GORE VIDAL THOUGHT IT WAS a challenging exercise. How do you give an interview about this week’s election five days before it happens, knowing it will appear a day after? Kerry would certainly be better than Bush, he argued. But the systemic problems confronted by modern America require attention far beyond what either candidate was offering. MARC COOPER caught up with Vidal last Friday to talk to him about his new book, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.
MARC COOPER: What would a truly courageous American president do after being inaugurated in January 2005?
GORE VIDAL: The first thing you do is bring the troops home. And you don’t listen to anyone who says: “We can’t do that now. We knocked their countries down and now must put them back up again. We knocked them down with our tax dollars, and with our tax dollars we must rebuild them — our sort of urban renewal.”
None of that! We go. They want us out of there — the longer we stay, the more they’re going to kill us, and the more they will be killed. And the more outrages they will perpetrate on us here at home. Get out. No more adventures. Forget about our friends in the Middle East who want us to attack Iran and Syria. Forget them. Tell them to get lost. Cut the Pentagon budget by 50 percent. That’ll give you enough money to properly educate the people so they will know their own history, and when a bunch of thugs come along proposing to fleece the taxpayer — they will recognize them, because they will know about them from past history.
Does the subtitle of your book, Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, imply that as a people we have lost our collective historic memory?
I think that’s true. There are good and bad reasons for that. The good reasons are that we’ve always had kind of an urgent, hot present — which also meant a hopeful future. We were not grimly tied into imperial adventures, into crazy pre-emptive wars. So why think of the future if our present looks so good?
But our future doesn’t look so good thanks to the pre-emptive wars that have been attempted — unsuccessfully, I would say. In Afghanistan and Iraq. And now Iran is up for our possible attempt.
Meanwhile our institutions don’t work so well.
You’ve lived a good part of your life in Europe. Do you think, by contrast, that this collective amnesia is something particular to Americans?
I think it’s more deeply American. You know, we were once the country of unlimited opportunity. A lot of people didn’t share in it. But they shared in the idea. The American idea. No matter what your salary was, you were going to do four times better than your father. But we ceased to be socially mobile a long time ago.
Another reason we have no past is the fault of the educational system. And then if you have media, to put it politely, that is totally corrupt, easily bought, and if you have a president who tells lies or a whole society who tells lies about itself, then you have a basic unreality. People don’t know where to turn to. You talk to them about the electoral college, and they say, ‘What’s that?’ Oh, you didn’t learn about it in school? No. No, you didn’t? And when you ask the teacher about it, half the time he says, “Oh, it’s too complicated. Forget about it.”
There is no great curiosity. There’s a certain edginess about why things go wrong. And they have to blame people. So there’s gay marriage over here. Black people over there. Or whether it is French people who eat garlic. There’s nothing but demonizing going on. We demonize entire groups of people. We demonize the entire Muslim world because it suits certain kinds of people to hate them.
There’s no reason to hate them. September 11 had nothing to do with the Muslim world except for a few people. Nor did any country have anything to do with it.
Why in your new book do you compare the war on terrorism with what you call “the war on dandruff”?
You cannot have a war against an abstract noun — which is what terrorism is. I hate to be a grammarian here. But it’s perfect nonsense. When the Soviet Union folded and we stopped the war on communism, we pretended we had won it. We didn’t. We lost it. And the Russians lost it too. We were both broke, and we both gave up. But, we had to have a replacement for it to keep up this great military budget which started with Reagan and is now just out of control.
So we had the war on drugs, but no one wanted to win that. So we gave that up after running around setting fields afire in Mexico and wrecking Colombia. The war on drugs — another abstract noun that made no sense.
Then came the war on terrorism. You needed a trigger for it. And there are conspiracy theorists, of which I am not one, who think the Bush people had something to do with 9/11. And I have never seen any evidence that they did, though I have been accused of saying they did. And that’s nonsense — I can’t imagine them doing anything rather so effective, in its ghastly way.
But they needed a trigger. And suddenly there it was. And they were waiting for it. I mean, we have enough statements from Bush pre-9/11 about how he wanted to invade Iraq. Presumably to make up for his father, who didn’t go all the way to Baghdad to kill Saddam Hussein.
But Bush and Cheney have other fish to fry. They are oil and gas men, and they wanted those oil reserves in Iraq — the second biggest in the world. They wanted to be well-placed in that part of the world. As soon as Cheney got to Washington, he ordered a study wanting to know how much time do we have? How much oil do we have? He was told, by 2020, pretty much, it will be over with. We will run out. It will be over. And then there’s chaos.
So now it begins to make sense. The pre-emptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. And now Iran, which has got great oil reserves. And that is how we got into these places. And it has proved to be a great mistake. We’re caught again in a Vietnam-like situation. And the oil hasn’t been very good to us. That’s been our game.
Didn’t we face a legitimate terrorist threat from Afghanistan after September 11 that justified our intervention there?
