Monday, February 25, 2019

The Tightrope

Sometimes I feel exactly like the tightrope walker in the picture accompanying this post -- out on a thin and dangerous wire, leaving one position of safety with the hope of reaching another, alone, and with only the balance pole of my wits and my association's mission to stabilize me.

The first position of safety? That's my current organization, where, although there are some strong winds buffeting us, things are working well and people are satisfied.

The second position of safety? That's my organization in the future, after successfully repositioning itself so that it is working with the winds and not trying to stand against them.

And the wire? That's the path between the two positions of safety -- and it's my job as the staff executive to first chart that path and then lead others across it.

With me so far? Because here's the trick. Atop each building, standing firmly in each position of safety, are two distinct groups of people. Each group is comprised of an odd assortment of association members, Board members, organizational partners, competitors, and staff. The group on the forward building is cheering me on but can't actually help me across the chasm, while those on the building behind me are are throwing rocks and shaking the wire. It's not safe! they might be shouting. Are you crazy? Get back here!

This, I think, is one of the key challenges of leadership. And often, it is less about making it successfully to any one particular building, and more about simply not losing your balance so that the journey to another building can be made.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 4 (DRAFT)

What’s that? Oh, yeah. The second thing. How could I forget? I don’t know where it came from, but Mary always had this fierce sense of loyalty to the company, even before she purchased a piece of it as part of the management team. Her dedication to the needs of the client organizations seemed to surpass all other obligations. When I arrived on the scene, she had a well-cemented reputation for always being the first in the financial department to arrive and the last to leave, working longer hours than any of her staff.

She guaranteed that her financial statements, tabulated every month for every client organization, were totally error-free. It was a matter of extreme pride with her. She’d pass them out at client board meetings and she’d have this look on her face, a smug and self-satisfied look, like she just ate your dessert while you weren’t looking. It was a look that seemed to say to anyone who would challenge her, “Go ahead. Take out your pathetic little solar-powered calculator and add up every column. Go ahead, you hapless cluck. Add it up. You won’t find even as much as a penny out of place on my spreadsheets.”

And she knew you wouldn’t, because Mary had already checked and double-checked every calculation by hand, not trusting something as notoriously unreliable as Microsoft Excel to do all that heavy lifting for her. Mary was like that. She didn’t trust anyone. If she was going to report financial numbers to a client board of directors, she was going to make damn sure they were right and that she knew them frontwards and backwards, even if that meant coming in early and working late every day for a week.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Bully for her,” right? Like, “Gee whiz, Alan, that Mary sure sounds like a go-getter.” Okay, yeah, I can see why you might think that. But you need to understand, Mary didn’t just come in early and work late for a week before big client meetings. Mary came in early and stayed late every day, whether we were pressed up against a deadline or not. She had this habit of always finding more things to do, some of which needed doing, but most of which just distracted her from the real job. I’m not even sure she realized she was sabotaging her own efforts to keep the clients happy by piling all this meaningless busy work on her plate. She had the most oppressive workload of anyone, no doubt, but it was largely an oppression of her own doing, and she seemed to revel in this manufactured spirit of indispensability, wearing it for everyone to see like sunscreen not rubbed in all the way.

A big part of what drove Mary to these extremes stemmed from her travel schedule, one of the most brutal in the company. When I joined the organization, we had fifteen or so clients, and Mary did the books for them all. Sure, she had people in the financial department to help her with the paperwork, but when it came to keeping track of the money and reporting the results to the client boards—that was all Mary. Each client had two or three board meetings a year, and Mary went to them all—no matter where they were located or when they were scheduled. Weekends, holidays, weddings, funerals, total eclipses of the sun—it didn’t matter. Mary would miss them all if there was a client board meeting scheduled in conflict with it. The woman actually scheduled c-sections for the births of her two kids. Not because they were breach or because her doctor advised it, but because she didn’t want something as unpredictable as going into labor to interfere with her commitments to the client organizations she served.

And that’s the point I’m trying to get to. It’s not that she didn’t love her family. She had a husband from the same little town she grew up in—her high school sweetheart for all I know, he certainly was built like the captain of the football team—and two shy little kids who came to every company picnic with white shorts, fresh haircuts and sallow faces. It’s just that when it came time to make a choice, the company and the clients it served came first every time. This is who Mary Walton is. It’s how she’s wired. And when she moved into that client management position and took over as de facto president of the company, she naturally brought this wiring with her. Suddenly there was an expectation that everyone in the company should be as dedicated to the mission as she was.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, February 18, 2019

Annual Conference Mode

On the day this posts, my association's Board meeting and Annual Conference will be two short weeks away. This has traditionally been my time to enter what I call my "Annual Conference Mode."

