The Undoing of America

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


CP: I'd like to ask you to sketch our political arc from Reagan down to Bush II. It seemed to me that Reagan took a big step down the road to Bush when he was so successful in selling the ideology of the market, the idea that whatever the interests of money and markets dictated was the proper and even the most patriotic course--which was hardly a new idea, but one that had never been embraced openly as a first principle of politics. Is that a fair assessment?

Vidal: He was small-town American Republican, even though he started life as a Democrat. He believed in the values of Main Street. Sinclair Lewis's novels are filled with Ronald Reagans, though Babbitt doesn't get to the White House. But this time Babbitt did. So it was very congenial for Reagan to play that part, not that he had a very clear idea of what his lines were all about. Those who were writing the scenarios certainly knew.

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I'd say the downward skid certainly began with Reagan. I came across a comment recently, someone asking why we had gone into both Grenada and Panama, two absolutely nothing little countries who were no danger to us, minding their own business, and we go in and conquer them. Somebody said, well, we did it because we could. That's the attitude of our current rulers.

So they will be forever putting--what they do is put us all at risk. You and I and other civilians are going to be the ones who are killed when the Moslems get really angry and start suicide-bombing American cities because of things the Bush/Cheney junta has done to them. We will be the ones killed. Bush/Cheney will be safe in their bunkers, but we're going to get it. I would have thought that self-interest--since Americans are the most easily terrified people on earth, as recently demonstrated over and over again-- we would be afraid of what was going to befall us. But I think simultaneously we have no imagination, and certainly no sense of cause and effect. If we did have that, we might know that if you keep kicking somebody, he's going to kick you back. So there we stand, ignoring the first rule of physics, which is that there is no action without reaction.


CP: Didn't the previous successes of our economy and our empire, post WWII, condition people to expect that consequences were for other people in other places?

Vidal: Well, wishful thinking, perhaps. I spent three years in World War II, and it was a clear victory for our team. But it was nothing to write Mother about, I'll tell you. Walt Whitman once said, of the Civil War, that it is a lucky thing the people will never know what happened in the war. One can think of a lot of things, one can imagine a lot of things, but...

The sense that there are no consequences--that can happen if you keep the people diverted. Television changed everything. Some 60 or 80 percent of Americans still think Saddam Hussein was a partner of Osama bin Laden. They hated each other, and they had nothing to do with each other. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. But if you keep repeating it and repeating it--and Cheney still does; nobody's switched him off, so he just babbles and babbles like a broken toy--how are they to know otherwise? Yes, there are good journals here and there, like The Nation, but they're not easily found. And with our educational system, I don't think the average person can read with any great ease anything that requires thought and the ability to exercise cause-and-effect reasoning: If we do this to them, they will do that to us. We seem to have lost all track of that rather primitive notion that I think people all the way back to chimpanzees have known. But we don't.


CP: In your latest book, Imperial America, you refer to Confucius's admonition to "rectify the language." In that regard I'm wondering about the Clinton years, and about the success of the Clinton/Morris strategy of "triangulation," which mainly consisted of talking to the left and governing to the right. Did that play a role in setting the stage for a figure like Bush, who throws around words like "democracy" and "freedom" when they bear no relation to reality?

Vidal: Well, certainly it did. Clinton represented no opposition to this. He was so busy triangulating that he was enlisting under the colors of the other team, hoping to pick up some votes. I don't think he did, but he got himself reelected by not doing the job of an opposing political party. In other words, the Republican Party as it now is funded, is the party of corporate America, which is no friend to the people of America. Now that's a clear division. The people of America, if you ever run for office, you find out they're very shrewd about figuring out who's getting what money, and who's on their side. But you have to organize them. You have to tell them more things than they get to know from the general media.

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