November 1, 2004
Gore Vidal: Novelist, Essayist, Playwright, and Provocateur
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
On the eve of the presidential election, we are honored to bring you a BuzzFlash interview with the man some regard as the ranking literary political and social critic from the left, Gore Vidal.
Since we’re all enmeshed reading about the GOP’s massive dirty tricks campaign to steal the presidency – again – we’ll get right to the interview and direct you to the PBS program American Masters to read his fascinating and in-depth biography at your leisure.
We spoke with Gore Vidal on why he thinks George W. Bush will lose this election, the historical figure he would most like to speak with to gain insight into our current politics, and why the "American story" is so far removed from our true history.
Vidal's most recent book is "Imperial America : Reflections on the United States of Amnesia," Published by Nation Books.
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BuzzFlash: In the closing days of the presidential election, I can’t think of another individual whom I would rather interview about the state of our country and what the future holds, so thank you for your time.
Gore Vidal: Well, if you want a cheery optimist, you’ve got it.
BuzzFlash: Off the bat, whom do you think is going to win the election on November 2nd – John Kerry or George Bush?
Gore Vidal: John Kerry will win it. Oh, but put the question the other way around, because Americans never vote for anybody -- whom will they vote against? They will vote against Bush, which means Kerry will be elected by the popular vote. The problem is that Kerry may never be allowed to be president. All of the plots that were in line during the 2000 election are still there, from the purge list of supposed felons to computer touch screen voting and so on. There could be a series of lawsuits going on for 10 years after this election, during which time they will probably declare martial law and we’ll just all try to get along together, and we’ll keep everybody in office the way they are.
BuzzFlash: You’ve seen many presidents come and go through the decades as a writer and as a social and political critic. Although only a fool or a liar would foretell the future, but when you look at John Kerry are there certain qualities that you think he possesses that could make him a strong president?
Gore Vidal: Well, don’t over-personalize the presidency. It’s not wise. Then you fall into the trap of "if only we had a nice man or woman as president, everything would be all right." Some bastards have been great presidents. I wouldn’t judge anything by that. If it means that he is far more intelligent than the average American and has read many, many, many more books than the average American professor, much less citizen, and that the other one is as close to a cretin as has ever served in that office, then of course, there’s no choice between them. Obviously it’s Kerry. He is intelligent. And at least once in his life he really did something of great importance when he turned on the Vietnam War. That was a splendid statement that he made to the Senate committee: "Whom can you ask to be the last person to die for a mistake?" That’s immortal. Let’s hope he does as well yet again.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash we certainly want Kerry to win, but at the same time you have to ask -- who would want to be president right now and inherit the quagmire in Iraq? Do you think that the damage done by the Bush administration is something that any president, much less John Kerry or the Democrats, could ever repair?
Gore Vidal: Well, yes. Dean was on the right track, and he set up what I think is going to be a big Kerry victory. Dean knew that the American people are anti-war. We had to be dragged into World War I. We had to be dragged into World War II and told a lot of lies. We are not particularly war-like people, and we’re more interested in business, which is the business of America, as President Coolidge so wisely said.
And the entire Midwest -- the whole election is swinging on Ohio and Pennsylvania, Iowa and Missouri. That section of the country is indeed the heartland. That is not just sentimentality. The heartland of the country has always been isolationist. And isolationist is a good word to describe America. We do not need to go into foreign wars in order to be aggressive and to seize oil that is not ours. Maybe we do now, since oil is getting very tight. But by and large, we have never needed to be thieves, unlike the British Empire, which was based on grabbing stuff.
We are now no longer a virtuous country because we’re a country in need. And we’re a country that is the most indebted on earth, and nobody’s buying our treasury bonds. And we’re going to have trouble servicing those treasury bonds. Money is in short supply, not only for the government but for the wars, and for whoever’s the next president, so I don’t envy him.
I’d feel safer with Kerry. I would never feel safe with Bush. Bush has wrecked everything. But with any of the others on offer, Kerry’s the one with the most connections with the money people of Wall Street. I never thought I’d hear myself say that -- but that, at this moment, is necessary to repair the markets and try and do something about the debt, so that we don’t just go under.
BuzzFlash: Hypothetically, if Bush gets a second term either through legitimate or illegitimate means, what, if any, lessons from our history can we draw from to get through Bush’s reign? Although it certainly won’t stop Bush from invading another country or looting the country, what perspective do you think people should have? Because although it may seem like it, the sky isn’t going to fall on November 3rd, even if our Republic does.
Gore Vidal: Yes, even if Bush loses, he’s going to try to stay in office. I think the first thing he’ll be faced with will be the revolt of the generals. They don’t like seeing the troops thrown away, and they certainly don’t want to be thrown away. And they’ve been ignored by this fool Rumsfeld, and they’ve allowed a little group to misdirect American foreign policy and have us invade innocent countries, and make ourselves hated by the world. I think the military will be the first to blow the whistle.
BuzzFlash: Would you say that George Bush’s presidency is the embodiment of everything that the Founding Fathers feared when they drafted the new Constitution?
Gore Vidal: I have never myself put it so baldly, but I accept your definition. They are turning in their graves.
BuzzFlash: Who is the person or historical figure you wish you could interview to gain some kind of a perspective on our nation today? Who would Gore Vidal think would have the most intriguing and perceptive things to say about our current political situation?
