Truth or Consequences
Gore Vidal’s America
Largely by chance, I recently picked up the Gore Vidal
anthology United States: Essays 1952-1992. It was a nice bit of serendipity:
this is a jittery time for followers of U.S. politics, with pundits
and pollsters fussing over every new sound bite and twitch of public
opinion. It’s especially nerve-wracking for those of us clinging
for dear life to the presidential campaign of John Kerry, the Great
Liberal Hope,. I’d reached a point, like many people have,
where the political blogs and TV panel shows and action alert e-mails
were angrying up my blood. I needed some stability, some balance
-- not the cheap kind of balance we see in the press every day
of ‘on the one hand X but on the other hand Y,’ but
some true, well-earned balance.) The Vidal book, with its 1,300-page
heft, at least feels like a solid mooring place in the electronic
ether. And its author’s voice has been a source of calm and
humor and, perhaps, wisdom.
Gore Vidal is an unlikely political
sage for contemporary America. The Grandson of a U.S. Senator,
a second cousin of Al Gore, and
a onetime Democratic office-seeker himself, Vidal dwells now on
the fringes of the liberal political establishment: he is a 78-year-old
expatriate, living in Italy much of the time. He is probably best
known as a novelist and screenwriter, but in every form his writing
is marked by an elegant iconoclasm, disdaining conventionality
and sloganeering of both the left and right. A leading American
writer on gay themes, Vidal nonetheless has often been at odds
with prominent gay and lesbian advocates. He is out of step with
the mainstream news media, who call him conspiracy-minded. (ABC’s
Charles Gibson turned off Vidal’s microphone during a 1998
interview in which he offered an explication of the mindset of
Timothy McVeigh: “I mentioned the unmentionable word why,” Vidal
explains, “followed by the automatic trigger word Waco.”)
Largely self-educated, he has had a contentious relationship with
the academy, which has resented his forays into historical interpretation.
For instance, Vidal angered mainstream scholars of American history
when, in the 1973 novel Burr, he gave credence to the story that
Thomas Jefferson had fathered several children by his slave Sally
Of course, the Jefferson-Hemings relationship is almost
universally accepted now. It’s the recurring pattern of Vidal’s
career (a pattern he is not too modest to highlight): his critics
scoff at his dire prognoses or bold historical assertions; then,
years later. his insights are borne out in spades. The beauty,
no doubt, of having a 50-year body of work is being able to cherry-pick
the essays that make you look the most brilliant in retrospect.
I try to account for this, yet I fall under Vidal’s spell
anyway. I find he has a knack for using, in decades-old articles,
certain words and phrases that anticipate the age of George W.
Bush so uncannily. Torture. The corruption of political language.
Intelligence failures. Inability to gauge the world’s reactions
to our deeds. Reverse domino theory.
Vidal’s United States impressed me enough that I sought out his more recent output. His
latest volume is entitled Imperial
America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia. It’s
a good, short Vidal primer; it reprints essays as old as 1980 (there
is some overlap with United States) but also includes new commentary
on events as recent as the Iraq occupation and this year’s
Democratic presidential primaries.
Eventually, a framework emerges
in which to fit George W. Bush and the 2004 election. We see that
Bush’s war-mongering is
hardly unprecedented; our politicians have often found it useful
to drum up martial fervor — Eisenhower’s warning about
the military-industrial complex was right on the money. And long
the Cold War, the tradition reaches back to FDR, to Woodrow Wilson,
to TR, all the way to James Polk and Andrew Jackson. Similarly,
the USA-PATRIOT Act is not simply a sinister Ashcroftian creation.
There have always been forces working to invade our privacy and
constrict our civil rights. The War on Drugs and the Clinton-era
Anti-Terrorism Bill were milestones on the road to the Patriot
Act. The basic outlines were in somebody’s hip pocket for
many years, awaiting an opportune moment.
The September 11th attacks
were a godsend for Bush. His presidency was spinning its wheels
up until that day. Al-Q’aeda handed
the Administration the insidious foreign enemy that is so instrumental
for any political faction to use in maintaining secrecy and manipulating
public opinion. 9/11 was a knife in America’s heart, in the
epicenter of our commerce and culture, in the true American spirit
of aspiration. Yet what was a catastrophe for the nation was a
shot of adrenaline for George Dubya, who by rights should go down
as a bizarre historical mistake and a One Term Palooka.
eruption of anti-war sentiment in 2003 (certainly unbidden by the
so-called opposition party, the Democrats) suggests
a spark of life in the American polity, but our forms of government
seem inadequate for our current predicament. Our Constitution exists
to protect property interests; the existence of the Bill of Rights
was a lucky fluke in the first place, and civil liberties are always
under threat. The separation of powers is a fiction; the executive
branch is the 800-pound gorilla. The two-party system seems hopeless.