What does that mean? Well, the simple rule I try to start following is that if it isn't related to pulling off a successful Board meeting and Annual Conference, then it's going to wait until after the conference is over.

Like most simple rules, this one is always easier to state than it is to follow. Just because I've made the shift, the world around me hasn't, and there are just as many distractions and competing priorities in my day-to-day existence as there always is. Bowing to this reality, I will usually work on the most pressing and time-sensitive issues for a short time each morning before switching my focus entirely to the tasks that must be done -- and that only I can do -- in order to pull off a successful Board meeting and conference.

I've come to understand that this kind of laser-focus is necessary -- and that it only can happen if I consciously give myself permission to exert it.

Yes, I know they expect a response from me, and yes, I know that this project is already past due, but seriously, if I don't finish and practice this presentation I'm going to make a fool of myself on the Annual Conference stage, and if I don't double check the financial report, I'm not going to have the numbers the Board needs to make intelligent decisions about the future. 

These are the kind of things I tell myself when I enter Annual Conference mode to keep the ever-encroaching demands of the urgent from getting the better of me. Because they will if I let them. Everything that's on my plate is there for a reason, but not everything has to get done today or even tomorrow. And although that conference is still fourteen days away (or thirteen, or twelve, or eleven), if I don't start working on this presentation or this agenda document, I'm going to find myself with a very visible failure on my hands -- one that it may be difficult to recover from.

I think one of the things that surprises me about Annual Conference mode is how difficult it is to maintain. Two weeks of focus on one thing is critical, but also exhausting, and sometimes the mind just looks for something else to work on to keep from going crazy.

It makes me wonder if a better strategy wouldn't be to practice a little but of "Annual Conference mode" at other times and for other projects. Maybe a block of time every day or a day every week, when all the other things that demand your attention can be turned off and you can dedicate yourself wholly to one important task.

Might be a new way to getting things done and teaching yourself to focus on the things that matter most.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King

I think I’m starting to get cynical. Here’s the jacket copy from my paperback edition of Everything’s Eventual.

International bestselling author Stephen King is in terrifying top form with his first collection of short stories in almost a decade. In this spine-chilling compilation, King takes readers down a road less traveled (for good reason) in the blockbuster e-Book “Riding the Bullet,” bad table service turns bloody when you stop in for “Lunch at the Gotham Cafe,” and terror becomes deja vu all over again when you get “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French” -- along with eleven more stories that will keep you awake until daybreak. Enter a nightmarish mindscape of unrelenting horror and shocking revelations that could only come from the imagination of the greatest storyteller of our time.

Terrifying. Spine-chilling. Nightmarish. Unrelenting horror.

Really? Here’s a tip. If you want your collection of short stories to represent “unrelenting horror,” then don’t let the author introduce each one with what was on his mind when he first put pen to paper.

I guess if I have a favorite in this collection of stories, “L.T.[‘s Theory of Pets]” would be it. The origin of the story, so far as I can remember, was a “Dear Abby” column where Abby opined that a pet is just about the worst sort of present one can give anyone. It makes the assumption that the pet and the recipient will hit it off, for one thing; it assumes that feeding an animal twice a day and cleaning up its messes (both indoors and out) was the very thing you had been pining to do. So far as I can remember, she called the giving of pets “an exercise in arrogance.” I think that’s laying it on a bit thick. My wife gave me a dog for my fortieth birthday, and Marlowe -- a Corgi who’s now fourteen and has only one eye -- has been a honored part of the family ever since. During five of those years we also had a rather crazed Siamese cat named Pearl. It was while watching Marlowe and Pearl interact -- which they did with a kind of cautious respect -- that I first started thinking about a story where the pets in a marriage would imprint not upon the nominal owner of each, but on the other. I had a marvelous time working on it, and whenever I’m called upon to read a story out loud, this is the one I choose, always assuming I have the required fifty minutes it takes. It makes people laugh, and I like that. What I like even more is the unexpected shift in tone, away from humor and towards sadness and horror, which occurs near the end. When it comes, the reader’s defenses are down and the story’s emotional payoff is a little higher. For me, that emotional payoff is what it’s all about. I want to make you laugh or cry when you read a story … or do both at the same time. I want your heart, in other words. If you want to learn something, go to school.

