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 Hemings.

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 before 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.

The spontaneous 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.

I’m 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. Every 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 crowd.

America 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, even casual.”

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:”

One 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.