates how ambition and decidedly unenlightened political scheming shaped and sustained the world’s first modern democracy. At the same time Vidal weaves an enormously intricate, believable tapestry where historic figures full of life mingle with the fascinating Burr and his equally engaging but fictional offspring. Vidal has clearly done a vast amount of homework. Yet while his narrative has an authority born of journals, letters and historical canon, Vidal’s real characters — like Jefferson and William Seward, Lincoln’s ambitious secretary of state — are unfailingly funny, sullen, outrageous, randy, paranoid and sometimes insane. In a word, human. Indeed, they take on the qualities of fictional characters because they’re depicted with such depth, wit and humanity. On scholarly grounds, historians wouldn’t dare recreate dialogue as Vidal has done. Besides, most historians couldn’t do it; they haven’t his skills as a novelist. Vidal can convincingly mimic Henry Adams and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, with equal parts style and integrity, because he’s a novelist with a supreme command of the subject matter.

When Vidal intersperses these historical figures with fictional characters (believably placed in the maelstrom of actual events), it’s hard to remember who’s real and who’s not. The author does his level best to remove any distinction.

Young Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, a fictional law clerk and budding journalist, tells the story of “Burr”. Schuyler works for the title character and convinces the old man to dictate his fascinating memoir. This Burr does, in part. The bits and pieces of his amazing life — the raid on Quebec with Benedict Arnold, candid Burr-centric portrayals of all the founding fathers, his aborted conquest of Mexico, his many wives, his mysterious relationship with Martin van Buren, rumored to be Burr’s bastard son — are never published as memoir, per se, only as flashbacks set against Burr and Schuyler’s “contemporary” story, set in the 1830s. The young protégé is mesmerized by this window on the nation’s founding moments and men, but he is fairly well knocked to the floor when, upon the old man’s death, Schuyler learns that he, too, is Burr’s illegitimate son.

In “Lincoln,” volume II in the series, Schuyler disappears and Vidal centers the novel around two historical figures: the president and his young secretary, John Hay, who narrates. Schuyler reappears very late in “Lincoln” before resuming his narrative in the third volume, “1876.” Here Schuyler and his daughter hitch their political wagons to the shoo-in presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, and their social fortunes to New York’s budding Astor-based society. At the beginning of “Empire,” Hay, now President McKinley’s secretary of state, returns as one of Vidal’s central characters, alongside Schuyler’s two grandchildren, Caroline and Blaise Sanford. Secretary Hay becomes Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president upon McKinley’s assassination. Blaise becomes William Randolph Hearst’s dilettante protégé, while sister Caroline — a former schoolmate of Eleanor Roosevelt in England — buys the fictional Washington Tribune, where she out-tabloids both Hearst and her jealous brother. “Hollywood” follows Caroline to California, where she helps pioneer the movie industry (with Hearst). Blaise buys the Tribune and remains in D.C. to savage President Wilson — and back the serenely dim, Republican hopeful, Warren Harding. In the closing novel, “Washington, D.C.,” Blaise is an aging, would-be kingmaker frustrated by FDR’s stranglehold on the body politic. The nation’s capital — a malaria-ravaged swampland in “Burr”; a provincial seat of government in “1876”; now, in 1945, nerve center of the world’s first superpower — has changed, but it still provides a fascinating backdrop for Vidal’s horde of schemers and climbers; all the folks who have made this country what it is today.

Imbued, as I am, with the arrogant notion that scholarly history is interesting enough (blame the Wesleyan history department), I’ve never been a fan of historical novels. Though I’ve always liked Mary Renault (“The Persian Boy”, “Mask of Apollo”), the genre allows too many liberties. Basically, it’s cheating.

But Vidal changed my mind. Well, he didn’t change it… Vidal proves it can be done well, even raised to high art. But good luck finding another author so capable.