Gore Vidal: John Quincy Adams.
Gore Vidal: John Quincy Adams, on the 4th of July -- I think it was 1824 -– he’d gone back to Congress, having served one term not very well as president, and a great term earlier as secretary of state. He was the one who wrote the Monroe Doctrine, which kept the world pretty safe for a long time. And he was asked: Was he in favor of the United States joining with a bunch of European nations to free the Greeks, the source of our civilization and classical culture, from the Turks? And on the 4th of July –- and I have to paraphrase it since I have a bad memory -– he said the United States is not the sort of nation that goes forth to slay dragons on foreign shores. Nor does the United States enlist under any banner other than her own, or serve in the interests other than her own. She might indeed embark upon, most generously, on liberty for the Greeks. But in this process of fighting over or under other banners, she could become dictatress of the world and lose her soul.
BuzzFlash: On some level, every presidential election is symbolic. Many people hated Clinton because he was viewed as the embodiment of the sixties generation and the worst aspects of liberalism, despite the reality of Clinton’s very centrist policies.
Gore Vidal: He was no liberal.
BuzzFlash: Right. But symbolically, Clinton represented a changing of the old guard. He represented an acceptance of a multi-cultural and diverse society, equal partnership in marriage, and that a person can succeed through their intellect and determination. Teddy Roosevelt obviously symbolized the emerging American dominance.
Gore Vidal: A lot of that is later decoration that is put on these figures.
BuzzFlash: Well, true. I sometimes joke that this election is a referendum on whether the republic as we know it will endure. I believe that our nation is actually at a crossroads between the fantasists versus the realists –- that there’s a struggle between faith and reason. What do you think, if any, is the symbolic significance of the election?
Gore Vidal: I think it’s more bedrock than that, such as who gets to appoint judges. If [under Bush], the litmus test for a judge is Roe v. Wade and they ought to be anti-black -- you see the NAACP has been under questioning from the Department of Justice, wondering about contributions to it and so on -- I mean, look, we’re up against despotism. And whatever rhetoric they want to use and say, oh, we’re not despots, we’re good Americans -- well, everybody says that. But they’re not. They are the enemy. And they have targeted the American people. They don’t like them. They don’t care anything about them. They’re interested in corporate America. They’re interested in Halliburton and their companies. They’re interested in making money. And they hate the people who stand for the old republic. They just don’t like them. And that’s the division here. And I think that’s why Bush will fall in the long run, but how long a run it’s going to be, I do not predict.
BuzzFlash: The best example of the Republican "target" on America is their own admission that the Republicans want to suppress the vote, especially among African Americans in certain states and districts.
Gore Vidal: Oh, they’re not just suppressing African American voters. The old Jewish ladies in Miami, Florida, have been made to stand for four hours in the sun, having a heatstroke, while they’re being given their ballots or their registration papers, or whatever it is. No, no –- this is a war on all the people, all the time. I mean, if we had a responsible media, we’d know something about it, but we don’t.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you just one more question, and somewhat abstract, if you’ll bear with me. It seems that more than anything else, Americans believe in the American story. And the story says that the past is irrelevant and that our country is boldly marching toward progress through a better world and helping people along the way. But there’s always been a great divide between the story and our true history. And this story is all powerful because it essentially abandons the past -- it only looks forward. And this goes beyond the media. I think it’s embedded in our national character. So my question to you is: Why is the American story so far removed from our history or reality itself? And secondly, as someone who’s been a dissenting voice throughout your life and have told a very different history of our country, how do we change or adapt the story?
Gore Vidal: Well, I don’t change the story. I try to go back to what it seems to me that the story was. And we don’t have many very bold historians, and we certainly don’t have many thoughtful ones. But we’ve got some good solid meat-and-potato historians hidden away in the universities, terrified of their own shadows, because they want tenure. And they know that if they are critical of certain things, they’re not going to get it. So I think it starts with an educational system that explicitly lies about our stories.
If you ask young people you’ll find they just don’t know a lot of things. But they certainly get the fact that we’re being conned and they’re being conned in the classes. So they hate American history. I always follow these polls every year where they ask high school seniors what courses do you like best, and history comes in last. Well, our history is fascinating, and I spent my life writing about it. And I’ve gotten quite a few readers together. In fact, in a sense, a great deal of what a few people know about American history is what I’ve done. But I shouldn’t be the teacher. Our schools should be responsible for this. But they’re not because too many interests do not want us know our past.
Secondly, when you have a media as totally corrupt as ours, which will cover up for every presidential mistake, then you’re not going to get the truth about anything. How on earth can the people be supposed to look at their past and draw a lesson? Whom do they go to? Or expect a newspaper, The New York Times, to give you the context to why Osama bin Laden did what he did? No, you’re told he’s an awful man. He hates us because we’re so fat and cute. That’s why he hates us. He wants to kill us. And the American people nod, as though that’s a reason. There are lots of reasons that he has done what he’s done, and he’s written them all down, and they’ve all been published. It’s perfectly clear why he doesn’t like us.
BuzzFlash: Mr. Vidal, thank you for speaking with us.
Gore Vidal: Thank you.
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Biography of Gore Vidal from PBS program American Masters
Weekly interview with Gore Vidal