It may not be what you think.
Gore Vidal is a gold mine of quips and zingers. And his vast knowledge of literature and history—particularly American—makes for an impressive figure. His razor-sharp tongue lacerates the powerful. He does it with aplomb, saying, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” He has a wry sense of noblesse oblige: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Now eighty, he lives in the Hollywood hills in a modest mansion with immodest artwork. I felt I was entering a museum of Renaissance art. A stern painting of the Emperor Constantine was looking down upon us as we sat in his majestic living room. A Buddha statue from Thailand stood nearby. But all was not somber. He had a Bush doll with a 9/11 bill sticking out of it on a table behind us.
His aristocratic pedigree is evident not just in his artistic sophistication but also in his locution. In a war of words, few can contend with Vidal.
“I’m a lover of the old republic and I deeply resent the empire our Presidents put in its place,” he declares.
Vidal moved gingerly and was using a cane. A recent knee operation left him less mobile. He says, “The mind is still agile but the knees have grown weak.” We sat in upholstered chairs. On a nearby table I saw the galleys of his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation. It will be out this fall. His earlier one, Palimpsest, came out in 1995.
Prolific does not even begin to describe Vidal’s literary output. He’s the author of scores of novels, plays, screenplays, essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for his collection of essays, United States. His recent books (he calls them “pamphlets”)—Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War, and Imperial America—have sold in huge numbers. When I asked him what was the point of his work, he said, “I am chronicling America.” The prose, whether polemical or fictional, is elegant.
Distantly related to Jackie Kennedy, he does not romanticize JFK. “He was one of the most charming men I’ve ever known,” says Vidal. “He was also one of the very worst Presidents.”
He’s been a Democratic candidate for the House from New York and for the Senate from California. Today, he ridicules the Democrats for supineness.
He sees a certain continuity in U.S. foreign policy over the last fifty years. “The management, then and now, truly believes the United States is the master of the Earth and anyone who defies us will be napalmed or blockaded or covertly overthrown,” he says. “We are beyond law, which is not unusual for an empire; unfortunately, we are also beyond common sense.”
I talked with him on a hot afternoon in mid-April.
Q: In 2002, long before Bush’s current travails, you wrote, “Mark my words, he will leave office the most unpopular President in history.” How did you know that then?
Gore Vidal: I know these people. I don’t say that as though I know them personally. I know the types. I was brought up in Washington. When you are brought up in a zoo, you know what’s going on in the monkey house. You see a couple of monkeys loose and one is President and one is Vice President, you know it’s trouble. Monkeys make trouble.
Q: Bush’s ratings have been at personal lows. Cheney has had an 18 percent approval rating.
Vidal: Well, he deserves it.
Q: Yet the wars go on. It’s almost as if the people don’t matter.
Vidal: The people don’t matter to this gang. They pay no attention. They think in totalitarian terms. They’ve got the troops. They’ve got the army. They’ve got Congress. They’ve got the judiciary. Why should they worry? Let the chattering classes chatter. Bush is a thug. I think there is something really wrong with him.
Q: What do you think of the conspiracy theories about September 11?
Vidal: I’m willing to believe practically any mischief on the part of the Bush people. No, I don’t think they did it, as some conspiracy people think. Why? Because it was too intelligently done. This is beyond the competence of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. They couldn’t pull off a caper like 9/11. They are too clumsy.
Q: Today the United States is fighting two wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, and is now threatening to launch a third one on Iran. What is it going to take to stop the Bush onslaught?
Vidal: Economic collapse. We are too deeply in debt. We can’t service the debt, or so my financial friends tell me, that’s paying the interest on the Treasury bonds, particularly to the foreign countries that have been financing us. I think the Chinese will say the hell with you and pull their money out of the United States. That’s the end of our wars.
Q: You’re a veteran of World War II, the so-called good war. Would you recommend to a young person a career in the armed forces in the United States?