No. Look, when you get a hit by the likes of Osama bin Laden and a gang of religious crazies, you know what you do in a civilized world? You don’t make a war. You can only have a war on an organized country. So they invented a country that was guilty. First, it was Afghanistan and then it was Iraq. Why not Denmark or Norway? They had nothing to do with it, either.
I hate to sound like Kerry, but you go through international institutions. There’s something called INTERPOL, you know, which is very effective. You go to the police when you’ve been shot, robbed, vandalized. And you send out a warrant for Osama bin Laden and you capture him. The billions we spend on intelligence! Our intelligence wasn’t that bad in the field. There were some FBI types who knew something was up — some strange Arab guys who wanted to learn to fly airplanes but not land them. I mean, that would have even made me suspicious!
But these wars are hardly the first pre-emptive ones in our history.
No, they’re not. We’ve assaulted our neighbors in the past. The worst case was 1846, when we picked a war with Mexico when we wanted to steal part of their property, known as California. President Polk said we must have California, so he went to war against Mexico and ripped off California, Arizona, New Mexico and a couple of other states.
A young lieutenant in that war, fresh from West Point, Ulysses S. Grant, years later after he was the savior of the Union, said, “I have always thought that nations, like individuals, must always pay for transgressions. And I have always thought that the Civil War, the bloodiest civil war in history, was retribution for our attack on a weaker neighbor, Mexico.” God help us for what we have done now in the Middle East.
If we have this record of 150 years, then what is really different about the Iraqi adventure?
At first, we didn’t go beyond our boundaries of the North American continent. Until, of course, the Spanish-American War. And we ended up with Cuba, Puerto Rico and, of course, the Philippines, which made us an Asiatic power. That was a war of aggression. The Spanish empire was very weak, and we were going to help the local people, you know. We were going to give them freedom and independence. Instead, we made serfs out of the Filipinos — it’s a wonder they still speak to us for the way we killed 200,000 men, women and children.
So we’ve been down this road before. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it again. Especially now when we have suicide bombers, when we have nuclear enemies. There were no suicide bombers in the Philippines back then. But there are now through the entire Middle East, and they want to kill us and blow up our cities.
We are all at risk, because the worst president in American history, the most ignorant, the one with the least right to be president or hold any office at all, was by his rich friends put in the White House to grab for the likes of Halliburton, et cetera, the oil and gas reserves of the 21st century.
I speak now to your audience as a ghost from the past, from the weeks before the election. Let us hope (as you read this) that things are better because of things I don’t know yet.
Many people went into this week’s election with many ideas in their heads, among them the notion that they were going to take back the Democratic Party as the party of the people. Were the Democrats ever that? Or is that more of our national mythology?
Yes, it’s part of our mythology. Power and money always go together. No matter what the name of the party that is in power, it got there usually by force and certainly by money. But certainly, the New Deal, which I lived through, was a time when we had a president who wanted to get the people out of the Depression. Most of his programs didn’t work. World War II did work, and he led us into that. We came out owning much of the world, hence the Global Empire. And that was done by President Roosevelt in the name of the people.
Since Roosevelt, I can’t think of a single president who represented the people or did much for them. We’re the only country that doesn’t have health care for the people, or a proper education system or day centers for working mothers. No other country like this! I have just come from a tour of Germany, Austria, Sweden . . . they are all ahead of us.
This is “Old Europe,” as they now call it.
Yes, Mr. Rumsfeld’s Old Europe is way ahead of Aging America and its aging structures in which the people pay big taxes and get nothing back from them except armaments and wars to enrich the oil companies.
You and I speak on the eve of the election. Without yet knowing the results, how would you assess the Kerry campaign?
The Kerry campaign was pretty much a disappointment, however it might have ended. You know, it was Howard Dean who pretty much broke down the gates and let the people in. Dean knew intuitively the fact that American people are violently isolationist, and virulently against foreign wars and want to be left alone to do their own business — which is business. And that is quite sensible and is what the life of a people should be.
Dean realized this war was an abomination to all sorts of Americans: lower class, middle class, Democrats and Republicans. He saw that, and rallied them — getting more registrations than anyone could expect from a mere governor of Vermont who just suddenly threw his hat in the ring.
That should have given Kerry a hint. What the people want you to say is that you are against this war of adventure. Against this meaningless war against terror. How do you beat terror? Terror is everywhere. Terror is the government of the United States half the time in how it relates to its own people. Our government is no friend to us and has not been for some years. To smile with satisfaction, “Boy, we got Saddam Hussein.” Oh yeah, I feel safer. Terror goes on. And Saddam Hussein does or does not. He’s irrelevant to the story.
But with constant repetition, constantly telling lies, Bush and Cheney have convinced the America people somehow they’re all mixed up together. And they hate us because we’re so good! We’re such a good people. That is cretinism.