The Undoing of America
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:
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.
If we don't have class interests officially, then therefore we have no political parties. What is the Republican Party? Well, it used to be the party of the small-town businessman, generally in the Middle West, generally sort of out of the mainstream. Very conservative. It now represents nothing but the gas and oil business. They own it. And the people who go to Congress are simply bought. They are lawyers who are paid to represent Halliburton, big oil, big banking. So the very rich corporate America has a party for itself, the Republican Party. The Democrats don't have much of anything but a kind of wistful style. They just want everyone to be happy, and politically correct at all times. Do not hurt other people's feelings. They spend so much time on political correctness that they haven't thought of what to do politically about anything. Like say "no" to these preemptive wars, which are against not only the whole world's take on war and peace, but against United States history.
This is something new under the sun--that a president, just because he feels like it, can declare war on anybody. And Congress will go along with him, and the courts will support him. The founding fathers would be mortified if they saw what had happened to their handiwork, which wasn't very great to begin with but is now done for. When you have preemptive wars, and you have ambitious companies like Bechtel who will build up what, let us say, General Electric has helped to destroy with its weaponry--these interests are well-represented.
There is no people's party, and you can't even use the word. "Liberal" has been demonized. A liberal is a commie who's also a pedophile. Being a communist and a pedophile, he's so busy that he hasn't got time to win an election and is odious to boot. So there is no Democratic Party. We hope that something might happen with the governor of Vermont, and maybe something will or maybe it won't. But we are totally censored, and the press just follows this. It observes what those in power want it to observe, and turns the other way when things get dark. Then, when it's too late sometimes, you get some very good reporting. But by then, somebody's playing taps.
CP: Has the media played a role in transforming citizens into spectators of this process?
Vidal: Well, they have been transformed, by design, by corporate America, aided by the media, which belongs to corporate America. They are no longer citizens. They are hardly voters. They are consumers, and they consume those things which are advertised on television. They are made to sound like happy consumers. Listen to TV advertising: This one says, "I had this terrible pain, but when I put on Kool-Aid, I found relief overnight. You must try it too." All we do is hear about little cures for little pains. Nothing important gets said. There used to be all those talk shows back in the '50s and '60s, when I was on television a great deal. People would talk about many important things, and you had some very good talkers. They're not allowed on now. Or they're set loose in the Fox Zoo, in which you have a number of people who pretend to be journalists but are really like animals. Each one has his own noise--there's the donkey who brays, there's the pig who squeals. Each one is a different animal in a zoo, making a characteristic noise. The result is chaos, which is what is intended. They don't want the people to know anything, and the people don't.
CP: You wrote at the end of a 2002 essay that so-called inalienable rights, once alienated, are often lost forever. Can you describe what's changed about America during the Bush years that represent permanent, or at least long-term, legacies that will survive Bush?
Vidal: Well, the Congress has ceded--which it cannot do--but it has ceded its power to declare war. That is written in the Constitution. It's the most important thing in the Constitution, ultimately. And having ceded that to the Executive Branch, he can declare war whenever he finds terrorism. Now, terrorism is a wonderful invention because it doesn't mean anything. It's an abstract noun. You can't have a war against an abstract noun; it's like having a war against dandruff. It's meaningless.
But you can terrify people. The art of government now, the art of control as practiced by the current junta, is: Keep the people frightened. It's exactly what Adolf Hitler and his gang did. Keep them frightened: The Russians are coming. The Poles are killing Germans who live within the borders of Poland. The Czechs are doing the same thing in the Sudetenland. These are evil people. We must go after them. We must save our kin.
Keep everybody frightened, tell them lies--and the bigger the lie, the more they'll believe it. There's nothing the average American now believes (because he's been told it 10,000 times a day) that is true. Now how do you undo so much disinformation? Well, you have to have truth squads at work 24 hours a day every day. And we don't have them.
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.
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.
Clinton just gave up. Also, to his credit, or rather, to explain him, the Republican Party realized that this was the most attractive politician since Franklin Roosevelt, and that he had a great, great hold over people. They also realized that if he got going, we really would have National Health--we would actually become a civilized country, which we are nowhere near. I mean, we're in the Stone Age again. He was working toward it, and they saw he had to be destroyed. Later they got a cock-sucking interlude to impeach him. If I were he, I would have called out the Army and sent Congress home.
Vidal: Yes, really. They went beyond anything in the laws of impeachment. They have to do with the exercise of your powers as president, abuses of power as president. He wasn't abusing any powers. He was caught telling a little lie about sex, which you're not supposed to ask him about anyway, and he shouldn't have answered. So they use that: oh, perjury! Oh, it's terrible, a president who lies! Oh, God--how can we live any longer in Sodom and Gomorrah? You can play on the dumb-dumbs morning, noon, and night with stuff like that.