It has evolved to give voters the minimum semblance of a choice,
while giving corporate interests a narrow enough span to spread
their money and hedge their bets. A multi-party parliamentary system
seems like the ideal—Naderism without Nader—but I hate
to think what sort of national calamity will be required to rouse
the American public to support such a revolutionary change.
writing in early October 2004. There is a good chance you’re
reading this sometime after November 2nd. I don’t
know whether Kerry will negotiate the rough waves and windsurf
his way to the Oval Office. I hope so, but even if he does, not
all of my dismay at this election season will be relieved. It’s
increasingly evident how much the deck is stacked against government
by the people and for the people. If Bush loses, it will be because
he was clumsy and overplayed his cards.
The thing that offends
me most deeply about the Bush administration is its lack of respect
toward language and the very concept of
objective truth — of the facts that politicians and spin
doctors on both sides of the aisle should be obliged to recognize.
liberal has his or her ‘favorite’ Bush lie or Orwellian
phrase: perhaps the Clear Skies Act, or the Healthy Forests Initiative,
or the Mission Accomplished banner, or the legendary 17 words in
the State of the Union speech. The one I like to cite is the episode
with last year’s Medicare drug bill, when administration
officials deliberately and knowingly understated the cost of the
bill by about 50%. They lied to members of Congress of their
own party to get a piece of window-dressing legislation passed.
Even simple numbers are open to endless interpretation with this
is teetering toward entropy. The effect of unchecked hype and dishonesty
is a culture where “there can be no sensible
discourse between people as their society collapses due to incomprehension.” We
confuse celebrity for character and public image for honor. We
have mistaken the purpose of political campaigns for a means to
select a national best buddy or a new Sears Roebuck shirt model,
rather than a chief executive. Acute moral retardation, what might
be called chickenhawk syndrome, has set in.
Vidal is thoroughly versed in the history of the Roman
Empire; his knowledge of Rome colors his analysis of the American empire.
(I find this fitting; there is an undeniable quality of fiddling
while Fallujah burns in the Bush era.) One of Vidal’s best
political essays is one of his earliest: “The Twelve Caesars,” written
in 1952, occasioned by the publication of Robert Graves’ translation
of Suetonius. Suetonius wrote a near-contemporary account of the
lives of the Caesars, both public and private: the sadism, the
sexual depravity—the maddening effect of almost limitless
power on an individual. All the Caesars were fascinated with the
figure of Alexander the Great; to them Alexander represented the
pinnacle of human ambition: “Power for the sake of power.
Conquest for the sake of conquest. Earthly dominion as an end in
itself: no Utopian vision, no dissembling, no hypocrisy.” Our
own society is not much different from the Romans; yet we have “got
so into the habit of dissembling motives” that we deny the
fact that Caesar-like ambition is the catalyst of history: “World
events are the work of individuals whose motives are often frivolous,
Whether or not we send Palooka George packing
in November, we are at a precarious junction in history, and we
need to guard against
the vanities and ideologies and appetites of individual leaders,
be they conquerors or bumblers. Let me give Vidal the final word:
the closing paragraphs of “The Twelve Caesars:”
understands of course why the role of the individual in history
is instinctively played down by a would-be egalitarian society.
We are, quite naturally, afraid of being victimized by reckless
adventurers. To avoid this we have created the myth of the ineluctable
mass (“other-directedness”) which governs all. Science,
we are told, is not a matter of individual inquiry but of collective
effort. Even the surface storminess of our elections disguises
a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man,
then that one; it’s all the same; life will go on. Up to
a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny
that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly
better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars.
But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous
but dangerous. For in our insistence on the surrender of private
will (“inner-directedness”) to a conception of the
human race as some teeming bacteria in the stream of time, unaffected
by individual deeds, we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom,
to that sense of meaninglessness which more than anything else
is characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah
who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian
certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.
Most of the world today
is governed by Caesars. Men are more and more treated as things.
Torture is ubiquitous. And, as Sartre wrote
in his preface to Henri Alleg’s chilling book about Algeria, “Anybody,
at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.” Suetonius,
in holding up a mirror to those Caesars of diverting legend, reflects
not only them but ourselves: half-tamed creatures, whose great
moral task is to hold in balance the angel and the monster within—for
we are both, and to ignore that duality is to invite disaster.