Ed. So, I found this piece in an online issue of the Harold Herald, the proto-blog I published via Pagemaker, a Xerox MFM and the U.S. Postal Service in 1994. Disappointed I can’t find the ancient “print” version, as I recall spending a lot of time laying it out to make it look exactly like a NYTimes Book Review page. In any case, it remains an odd mix of fascination and dread to read oneself from 20 years ago, especially as I happen to be rereading “1876” right now. I back most everything I wrote here, save the last bit. I have, in the ensuing decades, found several historical novelists the equal of Vidal, but only in certain respects. Bernard Cornwell — he of the Sharpe’s Rifles series, set in Napoleonic times; an Arthurian trilogy of the highest quality; and several more multiple-volume depictions (of England in the of time Alfred, France in the middle ages, and even America during the Civil War) — is a thoroughly trustworthy historian and expert yarn-spinner. But he cannot write like Vidal. Few can. Renault is fabulous, but Vidal’s “Julian”, which I read after tapping out the above review, beats Mary in her own classical backyard. Hilary Mantel’s 21st Century series starring Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” are to be capped by a soon-to-be-released third book) is superb — but she needs a few more under her belt, ideally something from a completely different era, to hang with Vidal.

The best moments in any good historical novel are when the author introduces and puts to lengthy narrative use juicy historical characters — their rendering and their interaction with fictional characters, when done well, can be thrilling. This might happen a half dozen times in any Cornwell novel. In “1876”, it happens every 15 pages: Grant, Mark Twain, Maine’s own James Blaine, James Garfield, an array of New York newspaper editors and publishers, The Astors, Samuel Tilden, even Chester A. Arthur for chrissakes. The density of these non-fictional characters in the narrative is dizzying, and Vidal delights in painting familiar icons in ways that deconstruct our preconceptions while remaining entirely plausible, not to mention historically accurate. This is some of what makes Mantel such a formidable player in the genre: She similarly packs her novels with historical figures, fascinatingly rendered, something her relatively modern subject matter (and our familiarity with many of her non-fiction characters) allows.

The piece de resistance of any historical novel, I’ve learned, is the author’s note at book’s close. Not all of these are handled the same way, but here, typically, the author details the liberties he/she may or may not have taken with historical events and personages. Invariably, they are minimal; it’s in the author’s interest to give that impression, of course. Oftentimes they’ll get into their sourcing, their bibliography, for the same reasons. Either way, it’s clear that extraordinary grounding in a subject is required, alongside and integrated with their abilities as storytellers. I remember when I first read the author’s note for Burr: Vidal basically says, “Everything depicted here is historically accurate; everything the non-fictional characters are quoted to have said was taken directly from primary sources, i.e. their letters, correspondence and memoirs.” I just skipped ahead last night to the Author’s Note for “1876”. It’s similarly brief. Vidal was obliged to move up Twain’s publication of “Huckleberry Finn” so it might be discussed during the author’s dinner at Delmonico’s with Schuyler in June 1876. Similarly, the massacre at Little Bighorn happened in July, but word of it didn’t reach back East for several weeks. Vidal wanted it in the air at the Republican convention in July, so he took that liberty. But that’s it. Everything else fits together like a sprawling Roman floor mosaic, the sweep of history accented here and there by bits of fictional color.

 What I didn’t know in 1994 was that Vidal wrote these books out of order, as it were. “Washington D.C” came first (published in 1967), followed by “Burr”, “1876”, “Lincoln”, “Empire” and “Hollywood”. What I couldn’t have known back then was that he would add a seventh volume, “The Golden Age”, that chronicles America during the Cold War. In this coda, Vidal takes us right up to the year 2000 (the year it was published), by which time the original thesis laid out in the very first book and supported throughout the series — that America’s republic, always built on the not particularly reliable or durable foundations of corruption, ambition and privilege, had, with the close of WWII, finally given way to outright empire — had indeed come to pass. “The Golden Age” features the broad cast of historical characters any reader of the Chronicle might expect, plus one that comes as a mind-bending but pleasant surprise: Gore Vidal himself. 

 Vidal never cottoned to calling this series his American Chronicle. That came from the publisher apparently. He preferred Narratives of Empire, and one can see why.


HH Flashback: Nixon & Dave Remembered

[The Harold Herald, the blog prototype I launched in the early 1990s, was nothing if not political, though the coverage wasn’t always traditional, nor was it my own.  Mark Sullivan, a fellow alum/refugee from the Enterprise-Sun newsroom, was a frequent contributor. Today he’s a skilled and prolific blogger in his own right. His HH essay below, marking the passing of Richard Nixon, was always a favorite of mine.]