It’s a little like the magician showing you how the trick is done. See? Not really magic, is it?

My favorite story -- and frankly, the only one that sticks with me -- is the very first one: “Autopsy Room Four,” a first-person narrative about a man, conscious but apparently dead, who is about to be autopsied on. Dare I say, it’s the only one for which the four adjectives excerpted from the jacket copy might actually apply.

The rest suffer from many of King’s usual tropes and cliches. To cite just one example, in “The Man in the Black Suit,” King hobbles the narrative with a cumbersome and needless frame.

I am now a very old man and this is something which happened to me when I was very young -- only nine years old. It was 1914, the summer after my brother Dan died in the west field and three years before America got into World War I. I've never told anyone about what happened at the fork in the stream that day, and I never will … at least not with my mouth. I've decided to write it down, though, in this book which I will leave on the table beside my bed. I can't write long, because my hands shake so these days and I have next to no strength, but I don't think it will take long.

This is the opening paragraph. Our narrator is obviously an old man, who has written the story we are reading in a kind of journal. He can’t write long, he tells us, because his hands shake so these days. And then, six pages later…

The sun beat down on my neck, hard and hot, for the first quarter-mile or so, but then I entered the woods, where double shadow fell over the road and it was cool and fir-smelling and you could hear the wind hissing through the deep needled groves. I walked with my pole on my shoulder like boys did back then, holding my creel in my other hand like a valise or a salesman’s sample-case. About two miles into the woods along a road which was really nothing but a double rut with a grassy strip growing up the center hump, I began to hear the hurried, eager gossip of Castle Stream. I thought of trout with bright speckled backs and pure white bellies, and my heart went up into my chest.

The stream flowed under a little wooden bridge, and the banks leading down to the water were steep and brushy. I worked my way down carefully, holding on where I could and digging my heels in. I went down out of summer and back into midspring, or so it felt. The cool rose gently off the water, and a green smell like moss. When I got to the edge of the water I only stood there for a little while, breathing deep of that mossy smell and watching the dragonflies circle and the skitterbugs skate. Then, farther down, I saw a trout leap at a butterfly -- a good big brookie, maybe fourteen inches long -- and remembered I hadn’t come here just to sightsee.

I walked along the bank, following the current, and wet my line for the first time with the bridge still in sight upstream. Something jerked the tip of my pole down a time or two and ate half my worm, but he was too sly for my nine-year-old hands -- or maybe just not hungry enough to be careless -- so I went on.

This is so obviously not an old man who can’t write long because his hands shake so, and so obviously Stephen King warming up his thousand-page writing muscles, that I don’t understand why King’s editor (does King even have an editor?) let him go with the needless frame in the first place. Our narrator could just as easily be a young man, or even an author -- a device King has used plenty of times to allow himself the freedom of his expansive literary imagination. If you're going to be an old man with shaky hands, Stephen, then for God’s sake, BE an old man with shaky hands.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, February 11, 2019

Planning for Staff Dinners

This week we had a planning meeting for our upcoming Annual Conference. Because our Annual Conference is popular with members this year, and because we ran out of sleeping rooms at our conference hotel, we've moved our staff to another property about a mile and a half down the road. This, I think, appropriately prioritizes the sleeping rooms for our members attending the conference and avoids the awkwardness that can arise if a member, having been turned away from the conference hotel, discovers that up to seven association staff people are staying at the property in their place.

The meeting was a typical one for our planning cycle -- its purpose being a detailed walk-through of the entire event with all the staff attending, and making sure that the right people are assigned and aware of their need to be in the right places at the right times. Only one thing was different, and that was the fact that we were all staying in another property, meaning that we had to be much more deliberate about the time and timing associated with transfers from one hotel to the other.

We figured it out. But one additional thing that became apparent as we went through the exercise was the need to specifically plan for staff dinners on the appropriate nights.

This was something we didn't usually need to discuss in such a meeting. Once on-site, experience had shown, nightly plans would typically come together organically. Hey, Leslie made reservations for 7:00 o'clock tonight. We're all meeting in the lobby at 6:45. Pass the word. It worked because we were all in the same place (sometimes our sleeping rooms even being all on the same floor), and it was easy -- and simpler -- to slap something together at the last minute.

