In the following televised interview, Gore Vidal states, “I would say that, in the long run, the world will be saved American despotism by the coming bankruptcy of the country. Now, that will have awful fallout for everybody. I don’t even want to look into that crystal ball.” Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (born October 3, 1925), known simply as Gore Vidal, is a well-known American writer of novels, plays and essays, and has been a public figure for over fifty years. Vidal considers himself a “radical reformer” who has been described as wanting to return to the “pure republicanism” of early America. (Wikipedia Entry)
Interview with Gore Vidal
TONY JONES: The foreword to Gore Vidal’s latest book, Inventing a Nation, is penned by an Australian politician. The writer is none other than New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, a lifetime enthusiast for American history and longtime friend of Gore Vidal. Springing to his mate’s defence, Mr Carr says that blundering neocons and ultra-nationalists have tried to impugn his patriotism. But Carr, too, has differences with the man he calls “a lonely genius”. Bob Carr paints Gore Vidal as a committed isolationist who believes that projecting American power will always make a situation worse. The vehicle for Vidal’s latest assault on the Bush administration is a tract devoted to examining the lives and motives of America’s founding fathers. His treatise appears to be that today’s America and its foreign policy would be unrecognisable to them and betrays many of their ideals. I spoke to Gore Vidal in California earlier today.
TONY JONES: Gore Vidal, thank you for joining us.
GORE VIDAL (WRITER AND HISTORIAN): Well, thank you for inviting me.
TONY JONES: Now, your inspiration for writing this book came from a question President Kennedy put to you at Hiannas back in 1961. Could you start by recalling that conversation for us?
GORE VIDAL: We were sitting out overlooking the cold Atlantic Sea in the Kennedy compound – they have about four or five white-frame houses on the beach – and we were playing backgammon, and as usual I was winning and as usual he was swearing, and then he said, “You know, your Uncle Lefty was here a day or two ago, and he said, ‘Why is it that the United States, this little backward agrarian country with 3 million people, should have produced, in the 18th century, three of the great intellectual geniuses of the 18th century: Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson?'” Needless to say, I did not provide him with a satisfactory answer, because I still don’t have one, other than it was a throw of the dice, as so many things are in life, and a throw of the dice it was that we had three exceptional men, and when it came to inventing a nation, I started to think about them, so I decided to put together a book in which you can actually hear the real conversations that went on, preserved in letters and diaries and so on, between the founders, James Madison in particular, the great friend of Jefferson – he is called the father of our constitution – and you hear the other voices of the very wise Benjamin Franklin, who didn’t much care for the handiwork of the Constitutional Convention, which was held in 1789.
TONY JONES: Could I just pick you up there? You mentioned one of those exceptional men was Benjamin Franklin, and as you say, he seems to have been rather pessimistic about the constitution and, indeed, the future of the republic. Tell us why and what he actually said when he signed off on the constitution.
GORE VIDAL: He said, “Well, I say ‘yes’ to this constitution, with all its faults. We need good governance for a while, and this constitution will assure us of good governance for a number of years.” Then he said, “This constitution will fail, as others have before it, and that will be due to the corruption of the people, for whom in the end only despotism will serve.” This was a famous speech in its day. I went through a dozen high school history books of the United States. Part of the speech is given; what I just quoted is never quoted. So that was the first “nay” vote to the constitution, which I think most thoughtful people – the good thing about it is the Bill of Rights, which guarantees us freedom of speech and so on. The bad things are the powers given to the President, which have now been absolutely inflated out of control, where the President is almost a permanent dictator with the power to declare pre-emptive war any time he likes. Now, George Washington would be out of his mind, and he was the first President. He didn’t want powers to say, “I think terrorists might be livin’ over there. I think we better hit Denmark. Denmark’s a good place to hit. We’ll hit ’em because there could be terrorists there.” This is the rationale of the so-called Bush doctrine, and it is insane.
TONY JONES: If I could just interrupt you there again. Looking at the dark prophecy of Benjamin Franklin is where you book verges off into suggesting that America has actually already moved towards despotism. It’s a pretty longbow, though, isn’t it?
