When people talk about the long arm of political power and someone treats such a proposition dismissively, it helps to know the story of Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning. The book is primarily told through the first-person perspective of one of America’s most influential and fascinating political figures, Richard Nixon. At the center of the expansive narrative covering a wide range of historical context is the controversial conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for selling military secrets to the Soviet Union.
Despite the fact that the Rosenberg trial took place in the 1950s and Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in disgrace in 1974, Coover’s plan to publish The Public Burning during America’s celebration of its bicentennial ran into a roadblock of abject fear of the consequences masquerading as good old-fashioned patriotism. It just would not do to publish a book so critical of the American political system at the same time Americans were shooting off fireworks and watching tall shirts as a means of celebrating independence from the tyranny of the king.
The subject matter and the manner in which Coover chose to present that subject through the perspective of a largely fictionalized and subjective version of the most reviled politician in America at the time was rejected by more than a dozen publisher. When Coover finally landed a publisher it was only under the condition that publication be delayed until 1977. By then, of course, all memories of the hyped bicentennial was sure to have been forgotten. Even so, that long arm of political power soon came down like a hammer and the publisher caved into ridiculous fears of a work of fiction being deemed libelous and moved to remove all copies from the market.
The problems continued into even other media as The Public Burning became one of many projects announced as an intended production by direction Terry Gilliam which never came to fruition. The lure of Bill Murray playing Nixon alone should have been enough to cover any unwarranted fears about the novel’s allegedly libelous content. And on the score, of course, lies the final irony of the long, bitter struggle for Coover to get his novel published.
Within the metafictional techniques and the sprawling kaleidoscopic panorama of American history twisted into a mythic story of redemption for evil cast within a crucible of sacrifice of those committing a far lesser evil is the inescapable truth that of all the critical fictional and semi-fictional portrayals of Richard Nixon, the Vice President of the United States delineated by Robert Coover in The Public Burning is, by far, the most multidimensional and even the most sympathetic so to date. But then again, nobody ever said the long of political power is connected to a big brain.