But, this year, with a van taking different staff people back and forth at different times of day and night, we realized that if we were going to come together for our traditional staff dinners, we would need to make some decisions now and get them on everybody's calendars.

And that's exactly what we did, with different people volunteering to make advance reservations for each night, sometimes at the conference hotel, other times at the hotel we were all sleeping in, and sometimes out on the town.

It was while we were doing this that it struck me -- more so than it ever had before -- how important these staff dinners were to our success and sanity. Making plans in advance was not only necessary this year, it was probably something that should be done every other year as well. After the long days we would all be working, it was at these dinners where we would let our hair down a little, make non-ironic toasts to our success, and sincerely celebrate the teamwork that is required if we're going to pull off something as complicated and important as our Annual Conference.

That's something we shouldn't be leaving to chance, don't you think?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, February 9, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 3 (DRAFT)

Okay, before I go any further, I’d better tell you a little bit about Mary Walton. She’s only ten years older than I am, but she owns the company and runs it the only way she knows how. She’s from some little town up north, I don’t know which one, and came down to the big city to find work after getting her accounting degree from the local extension of her state college. Working for the company was her first real job. She was hired to work as some minor lackey in the financial department, keeping track of the money coming in and going out of certain client accounts, writing checks, and filing invoices in those big lateral files.

This was a while before I got there, so I’m not sure who smiled on her and how she rose up through the ranks, but the year before I joined the company the business was sold by the guy who had founded it to a small group of employees who were going to run it as a kind of management team. Mary Walton was one of those employees—or “partners” as everyone soon came to call them. There were three in total. One guy was good at managing clients, the second guy was good at office operations, and Mary had the financial background they evidently needed to make this “management team” thing a go. She couldn’t have been more than thirty-five at the time, and I think had less than two years of supervisory experience.

Now, there’s two things you need to understand about Mary Walton if you’re going to try and help me make sense of what happened. First, she’s an accountant by training, and that means she’s been programmed to count everything. Dollars spent, hours worked, vacation days taken, coffee cups broken—you name it and Mary counted it, keeping track of everything on cramped little spreadsheets. That kind of attention-to-detail served her and the company well as long as she was the financial arm of the management team.

But about five years after I got there the partner who was in charge of client relations—a guy named Ryan Kettridge, someone who had a real talent for the people side of the business—well, he had some kind of nervous breakdown and wound up moving to New Mexico to chew peyote with the Indians or something. Instead of going out and hiring a real professional to take over his responsibilities, the remaining management team decided it would make more sense to move Mary into the client management role, and nurture one of the rising stars in the financial department to eventually take over her responsibilities there. They even made this rising star a junior partner in the organization. He was a nice enough guy, but like a lot of us, he was young, and wasn’t experienced enough to say no.

I still remember the day it happened. Young as I was, I was a department head back then, reporting directly to Ryan. I was expecting him back from one of his extended overseas trips that day, so I went looking for him in his office to give him a couple of project updates. Needless to say, he wasn’t there, but Mary was, and so was her remaining business partner—a guy named Don Bascom, who had about as much tact as a stampeding elephant. Mary and Don were huddled together in a hushed conversation over one of the corners of the conference table, a telephone and a scribble-filled legal pad between them. They both looked up at me when I appeared in the doorway, and their faces looked like I had just caught them doing something illegal.

“What is it, Alan?” I remember Don barking at me.

“I’m looking for Ryan,” I said. “Wasn’t he due back today?”

The two of them exchanged a pair of glances and then turned back to me.

“His trip was extended,” Don said curtly. “He’ll be gone for the rest of the week.”

Don was a pretty cool customer, and he had entirely masked whatever trepidation he had been feeling when I first appeared. Mary, however, still looked like someone had just woken her up and shined a flashlight in her face. Something was clearly wrong and I hesitated, lingering a little longer than I apparently should have in the office door. When Don got up and started coming over to me I wasn’t sure what to think. Was he coming to shake my hand? Pat me on the back? Knock me on my ass? With Don you could never be entirely sure. Instead he simply thanked me for stopping by and closed the door, pretty much right in my face.

I stood there for a few minutes and heard them muttering to each other, and then they placed a phone call to someone on speaker phone, but all the voices were too muffled for me to hear anything distinctly.