GORE VIDAL: Well, of course. We’ve visited despotism many times before – never to the extent that we have now. We’ve never before gone in on two countries which had done us no harm, were friendly to the United States – Afghanistan and Iraq – and knocked them to bits. We spent a lot of money on the armaments to do that, and now we’re spending a big fortune, through the Vice President’s company, Halliburton, to repair what we just knocked down. So two sets of money have been burnt up in destroying two countries which had done us no harm and were in no position to do us any harm, despite the numerous lies told about weapons of mass destruction. There weren’t any in Iraq, and presumably nobody said that about Afghanistan, and now they’re starting to mutter about Iran. This is where what I call isolationism – which Bob Carr and I did not finish talking about the other day on the radio – this is where we come in, which is: you do not interfere in a predatory way in the affairs of sovereign nations because you think they might one day get atomic weapons and blow us up in the night. We ascribe to everybody else our own motives. Why should they do it? What would be the motivation? What’s the provocation? So we, the isolationists, are the peacekeepers and, I thought, should be properly valued.
TONY JONES: Isolationism is a bit of a moveable feast, though. I mean, American power was used to defeat Hitler and imperial Japan and, more recently, for example, to force Slobodan Milosevic out of power in Serbia. Do you see a use for American power against despotism?
GORE VIDAL: I don’t think arbitrarily or pre-emptively – which is the key adverb here – no, I don’t. I think in union, as we behaved in the Balkans – that was essentially a coalition of nations, United Nations amongst others – yes, of course; we belong to a certain world. Listen, remember, when you hear the word “isolationist” said by an American right-wing politician, he’s sneering: “And they say they believe in a flat Earth and no relations with foreign countries because we’re protected by two oceans.” Nonsense. That was true 200 years ago, but in today’s misuse of the word, it simply means those who object to our forcing ourselves upon other countries; going into the Middle East not to bring liberty and justice to the Iraqis – we didn’t even know who they were, we don’t even know where the country is, most Americans; we’re there for the oilfields.
TONY JONES: Let’s leap forward to the latest or the last State of the Union address and President Bush, in a way, rewriting the guiding principles of foreign policy. In his recent address, he said the ultimate goal now was to end tyranny in the world.
GORE VIDAL: (chuckles).
TONY JONES: Tell us what you make of that.
GORE VIDAL: I think he believes that we can eliminate tyranny everywhere on earth if we allow it in our own country first. We will then provide a model. He is a tyrant, as much as he can be under our system, and our system in many ways is crumbling, so it’s open season on the republic that Benjamin Franklin feared for.
TONY JONES: Despotism, though, and tyranny implies a suppression of dissent. I mean, there’s no bar to open dissent in the United States; just simply whether you can get on to the corporate media.
GORE VIDAL: (chuckles) Well, isn’t that – that is how it’s controlled. The great networks are owned by the great corporations. Sometimes a corporation – why, there’s a native of your country who’s come to join us who’s buying up all sorts of radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, in a conglomerate, which was not allowed under our laws, but somehow they’ve all been bent, and doing very well with it. That is how you control what the people know. It’s beyond anything Orwell dreamed of.
TONY JONES: Isn’t it the case, though, that fewer and fewer people in fact are actually getting their information from the corporate-owned media?
GORE VIDAL: Where do you think they’re getting it?
TONY JONES: That’s a very good question. I mean, partly from the Internet, but they seem to be drawing information from all sorts of areas now. Is the power of the corporate media waning, do you think?
GORE VIDAL: It’s absolute. Is its credibility waning? Yes, of course it is. Prime-time television is nothing but propaganda, and almost everything said contradicts itself, because they don’t bother to sound logical in what they say. They say the message very loud. That is what the people around Bush have discovered: you repeat the lie, and if people look slightly doubtful, you repeat it again more loudly, and you go on and on. Bush went on for about three years getting ready for the Iraq war, saying that Osama bin Laden, responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, was working hand in glove with Saddam Hussein, who was equally guilty; therefore, we were going to remove Saddam Hussein, because he was so vicious. Well, he would have been very vicious had he been responsible for any of the attacks on the United States, but he wasn’t.
TONY JONES: Let me ask you this, though, if I can: when you see the majority of people in Iraq, particularly the Kurds and the Shi’ites, expressing their will for the first time in an election and beginning to form a government in much the same way that the founding fathers formed a government in the United States, does it not give you some pause as to whether perhaps that is the right thing?
