The Undoing of America

Gore Vidal on war for oil, politics-free elections, and the late, great U.S. Constitution.

For the past 40 years or so of Gore Vidal's prolific 59-year literary career, his great project has been the telling of the American story from the country's inception to the present day, unencumbered by the court historian's task of making America's leaders look like good guys at every turn. The saga has unfolded in two ways: through Vidal's series of seven historical novels, beginning with Washington DC in 1967 and concluding with The Golden Age in 2000; and through his ceaseless essay writing and public appearances across the years. Starting around 1970, Vidal began to offer up his own annual State of the Union message, in magazines and on the talk circuit. His words were always well-chosen, provocative, and contentious: "There is not one human problem that could not be solved," he told an interviewer in 1972, "if people would simply do as I advise."

Though it's a dim memory now, Vidal and commentators of a similarly outspoken bent used to be regulars on television news shows. Vidal's most famous TV moment came during the 1968 Democratic Convention, when ABC paired him with William F. Buckley on live television. On the next to last night of the convention, the dialogue turned to the question of some student war protesters raising a Vietcong flag. The following exchange ensued:

 

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Vidal: "As far as I'm concerned, the only sort of proto- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that, I'll only say that we can't have--"

Buckley: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered."

 

That was TV in the pre-Information Age for you. These days Vidal, who put his Italian villa on the market a few months ago and moved full-time to his home in Los Angeles, speaks mostly through his essay writing about the foreign and stateside adventures of the Bush administration. In the past five years he has published one major nonfiction collection, The Last Empire, and a book about the founding fathers called Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson. But mainly he has stayed busy producing what he calls his "political pamphlets," a series of short essay collections called Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated (2002), Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (2003), and Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004). Last month at Duke University, he produced a short run of On the March to the Sea, an older play about the Civil War that he has rewritten entirely.

I spoke to Vidal, who will turn 80 this October, by phone from his home in Los Angeles on March 9.

 

City Pages: I'll start with the broadest of questions: Why are we in Iraq, and what are our prospects there at this point?

Gore Vidal: Well, let us say that the old American republic is well and truly dead. The institutions that we thought were eternal proved not to be. And that goes for the three departments of government, and it also goes for the Bill of Rights. So we're in uncharted territory. We're governed by public relations. Very little information gets to the people, thanks to the corruption and/or ineptitude of the media. Just look at this bankruptcy thing that went through--everybody in debt to credit cards, which is apparently 90 percent of the country, is in deep trouble. So the people are uninformed about what's being done in their name.

And that's really why we are in Iraq. Iraq is a symptom, not a cause. It's a symptom of the passion we have for oil, which is a declining resource in the world. Alternatives can be found, but they will not be found as long as there's one drop of oil or natural gas to be extracted from other nations, preferably by force by the current junta in charge of our affairs. Iraq will end with our defeat.

 

CP: You've observed many times in your writing that the United States has elections but has no politics. Could you talk about what you mean by that, and about how so many people have come to accept a purely spectatorial relationship to politics, more like fans (or non-fans) than citizens?

Gore Vidal: Well, you cannot have a political party that is not based upon a class interest. It has been part of the American propaganda machine that we have no class system. Yes, there are rich people; some are richer than others. But there is no class system. We're classless. You could be president tomorrow. So could Michael Jackson, or this one or that one. This isn't true. We have a very strong, very rigid class structure which goes back to the beginning of the country. I will not go into the details of that, but there it is. Whether it's good or bad is something else.

We have not had a political party since that, really, of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, who was a member of the highest class, an aristocrat who had made common cause with the people, who were in the midst of depression, not to mention the Dust Bowl, which had taken so many farms in the '30s. We were a country in deep trouble, and he represented those in deep trouble. He got together great majorities and was elected four times to the presidency. And launched us on empire--somewhat consciously, too. He saw to it that the European colonial empires would break up, and that we would inherit bits and pieces, which we have done.

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