I found out later that Don and Mary called the leader of every client organization that day, letting them know what had happened to Ryan and telling them about Mary’s new position in the company. I had to rely on the grapevine to find that out, because there was never any official communication from the management team on the transition. There was no announcement, no memo, no staff meeting to let the hundred or so people who worked there know that they were all reporting to somebody new. Mary just started working out of the corner office and making the rounds at client meetings. And the name Ryan Kettridge was never spoken again.

It was an inauspicious beginning, and things never really got much better after that. In retrospect, I think the whole business was doomed from the start. Mary was an accountant. She had always been better with numbers than she had been with people. But now her job was people—managing them, motivating them, dealing with their ups and downs, getting them to work together for a common goal—and she was an abject failure at it. She tired, I’ll give her that much, she tried. But her attempts always seemed forced and calculated.

She bonded better with the client leaders than she did with the staff, and it wasn’t long before she started dressing like them and looking down her nose at everything the same way they did. She got along swimmingly with Eleanor, and rather quickly began decking herself out in all the same affectations. Franklin Planners, Mont Blanc pens, Coach briefcases, Ann Taylor business suits—Mary went out and got them all. But the more she tried to dress herself up for the big city, the more that small town vibe just seemed to shine on through.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, February 4, 2019

Closing the Office vs. Working From Home

This past week brought the Polar Vortex to the Midwest and with it record-breaking temperatures well below zero. In my neck of the woods it was immediately preceded by a massive snowstorm, which dumped up to a foot of snow during what we would normally consider our morning and late afternoon commutes.

It was a kind of one-two punch, and it caused me to first rethink and then abandon my association's "office closing" policy.

Long ago, when I was first hired to run my current association, there was no such policy. That first winter, when the snow started coming down, and schools and other businesses were closing, my employees had to call me to find out if our office was going to close, too. It only took one snowstorm for me to realize how inefficient that system was. What we needed, I thought, was a consistent standard. Some external indicator that, when it occurred, everyone knew that the office would be closed that day.

We chose the closing of our local city school system. If the Milwaukee Public Schools closed (which they did three or four times a year, and usually with at least night-before advance warning) then our office would close, too. No need to call the boss. No need for the boss to call everyone and let them know.

For a while, it worked fairly well. There were only two wrinkles that had to be ironed out. First, sometimes MPS closed not because there was a ton of snow making travel hazardous but because it was bitterly cold outside and they didn't want students standing outside waiting for their buses to pick them up. We decided that was less of a concern for our staff, so we had to start clarifying why MPS was closing before knowing what to do. Was it because the roads were bad? Or because the temperature was below zero?

Second, what did we expect staff to do on these days when the office was closed? Closed, in my mind, meant closed, so that there was no expectation that phones would be answered or that staff could be reached. The outgoing message on our office voicemail would be changed to reflect that situation, but we still expected people to work, if they could, on appropriate projects at home. When I first started twelve years ago, that could be simple or hard depending on each person's technical set-up, but as the years passed, "working from home" became easier and easier. Our email is now in the cloud and our VPN can get us into our file server so, as long as a staffer has a computer and an internet connection, they can actually get quite a bit done while the office is "closed."

Now, fast forward to this past week. Monday is the major snowstorm, MPS closes, and so do we. No problem there. But on Tuesday the temperature plummets and the roads are still not cleared from the pounding we took the day before. MPS closes, but why did they close? Is it because the roads are bad? Or because the temps broke the thermometer? Or both? And how do we interpret our policy in each situation.

What I had thought was straightforward suddenly revealed itself as wonderfully complex. Everyone showed up for work that day, so, around our staff meeting table, we stripped our policy down to its bones and tried to figure out what to do next. And in doing so, we realized so how much had changed in the last twelve years, and perhaps nothing more than our ability to work productively from home.

Twelve years ago most people had dial-up internet in their homes and we had a stable of laptops that we loaned out to staff when they traveled. Today, everyone had a company laptop and most had blazing fast home internet connections (the better to watch streaming video services with). Working from home was much more realistic today than it was twelve years ago. So much so that we had recently moved to a flexible schedule where everyone was working from home one day a week -- winter, spring, summer and fall.

And it was that realization that helped me abandon the archaic idea of an "office closing" policy entirely. Why should the office close at all? It wasn't "closed" on the scheduled day we were all working from home. We managed to answer the general line, our direct lines, send just as much email, and get a lot of things done on these days. Now, and in the future, whenever the Milwaukee Public Schools closed -- because of snow or because of frigid temperatures or both -- we would not close the office. We would just declare a "work from home" day.