CP: Clearly Bush does represent something radical and new, and there's been an understandable tendency on the part of people who don't like where the country is going to focus their outrage exclusively on Bush and the Republicans. But don't the media and the Democrats come in for a great deal of blame for creating the political vacuum in which he rose?
Vidal: Well, the media is on the other side. The media belongs to the big money, and the big money, their candidates, their party, is the Republican Party as now constituted. So everybody is behaving typically [in media]. What isn't typical is a Democratic Party that has also sold out. There are just as many lobbyists and propagandists there as on the other side. They're never going to regain anything until they remember that they're supposed to represent the people at large, and not the very rich.
But they need the very rich in order to be able to run for office, to buy television time. I'd say if you really want to date the crash of the American system, the American republic, it was in the early '50s, when television suddenly emerged as the central fact of American life. That which was not televised did not exist. And any preacher, because religion is tax-free--I would tax all the religions, by the way--any evangelical who wants to get up there and say, send me millions of dollars and I will cure you of your dandruff, he gets to spend the money any way he likes, and there's no tax on it. So he can have political action groups, which he's not supposed to have but does have. So you have all that religious money, and then you have the enormous cost of campaigning, which means every politician who wants to buy TV time has got to sell his ass to somebody. And corporate America is ready to buy.
CP: Likewise, there's a great tendency among his detractors to call Bush stupid. You've called him "dumb," albeit not as dumb as his dad. But I'm recalling what you wrote about Ronald Reagan years ago in your review of the Ronnie Leamer book about him: that no one who's stupid aces every career test he faces. The same is clearly not true of George W. Bush, who had failed in a lot of things before he entered politics. But he hasn't failed in politics. Do you think Bush possesses a kind of intelligence akin to Reagan's in that regard, or is that giving him too much credit? How do you think his mind works?
Vidal: I should think very oddly. He's dyslexic, which means--it's a problem of incoherence. I have some dyslexia in my family, and they can be reasonably intelligent about most things, but they have problems with words, the structure of language. Not really getting it. There's an inability to study anything. Sometimes they also have an attention deficiency and so on.
I would say that he is undisturbed by these things. His is a mind totally lacking in culture of any kind. I'm not talking about highbrow culture, just knowledge of the American past, and our institutions. He's got rid of due process of law, which is what the United States is based upon. Once you can send somebody off and put them in the brig of a ship in Charleston Harbor and hold them as long as you like uncharged, you have destroyed the United States and its Constitution. He has done those things.
CP: How did so many Americans come to embrace and even celebrate these bullying, anti-democratic displays of authoritarian, censorial governance? There's a palpable sense of mean- spiritedness about a good deal of public sentiment, it seems.
Vidal: I wouldn't call it the public. There are groups that rather like it. And these are the same groups that don't like black people, gay people, Jews, or this or that. You always have that disaffected minority that you can play to. And it helps you in states with small populations. If you get eight of those states, you don't get much of a popular vote, but you can get the Electoral College--a device that our founders made to make sure we never had a democratic government. In other words, I don't blame the public. He's not popular. I've just been reading a report on Conyers's trip to Ohio with his subcommittee's experts. Ohio was stolen. The Republican Congress will never have a hearing on it. But I think attempts are being made to publish the details of what was done there, and elsewhere too in America.
In other words, I put the case that Bush was never elected--not in 2000, and not in 2004. This is a new game in the world. Through the magic of electronic voting, particularly through Mr. Diebold and friends, you can take a non-president and make him president. But how to keep the people, including the opposition who should know better, so silent, this introduces us to a vast landscape of corruption which I dare not enter.
CP: I saw a recent CIA report that referred to the United States as a "declining superpower." To your knowledge, has the government ever said so before?
Vidal: Well, their style is hortatory and alarmist. And I think they say we're declining every day and every minute. We must do this, we must overthrow this government, we must do that, stop China. Why not nuke China? [The American right] was all set to do that at one point, I remember. William F. Buckley Jr. was in favor of a unilateral strike at their nuclear capacity. A whole bunch of people, moderately respectable, were in favor of that. It all comes from propaganda. It all comes from knowing how to use the media to your own ends, and keep the people frightened.