Dave was in a triumphant mood when he stopped by my dorm room one night early in the fall of my sophomore year at Boston University. He was quaffing mightily from his favorite mug, a prep-school tankard emblazoned with a Pegasus-like winged beaver, and was pickled to his sizable gills.

I have a picture in my mind’s eye of Dave as he looked that night: The jumbo build, characteristically clothed in club tie and seersucker that gave him the look of giant Ivy League Good Humor man, but this night wrapped in a too-small blue dressing gown; the large head, topped by an outsized Boys’ Regular haircut — part Kemp, part Koppel, crowned by an ungovernable cowlick; the Mr. Limpet-like fish-lips and spectacles, the latter worn for chronic nearsightedness and leading him a resemblance to Piggy, the precocious but doomed overweight boy in the film, Lord of the Flies.

Dave had brought his transcript of President Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, which he proceeded to read in his best Milhousian timbre. When he came to the end of a page, Dave would toss it with a flourish over his shoulder, the sheets fluttering through the air and landing between my bed frame and the wall.

As he approached the end, he summoned all the stage poignancy he could muster: “Uhh, this is, ehr, not goodbye,” he read in choked, Checkers-speech tones, building to the farewell line in fractured Nixonian French: “This is, uhh, ehr, au-rev-oyeur.”

There were tears in his eyes.

I thought of Dave recently when news came of Richard Nixon’s death. David idolized Nixon, or, as he called him, “the, euhr, Pray-sident.” In conversation, Dave would often lapse into his Nixon voice, which was similar to the Nixon impersonation Dan Ackroyd did on Saturday Night Live. The Nixon voice was always preceded and intermittently punctuated by a distinctive low “euhrr” from the back of the throat, as in, “Euhrr, get down on you knees and, euhr, pray with me, Henry.” The delivery was always accompanied by a dismissive, two-digit wave of his index and middle fingers.

Dave Kept about him trappings of his hero. On the large Papal flag that hung on his dorm-room wall were pinned various “Nixon’s The One” campaign buttons. He liked to compose memos, which he would initial “RN.” Opposed to the Kennedys on principle, he liked to play a 1960s novelty recording of the Troggs’ Wild Thing sung by a comic impersonating Bobby Kennedy.

Dave had Praetorian Guard leanings: He once assigned himself the job of advance man to a student-union candidate, preceding his man into the auditorium and giving the audience the “Up, up” gesture, proclaiming, “All rise! All rise for the Pray-sident!”

As a character, Dave was, in a word, preposterous.

He came from a Pennsylvania industrial town on Lake Erie where his family was in the tire business, and from which Dave, given his predilections, had happily escaped none too soon. He endured a checkered career in private school and ended up at Avon Old Farms, in Connecticut, which had been the prep school of last resort.

He weighed in at a good 250 and was given to blazers and oxford-cloth buttondowns of commodious cut, wide-wale corduroys, Norwegian fisherman sweaters, L.L. Bean duck loungers, which were tested by his wide, almost Flintstonian feet. In appearance, he suggested a cross between convicted Nixon aide Chuck Colson and Tweedledee.

Dave disliked the light and kept the shades in his room perpetually drawn, leaving his complexion continually pasty. He was ticklish and did not like to be touched. He chain smoked non-filtered Camels, several packs a day. The butts in his unemptied ashtrays were piled like Mayan pyramids, and his fingers were dyed yellow from the nicotine. He would rise some mornings at 6:30 and immediately begin drinking straight sloe-gin from his 28-ounce Avon Old Farms mug, the flying beaver on which was named Amy.

Dave’s romantic orientation was a matter of conjecture. Some thought him to be asexual. He became obsessed with one friend, John, an easy-going preppie from Wisconsin who sailed boats. Dave referred to John as “the Pray-sident” and kept an hour-by-hour itinerary of John’s classes, which Dave carried about in a case he called “the political football.” John and his roommates gave Dave a key to their dorm suite, which Dave would clean and vacuum.

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