And that's exactly what we did when MPS closed for Wednesday and Thursday of Polar Vortex week. It was 22 degrees below zero outside, but I and my staff were all warm within our respective homes, accessing our file server, responding to our emails, and conducting our important meetings via conference call.

Take that, Polar Vortex.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

Burr by Gore Vidal

This one took me some time to get my head around -- assuming I ever really did.

It’s a historical novel in which the protagonist is Aaron Burr, but told largely from the point of view of (I believe) the wholly fictional character of Charles Schuyler. Schuyler is a writer, hired first by Burr to help him compose his memoirs, then by a newspaperman named Leggett to simultaneously write a tell-all pamphlet, accusing presidential contender Martin Van Buren as being the illegitimate son of Burr.

It’s a frame in which our protagonist, Burr, can only be seen through the perspective of others, much, I think, like the historical person himself. Just as Schuyler is constantly looking for clues that reveal the real Burr…

“When you next see Mr. Leggett,” [Burr said,] “tell him how much I admire his editorials on the subject of nullification. I, too, am a Jacksonian, and oppose nullification.” A clue. Recently South Carolina claimed that it had the “right” not only to nullify federal laws but also to dissolve, if challenged, its connection with the union. If Colonel Burr had indeed wanted to separate the western states from the east (as everyone believes), he would favour South Carolina’s Nullification Act. Yet he does not. Or he says he does not. He is a labyrinth. Must not lose my way.

...the reader finds himself in the same position. And, in doing so, slowly discovers that Schuyler himself is an unreliable narrator; doing things he continually claims he will never do again and taken frequently to the heights of editorial excess.

I told Leggett of my conversation with Madame, adding, “I’m collecting material.” Actually I have done no more than record my few findings in this book, with altogether too many digressions of a personal nature. Yet like a criminal’s deposition, one thing does lead to another. At first the testimony is garrulous, self-serving, repetitive; then, gradually, themes emerge, lies become evident, truths isolated. I believe that if I put down everything I know of Colonel Burr, I ought, at the end, to be able to make that riddling Sphinx rise and show me whether it be man or woman, brute or human, or some hybrid undreamed-of lying athwart my days. Who is Aaron Burr, and -- again -- what is he to me?

And it is through this dim and distorted lens that we, the readers, must approach Burr, or at least the pieces of Burr that Vidal will allow us see. Aaron Burr. Perhaps the most misunderstood and notorious figure in American history.

Something Burr -- Vidal’s fictional Burr -- himself knows.

It has been my fate to be the centre of a thousand inventions, mostly of a disagreeable nature. I never deny these stories. People believe what they want to believe. Yet I do think that my name has in some mysterious way been filched from me and used to describe a character in some interminable three-volume novel of fantastic adventure, the work of a deranged author whose imagination never sleeps -- although this reader does when he reads for the thousandth time how the hellish Aaron Burr meant single-handedly to disband the United States when a voyage to the moon would have been simpler to achieve, and a good deal more interesting.

This is Burr speaking through the vehicle of his memoirs, a document he is writing out longhand and which Schuyler is absorbing and editing, desperately looking for clues as to the paternity of Martin Van Buren.

All of this means that the text is very self-aware, and add to that the layer that is Vidal speaking through his characters, not about the book Burr is writing, nor about the book that Schuyler is writing, but about the book that he, Vidal, is writing. “The work of a deranged author whose imagination never sleeps” is one of the multitude of phrases in this book that can be read with that ultimate meaning behind it. Here’s another:

I now act even to myself as if I were writing the full story of the Colonel’s life when, actually, I am only on the track of one small portion of it which Leggett assures me will change history. Though I sometimes wonder how different history will be if the president is Clay rather than Van Buren. Also, do I want to be the key that opens such a door? Odd situation to be in for someone who dislikes politics and politicians. It is my secret dream to live in Spain or Italy and write stories like Washington Irving. I am counting on this work to bring me the money to travel. I only hope that the Colonel is dead when I publish. No. I cannot hope or want that. But I must publish within the next year and a half. Before the presidential election. It is a hard business I have gotten myself into.

The reference to Washington Irving reminds me of a particularly delightful aspect of Vidal’s novel -- the fact that Washington Irving himself shows up in it as a character.