It was very striking--before the inauguration, CNN showed a bunch of inaugural addresses starting with Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a master politician. What theme does he hit first? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Well, that's it. He intuited it, having followed the Nazis and knowing how Hitler was putting together his act, which was creating fear in the Germans of everybody else so he could mobilize them and make the SS. Roosevelt was saying that it was this unnameable fear that we had to watch out for. Then we skip over to Harry Truman, a real dunce, but there was a genius behind him in Dean Acheson. We jump over to him, and he is declaring war on communism, all over the world. They're on the march! Wherever you look, there they are, and we must be on our guard!
He instituted loyalty oaths for everybody--for janitors in high schools as well as members of the cabinet. Unthinkable, the distance from Roosevelt to his admittedly despised successor. We've gone from, we must not succumb to fear itself, to the next one saying, oh, there's so much to be afraid of! We must arm! We must militarize America and its economy, which he did.
CP: One theory about the reason the US invaded Iraq concerns currency--the fear that European deals for Iraqi oil might lead to oil's being denominated in euros rather than dollars. Do you think that notion holds any water?
Vidal: I do. Perhaps more oil than water, but yes, that's what it's about--the terror that Europe...Europe, after all, is more populous than the United States, better educated, better quality of life for most of its citizens. And it has actually achieved, here and there, a civilization, which we haven't. There's a lot of nasty response on the part of those Americans who are eager for more oil, more money, more this, more that, to put Europe down, to regard Europe as a rival and perhaps as an enemy. It was America that saw to it that we got a weak dollar, though. The Europeans had nothing to do with it. In fact they were rather appalled, because they own an awful lot of treasury bonds that will be worthless one day.
So yes, it was a power struggle. Ultimately the whole thing is about oil. We should be looking to hydrogen, or whatever is the latest replacement for fossil fuels. All the money we put into these wars in the Middle East, we should have put into that. Then we wouldn't be so desperate at the thought that in 2020, or in 2201 or whenever, there will be no more oil.
CP: Talk a little more about public education's decay in the current scene. Much of the Bush administration's spending on No Child Left Behind is earmarked for private corporate tutors.
Vidal: I don't think Bush himself is particularly relevant to any of this, since he avoided education entirely throughout his life. Which gives him a sort of purity. He was a cheerleader at Andover, where he learned many skills that have been very useful to him since.
The educational system was pretty good once. I never went to a public school, and the private schools here are generally good, though we are also better indoctrinated than the public schools. It certainly got bad around the '50s. Just as we became a global empire, the first thing I was struck by was that they stopped teaching geography in public schools. Now here we are a global power, and nobody knows where anything is. I loved geography when I was a kid. It's really the way to get to know the world. The success of Franklin Roosevelt was that he was a great philatelist. He collected stamps, and he knew where all the countries were and who lived in them. Now we have people who don't know where anything is. I remember a speech Bush gave in which he was reaching out not only to the "Torks" but the "Grecians" at some point. We live in total confusion time.
There is also something in the water--let us hope it was put there by the enemy--that has made Americans contemptuous of intelligence whenever they recognize it, which is not very often. And a hatred of learning, which you don't find in any other country. There is not one hamlet in Italy in which you can fail to find kids desperate to learn. Yes, there are areas where they might be desperate to become members of the Mafia, but that's because they don't have any money. And a country like Italy is not rich, not as rich as we are. But there isn't a kid in Italy who can't quote Dante. There's no one in America now who knows who Shakespeare is, because they stopped teaching him in high schools.
So we are out of it. And no attempt is being made to put us back into it.
CP: When does this current bout of foreign adventurism end? You've said in other interviews that it ends with us going broke. Can you explain?
Vidal: I haven't changed my line. We don't have the money for these adventures. We don't even have the money to operate those prisons which are the delight of Iraq. All we were doing at Abu Ghraib was export what we do to our own people in our own prisons, you know. We are sharing with the rest of the world penology-- in every sense. No, there isn't the money to do it. And the few who are making most of the money are probably investing it elsewhere, preparing islands for themselves to escape to. And then their followers, who are not very many, will be experiencing rapture. They won't be here.
CP: Is there any winning back some semblance of the older republic at this point?
Vidal: You have to have people who want it, and I can't find many people who do.
CP: What can average people do about this state of affairs at present, if anything?
Vidal: Well, some of the internet has been very useful. Radio has been very useful. There are means of getting things across. It's why I write those little books of mine, the pamphlets as I call them. Our first form of politics was pamphleteering in the 18th century. They serve a purpose--more pamphlets, more readers, more this, more that. There's a battle to do an interesting kind of guide to the American centuries, and how we got where we are and how we can get out of it. I'm engaged with some people working on that. Further, deponent sayeth not.
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