By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
It's lucky for George W. Bush that he wasn’t born in an earlier time and somehow stumbled into America’s Constitutional Convention. A man with his views, so depreciative of democratic rule, would have certainly been quickly exiled from the freshly liberated United States by the gaggle of incensed Founders. So muses one of our most controversial social critics and prolific writers, Gore Vidal.
When we last interviewed Vidal just over a year ago, he set off a mighty chain reaction as he positioned himself as one of the last standing defenders of the ideal of the American Republic. His acerbic comments to L.A. Weekly about the Bushies were widely reprinted in publications around the world and flashed repeatedly over the World Wide Web. Now Vidal is at it again, giving the Weekly another dose of his dissent, and, with the constant trickle of casualties mounting in Iraq, his comments are no less explosive than they were last year.
This time, however, Vidal is speaking to us as a full-time American. After splitting his time between Los Angeles and Italy for the past several decades, Vidal has decided to roost in his colonial home in the Hollywood Hills. Now 77 years old, suffering from a bad knee and still recovering from the loss earlier this year of his longtime companion, Howard Austen, Vidal is feistier and more productive than ever.
Vidal undoubtedly had current pols like Bush and Ashcroft in mind when he wrote his latest book, his third in two years. Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson takes us deep into the psyches of the patriotic trio. And even with all of their human foibles on display — vanity, ambition, hubris, envy and insecurity — their shared and profoundly rooted commitment to building the first democratic nation on Earth comes straight to the fore.
The contrast between then and now is hardly implicit. No more than a few pages into the book, Vidal unveils his dripping disdain for the crew that now dominates the capital named for our first president.
As we began our dialogue, I asked him to draw out the links between our revolutionary past and our imperial present.
MARC COOPER: Your new book focuses on Washington, Adams and Jefferson, but it seems from reading closely that it was actually Ben Franklin who turned out to be the most prescient regarding the future of the republic.
GORE VIDAL: Franklin understood the American people better than the other three. Washington and Jefferson were nobles — slaveholders and plantation owners. Alexander Hamilton married into a rich and powerful family and joined the upper classes. Benjamin Franklin was pure middle class. In fact, he may have invented it for Americans. Franklin saw danger everywhere. They all did. Not one of them liked the Constitution. James Madison, known as the father of it, was full of complaints about the power of the presidency. But they were in a hurry to get the country going. Hence the great speech, which I quote at length in the book, that Franklin, old and dying, had someone read for him. He said, I am in favor of this Constitution, as flawed as it is, because we need good government and we need it fast. And this, properly enacted, will give us, for a space of years, such government.
But then, Franklin said, it will fail, as all such constitutions have in the past, because of the essential corruption of the people. He pointed his finger at all the American people. And when the people become so corrupt, he said, we will find it is not a republic that they want but rather despotism — the only form of government suitable for such a people.
But Jefferson had the most radical view, didn’t he? He argued that the Constitution should be seen only as a transitional document.
Oh yeah. Jefferson said that once a generation we must have another Constitutional Convention and revise all that isn’t working. Like taking a car in to get the carburetor checked. He said you cannot expect a man to wear a boy’s jacket. It must be revised, because the Earth belongs to the living. He was the first that I know who ever said that. And to each generation is the right to change every law they wish. Or even the form of government. You know, bring in the Dalai Lama if you want! Jefferson didn’t care.
Jefferson was the only pure democrat among the founders, and he thought the only way his idea of democracy could be achieved would be to give the people a chance to change the laws. Madison was very eloquent in his answer to Jefferson. He said you cannot [have] any government of any weight if you think it is only going to last a year.
This was the quarrel between Madison and Jefferson. And it would probably still be going on if there were at least one statesman around who said we have to start changing this damn thing.
Your book revisits the debate between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Hamiltonian Federalists, which at the time were effectively young America’s two parties. More than 200 years later, do we still see any strands, any threads of continuity in our current body politic?