Standing at the fireplace, beneath a drawing of a Moorish-looking palace (the Alhambra?), was Washington Irving. In the books I read at school he is portrayed as a dreamy-looking, slender youth. No longer. He is now very stout and elderly, with a crooked but pleasing smile. The eyes are guarded, watchful, and he does take you in, every inch, the way painters do at the preliminary sketch. He affects to be shy. At first the voice was so low that I got only an occasional word. “So happy … Mr. Leggett … to Washington City soon … not used to … please … sit down … to warm?”

It’s an appointment set-up by Leggett, thinking that Irving, who has known Burr for decades, might know something about his connections to Van Buren. And Irving, like all of Vidal’s minor players, comes alive with a point of view and a political position.

“But I do think -- all in all -- that [Burr] does himself -- all of us -- a disservice by…” The tentative crooked smile again, the voice suddenly, deliberately soft. “...well, by living so very, very long -- so unnaturally long -- a continuous reminder of things best forgotten.”

“I think it splendid that he is still among us,” [Schuyler said]. Able to tell us the way things really were.”

“‘Really were’? Perhaps. Yet isn’t it better that we make our own useful version of our history and put away -- in the attic, as it were -- the sadder, less edifying details?”

Vidal is playing with us again. Giving us clues as to what he is doing with Burr, knowing, as he has his protagonist say, that “people have always preferred legend to reality.” Burr should know, “having become one of the dark legends of the republic, and hardly real.”

But at the same time Vidal is doing all of these things, he is also teaching us history -- a kind of alternate history from Burr’s point of view. The Wikipedia article on the novel states it well when it says, from Burr’s perspective:

George Washington is an incompetent military officer, a general who lost most of his battles; Thomas Jefferson is a fey, especially dark and pedantic hypocrite who schemed and bribed witnesses in support of a false charge of treason against Burr, to whom he almost lost the presidency in the election of 1800; and Alexander Hamilton is a bastard-born, over-ambitious opportunist whose rise in high politics was by General Washington's hand, until being fatally wounded in the Burr–Hamilton Duel.

These portrayals are all based on facts already in evidence, and Vidal successfully uses them to countermand our popular understanding of these men. Thomas Jefferson, especially, comes off as the main villain of this tale, which, from Burr’s point of view, makes perfect sense.

From that perspective, Jefferson is a hypocrite:

Later I discovered that Jefferson never simply freed anyone. On occasion, however, he would allow those slaves who had found employment to buy their freedom, usually with money advanced by a future employer. But then the hundred or so men, women and children Jefferson owned at Monticello were his capital. Without them, he would have been unable to till the soil or to manufacture nails and bricks, to build and re-build houses, to write the Declaration of Independence. From all accounts, he was a kind master. Yet today I find it hard to reconcile the Jefferson who the Abolitionist demagogues enjoying quoting with the slave-owner I saw at home in Monticello.

A dictator:

Now, most comically, noble democrat Jefferson and Spanish agent Wilkinson were confederates. Forgotten was Wilkinson’s disobedience. Ignored was Wilkinson’s military dictatorship at New Orleans. When the Governor of Louisiana protested Wilkinson’s actions to the President, the author of the Declaration of Independence responded with a remarkable letter of which I possess a copy (given me by Edward Livingston). “On great occasions,” announced the scourge of the Sedition Law, “every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law, when the public preservation requires it.” … In other words, if public opinion is not unduly aroused one may safely set aside the Constitution and illegally arrest one’s enemies. Had this letter been published at the time, an excellent case might have been made for the impeachment and removal a president who had broken that oath he had taken to defend and protect the Constitution by conspiring to obstruct and pervert the course of justice.

And a madman:

But Jefferson was hard. “Rather than their revolution fail, Colonel Burr, I would see half the earth desolated! After all, if in every country there was but one Adam and Eve left, one free Adam and one free Eve remaining, the world would be better than it is now.” I could not believe my ears. Either Jefferson was a fool in his zealotry or an active principle of evil.

All three of these excerpts are based in real historical situations. By deploying them, Vidal is, in fact, teaching us history. And you don’t have to agree with Burr’s point of view on them in order to gain useful historical insights into the complexities of the age. Truth be told, too often those complexities, real as they were, are purged out of our common understanding for the sake of simplicity and retention. Vidal, in writing Burr the way that he has, has given us a useful, albeit imperfect, glimpse into the personalities that created what we now think if as American history.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at