Elections won’t reverse the decline of American democracy, the prolific literary legend says
Gore Vidal is one of the singular literary figures of this era. A scion of a political family, he grew up in a milieu of power and politics. Winner of the National Book Award in 1993 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982, Vidal is the author of scores of plays, screenplays and historical novels, including Lincoln and Julian. He also has written a number of bestselling nonfiction books, including Dreaming War, Imperial America and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. The Washington Post calls him “the master essayist of our age.”
You have a role as a kind of Cassandra of the United States. A couple of years ago, you were talking about the impending economic collapse of the country.
We’re in it. But my predictions — I’m a master of the obvious. If you spend money at this rate on an unjust war — and a war that will have no outcome favorable to us, ever — don’t be surprised.
Bush is insane. We have a better word in Italian. It’s deficente. He’s deficient in the mental department. Deficente. He got applauded when he attacked two innocent countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, and he’ll try it again. “I’ll be popular because I’m going to hit Iran. It’s the source of all evil, heh, heh, heh.” And he starts to whinny like a horse.
At this point in the republic’s history, do elections matter?
No. They’re not going to change anything. First of all, we have to get the republic back before it can matter. It’s gone. About three or four years ago, during the reign of [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, they got rid of the only nice thing England had left us, which was Magna Carta, due process of law. These were the things that, when we invented the republic, the republic rested upon … and the Constitution. It’s all gone now.
You’ve been saying for the past 1,000 years that we have only one political party with two right wings. Is John McCain significantly different from Barack Obama?
McCain is significant in the sense that he has no significance at all on any subject. The fact that he can even dream of being president after he dreamed up being a hero — that comes from him, by the way, his heroism as a prisoner of war. I don’t know how prisoners of war are ever heroes unless they escape. He didn’t. He seems to have just gone up, crashed his plane and get taken captive.
I was bicycling along the Venice Beach path a couple of days ago, and one of the beach houses had a big photograph of Obama with a very large caption that said, “Hope.”
J’en ai besoin d’espoire. I think we all need hope. I think it’s far too late. Our institutions are wrecked. He’s sown the earth with salt, this fool.
You’re talking about Bush.
Yes. He’s too stupid to know what he’s doing. His instinct, however, is totally malevolent, in which he’s in the great American tradition of American fascism. That is a word we’re told not to use, just on grammatical grounds. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a word that applies only to Italy at the time of Mussolini, and even then Mussolini didn’t know what it was and got terribly annoyed when foreigners would say, “Tell us, Duce, what is fascism?” “Well, you know, it’s spaghetti.” He had some flippant answer. I think we need hope.
I don’t believe if you just get a nice man or a nice woman, everything will be all right. That’s what they want us to think.
Eisenhower, in his now famous farewell address in 1961, as Kennedy was about to enter the White House, warned the country about a “military industrial complex.”
Nous voilà. We’re here. This is it.
Eisenhower’s whole speech is not quoted. He said the usual things about the military and they’re getting too much power through all these vast amounts of money that are thrown at them. And then he said the greatest danger of all — and he had been president of Columbia University — will be to institutions of learning now that they are used to this flood of federal money. Everything has been militarized. And suddenly a free, independent analysis — he’s talking about history — won’t be taught. This is never quoted.
I remember reading a book — it was a Cold War polemic, as I recall — in the late ’50s called A Nation of Sheep, by William Lederer. But the title stuck with me. Does America strike you as a nation of sheep?
Of course it is.
Why is that?
No one is educated. There is no educational system for the lower classes, if we can call them that. And we used to always call them nature’s aristocrats. But nature’s aristocrats don’t get educated here. And why? If you owned this place, would you want anybody to know any history or to know why anything happens the way it does? No, you can’t teach that. Ask any working schoolteacher. They make difficulties to this day over teaching evolution. It’s a nation going to commit suicide. We’re too stupid to survive in an evolutionary world.
And what role does the media contribute in that dumbing down of Americans?
It’s central. The media has always been corrupt in the United States, and it’s more corrupt now than at any time I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve spent a lot of time in media, starting with early television.
In your “State of the Union, 2004” essay, you write: “We hate this system that we’re trapped in but we don’t know who has trapped us or how. We don’t even know what our cage looks like because we have never seen it from the outside.”
You go on to write that audiences that you address, people you meet, still want to know “who will let them out of the Enron, Pentagon prison, with its socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”
I think there is an instinct out there to rid us of our masters. They know we have masters. But the masters think of new things. It was genius, whoever thought of a volunteer army. “Volunteer,” that’s the last word. You make a million very poor men who have no chance for education or decent work, you enroll and give him a little extra money to be in our army and go off and get killed. And everybody feels so good about it. “You know, it’s really what they deserved,” is how our rulers would put it. I don’t think they deserve this.
They knew after Vietnam that never again could you draft people to fight crazy wars in Asia. MacArthur’s final advice, by the way, to Lyndon Johnson was, never fight a land war in Asia. Johnson knew everything, but he did it anyway.
Chalmers Johnson, in his book Nemesis, makes allusions to the United States looking more and more like Rome in its last days: overextended, fighting endless wars, and economically decaying internally.
But we’re unlike Rome, which kept on being quite successful as a mercantile republic, which is what we used to be. Rome did rather well out of empire. We’ve lost everything. I’ll give you my favorite Benjamin Franklin quote.
He was not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but he went there. He went there as an observer. And the people who were presiding, starting with Gen. Washington, knew that he was going to be trouble, because he asked troubling questions.
But there were about four young men who were assigned to follow Dr. Franklin around Philadelphia for the next few days until the Constitution was published, because they knew he would bad-mouth it and he would say awful things. So the kids were following the great man around, and the great man knew it. As they were all leaving what we now call Constitution Hall, an old lady said, “Well, Ben, what have you given us?”
He said, “Well, we have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” Then he said something disagreeable about the Constitution.
The boys followed him outside. They said, “You know, Dr. Franklin, why are you so harsh? A lot of wonderful work has gone into this Constitution. Why are you so convinced that it must fail?”
And outside of the building Franklin started to make a speech. He said, “Every republic of this sort that we know of since the world began has failed, badly failed.”
“Why, sir, is that true?”
He said, “I don’t know why, but I have a suggestion. It has failed because of the corruption of the people.” And he meant all of us.
What about the permanent war economy? What ways are there out there for us to get beyond being a Sparta?
We’re not very good at being Sparta. We’re not very good at the military virtues or even the merits. I think we will get out of it when we are eating the grass growing in the streets of our cities, and loving it. It’s the only nutrient we can get. There are big fads that always start when you’re about to end up eating grass. Suddenly, a lot of little ladies come out on television and say, “You will find that the hollyhock berries are very, very good.” And they’ll encourage us to adjust ourselves to penury and half-starvation.
Of course, it’s too early to talk about your legacy, but how do you want to be remembered?
Anybody who is stupid enough to want to be remembered deserves to be forgotten right now.David Barsamian is the award-winning founder and director of Alternative Radio, the independent weekly series based in Boulder, Colo. His interviews and articles appear in The Progressive, The Nation, Z and other journals and magazines.