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?
Just traces. But mostly we find the sort of corruption Franklin predicted. Ours is a totally corrupt society. The presidency is for sale. Whoever raises the most money to buy TV time will probably be the next president. This is corruption on a major scale.
Enron was an eye-opener to naive lovers of modern capitalism. Our accounting brotherhood, in its entirety, turned out to be corrupt, on the take. With the government absolutely colluding with them and not giving a damn.
Bush’s friend, old Kenny Lay, is still at large and could just as well start some new company tomorrow. If he hasn’t already. No one is punished for squandering the people’s money and their pension funds and for wrecking the economy.
So the corruption predicted by Franklin bears its terrible fruit. No one wants to do anything about it. It’s not even a campaign issue. Once you have a business community that is so corrupt in a society whose business is business, then what you have is, indeed, despotism. It is the sort of authoritarian rule that the Bush people have given us. The USA PATRIOT Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with — even using much of the same language. In one of my earlier books, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, I show how the language used by the Clinton people to frighten Americans into going after terrorists like Timothy McVeigh — how their rights were going to be suspended only for a brief time — was precisely the language used by Hitler after the Reichstag fire.
In this context, would any of the Founding Fathers find themselves comfortable in the current political system of the United States? Certainly Jefferson wouldn’t. But what about the radical centralizers, or those like John Adams, who had a sneaking sympathy for the monarchy?
Adams thought monarchy, as tamed and balanced by the parliament, could offer democracy. But he was no totalitarian, not by any means. Hamilton, on the other hand, might have very well gone along with the Bush people, because he believed there was an elite who should govern. He nevertheless was a bastard born in the West Indies, and he was always a little nervous about his own social station. He, of course, married into wealth and became an aristo. And it is he who argues that we must have a government made up of the very best people, meaning the rich.
So you’d find Hamilton pretty much on the Bush side. But I can’t think of any other Founders who would. Adams would surely disapprove of Bush. He was highly moral, and I don’t think he could endure the current dishonesty. Already they were pretty bugged by a bunch of journalists who came over from Ireland and such places and were telling Americans how to do things. You know, like Andrew Sullivan today telling us how to be. I think you would find a sort of union of discontent with Bush among the Founders. The sort of despotism that overcomes us now is precisely what Franklin predicted.
But Gore, you have lived through a number of inglorious administrations in your lifetime, from Truman’s founding of the national-security state, to LBJ’s debacle in Vietnam, to Nixon and Watergate, and yet here you are to tell the tale. So when it comes to this Bush administration, are you really talking about despots per se? Or is this really just one more rather corrupt and foolish Republican administration?
No. We are talking about despotism. I have read not only the first PATRIOT Act but also the second one, which has not yet been totally made public nor approved by Congress and to which there is already great resistance. An American citizen can be fingered as a terrorist, and with what proof? No proof. All you need is the word of the attorney general or maybe the president himself. You can then be locked up without access to a lawyer, and then tried by military tribunal and even executed. Or, in a brand-new wrinkle, you can be exiled, stripped of your citizenship and packed off to another place not even organized as a country — like Tierra del Fuego or some rock in the Pacific. All of this is in the USA PATRIOT Act. The Founding Fathers would have found this to be despotism in spades. And they would have hanged anybody who tried to get this through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hanged.
So if George W. Bush or John Ashcroft had been around in the early days of the republic, they would have been indicted and then hanged by the Founders?
No. It would have been better and worse. [Laughs.] Bush and Ashcroft would have been considered so disreputable as to not belong in this country at all. They might be invited to go down to Bolivia or Paraguay and take part in the military administration of some Spanish colony, where they would feel so much more at home. They would not be called Americans — most Americans would not think of them as citizens.
Do you not think of Bush and Ashcroft as Americans?
I think of them as an alien army. They have managed to take over everything, and quite in the open. We have a deranged president. We have despotism. We have no due process.
Yet you saw in the ’60s how the Johnson administration collapsed under the weight of its own hubris. Likewise with Nixon. And now with the discontent over how the war in Iraq is playing out, don’t you get the impression that Bush is headed for the same fate?
I actually see something smaller tripping him up: this business over outing the wife of Ambassador Wilson as a CIA agent. It’s often these small things that get you. Something small enough for a court to get its teeth into. Putting this woman at risk because of anger over what her husband has done is bitchy, dangerous to the nation, dangerous to other CIA agents. This resonates more than Iraq. I’m afraid that 90 percent of Americans don’t know where Iraq is and never will know, and they don’t care.
But that number of $87 billion is seared into their brains, because there isn’t enough money to go around. The states are broke. Meanwhile, the right wing has been successful in convincing 99 percent of the people that we ‰ are generously financing every country on Earth, that we are bankrolling welfare mothers, all those black ladies that the Republicans are always running against, the ladies they tell us are guzzling down Kristal champagne at the Ambassador East in Chicago — which of course is ridiculous.
And now the people see another $87 billion going out the window. So long! People are going to rebel against that one. Congress has gone along with that, but a lot of congressmen could lose their seats for that.
Speaking of elections, is George W. Bush going to be re-elected next year?
No. At least if there is a fair election, an election that is not electronic. That would be dangerous. We don’t want an election without a paper trail. The makers of the voting machines say no one can look inside of them, because they would reveal trade secrets. What secrets? Isn’t their job to count votes? Or do they get secret messages from Mars? Is the cure for cancer inside the machines? I mean, come on. And all three owners of the companies who make these machines are donors to the Bush administration. Is this not corruption?
So Bush will probably win if the country is covered with these balloting machines. He can’t lose.
But Gore, aren’t you still enough of a believer in the democratic instincts of ordinary people to think that, in the end, those sorts of conspiracies eventually fall apart?
Oh no! I find they only get stronger, more entrenched. Who would have thought that Harry Truman’s plans to militarize America would have come as far as we are today? All the money we have wasted on the military, while our schools are nowhere. There is no health care; we know the litany. We get nothing back for our taxes. I wouldn’t have thought that would have lasted the last 50 years, which I lived through. But it did last.
But getting back to Bush. If we use old-fashioned paper ballots and have them counted in the precinct where they are cast, he will be swept from office. He’s made every error you can. He’s wrecked the economy. Unemployment is up. People can’t find jobs. Poverty is up. It’s a total mess. How does he make such a mess? Well, he is plainly very stupid. But the people around him are not. They want to stay in power.
You paint a very dark picture of the current administration and of the American political system in general. But at a deeper, more
societal level, isn’t there still a democratic underpinning?
No. There are some memories of what we once were. There are still a few old people around who remember the New Deal, which was the last time we had a government that showed some interest in the welfare of the American people. Now we have governments, in the last 20 to 30 years, that care only about the welfare of the rich.
Is Bush the worst president we’ve ever had?
Well, nobody has ever wrecked the Bill of Rights as he has. Other presidents have dodged around it, but no president before this one has so put the Bill of Rights at risk. No one has proposed preemptive war before. And two countries in a row that have done no harm to us have been bombed.
How do you think the current war in Iraq is going to play out?
I think we will go down the tubes right with it. With each action Bush ever more enrages the Muslims. And there are a billion of them. And sooner or later they will have a Saladin who will pull them together, and they will come after us. And it won’t be pretty.