Vidal: No, but I would suggest Canada or New Zealand as a possible place to go until we are rid of our warmongers. We’ve never had a government like this. The United States has done wicked things in the past to other countries but never on such a scale and never in such an existentialist way. It’s as though we are evil. We strike first. We’ll destroy you. This is an eternal war against terrorism. It’s like a war against dandruff. There’s no such thing as a war against terrorism. It’s idiotic. These are slogans. These are lies. It’s advertising, which is the only art form we ever invented and developed.
But our media has collapsed. They’ve questioned no one. One of the reasons Bush and Cheney are so daring is that they know there’s nobody to stop them. Nobody is going to write a story that says this is not a war, only Congress can declare war. And you can only have a war with another country. You can’t have a war with bad temper or a war against paranoids. Nothing makes any sense, and the people are getting very confused. The people are not stupid, but they are totally misinformed.
Q: You’ve called the country “The United States of Amnesia.” Is this something in our genes?
Vidal: No, it’s something in our rulers. They don’t want us to know anything. When you’ve got a press like we have, you no longer have an informed citizenry.
I was involved somewhat with Congressman Con-yers on what happened in Ohio during the last Presidential election.
Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and he went up there with a bunch of researchers. They went from district to district, and they found out how the election was stolen. He wrote a report that was published by a small press in Chicago. To help out, I said I’d write a preface for him on how the election was stolen. We were thinking that might help. But The New York Times and The Washington Post were not going to review the book about how we had a second Presidential election stolen. They weren’t going to admit it.
A huge number of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. You have a people that don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and you have leaders who lie to them, lie to them, and lie to them.
It’s so stupid, everything that they say. And the media take on it is just as stupid as theirs, sometimes worse. They at least have motives. They are making money out of the republic or what’s left of it. It’s the stupidity that will really drive me away from this country.
Q: When were the media better?
Vidal: They’ve never been much good. They belong to the people who own them. But they were better, the level was higher. There used to be foreign correspondents in other countries. There’s nobody abroad now. The New York Times gave up being anything except a kind of shadow of The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post is the court circular. What has the emperor done today? And who will be the under-assistant of the secretary of agriculture? As though these things mattered.
Q: What do you think of the public advertising of one’s faith among political leaders? They make a show of going to church and participating in ceremonies.
Vidal: Personally I find it sickening, and very much against what our Founders had in mind. Remember that the country was mostly founded by Brits, and England’s always gotten credit for having invented hypocrisy. So we are reflecting our British heritage when we hypocritically talk about how religious we are.
Q: Is the U.S. more like Sparta than Athens?
Vidal: We’re not so good as either. We certainly are not warlike. Spartans were based upon military service. We don’t want that. We want to make money, which I always thought was one of the most admirable things about Americans. We didn’t want to go out and conquer other countries. We wanted to corner wheat in the stock market or something sensible like that. So we are very unbelligerent. We were dragged screaming into World War I. Well, we were slightly enthusiastic about that, but we were very innocent farm people in those days. In World War II, we fought to stay out of that war. And every liberal figure in the United States from Norman Thomas on was anti-war. They were isolationists in the old populist tradition. So we never had a chance of being Sparta.
Q: Talk about the role of the opposition party, the Democrats.
Vidal: It isn’t an opposition party. I have been saying for the last thousand years that the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.
Q: What can people do to energize democracy?
Vidal: The tactic would be to go after smaller offices, state by state, school board, sheriff, state legislatures. You can turn them around and that doesn’t take much of anything. Take back everything at the grassroots, starting with state
legislatures. That’s what Madison always said. I’d like to see a revival of state legislatures, in which I am a true Jeffersonian.
Q: Do you see any developments on the horizon that might suggest an alternative?
Vidal: Newton’s Third Law. I hope that law is still working. American laws don’t work, but at least the laws of physics might work. And the Third Law is: There is no action without reaction. There should be a great deal of reaction to the total incompetence of this Administration. It’s going to take two or three generations to recover what we had as of twenty years ago.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book is “Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics.”