GORE VIDAL: Well, the founding fathers did not form the government of the Republic of the United States while occupied by France. We did it on our own, having invited the British to go home, which they had done. So it’s not comparable at all. We are an invading power. We have fixed an election, which I think in due course, the press will say, “Well, I guess we got that one wrong, too. It was corrupt”, and so on. I notice that today’s press, Shalabi – who has been totally discredited; he was a refugee to the United States, in various troubles around the world for banking and so on – but he’s back and he’s standing up and they say he’s going to be the next Prime Minister. Well, if he is, they’re going to have a revolution. What are we doing interfering – we with our disastrous elections in the last 20, 30 years, what are we doing prescribing elections in a country and a culture that we know nothing about? This is beyond hubris; this is just crazy time.
TONY JONES: It’s true, though, that neoconservatives might point out that one of the principals in your book, Thomas Jefferson, observed just before his own death – and you quote these observations at the end of your book – talking about his Declaration of Independence, he says, “May it be to the world what I believe it will be: the signal of arousing men to burst their chains.” Now, based on those kind of comments, he might well have endorsed a war to bring democratic principles to another country.
GORE VIDAL: Well, he never showed any sign of wanting to do any such thing. He was not one for foreign wars. He was rather opposed to having a standing army. Most of the founders didn’t want a standing army, on the sensible ground that we would use it, and we’d use it for dark ends, like stealing other people’s property, as we did in Mexico, as we did in the war against Spain, which we picked in order to grab not only Cuba and Puerto Rico but, more importantly, the Philippines, which made us a Pacific power.
TONY JONES: We were talking about dissenting voices a short time ago and the importance of dissent. Can I just ask your thoughts on the passing of one of the great dissenters of recent American history, Arthur Miller, a man brave enough in his day to stand against the despotism of Senator McCarthy.
GORE VIDAL: We always have these treacherous figures in society who are there to denounce others as traitors, heretics – all sort of false religious language they use. No, Arthur Miller had the virtue of being an honest man, not easily intimidated. It came naturally to him to write plays about those like himself or perhaps like the way he would have wanted to be. None of us is as brave as he wants to be, but some get closer to it than others.
TONY JONES: Is there the like of Arthur Miller in today’s America?
GORE VIDAL: No. There are voices that speak out, writers that write out. The problem is, the media will not let them on. People ask me, “If you end up with such boring candidates as Mr Kerry and Mr Bush – are there no Americans in public life who might be more useful, more representative of the people, the best elements of our nature?” I say, “Yes, there are, but the New York Times will not report their speeches. Television will not let them on unless they’re surrounded by eight neoconservatives who all talk at once and shout and howl.” It’s like a menagerie. There is no political debate because it’s not allowed; it’s not commercial television. So the result is there are many great voices – if I may paraphrase Grey – that are muted across the land. They are there.
TONY JONES: Gore Vidal, finally, can I ask you to engage in prophecy just for a moment? Look down the track. Four more years of George Bush. What will America and what will the world look like, in your opinion?
GORE VIDAL: Well, an unholy mess. The dollar declines in value. There is no way that you can up it. There’s nothing you can do. The wars will continue. There will be an attempt made in Iran and Syria, other places that look exciting. The United States will go broke; it’s as simple as that. That’s what ended the British Empire. One of the reasons we got into World War I was that in 1914, under the Asquith Government, the government fecklessly ran out of money, and here they were, supposed to be fighting the central powers, Germany and so on. The same thing is happening to us. We don’t have the money to pay the debts. Now, great nations that are rich in a sense don’t go bankrupt the way individuals do, ’cause you can’t put a valuation on them, but you can certainly show lack of confidence in their currency if it goes down, down, down, which it is now doing, and interest rates go up, up, up. As the interest rates go up, then we have the problem of inflation, which will give social insecurity to everybody, because the price of bread will suddenly get very high, which it has never been in the United States since the early ’30s. So I would say that, in the long run, the world will be saved American despotism by the coming bankruptcy of the country. Now, that will have awful fallout for everybody. I don’t even want to look into that crystal ball.
TONY JONES: Gore Vidal, I think you are living proof, however, that dissent is still living in the United States. We thank you very much for taking the time to come on Lateline.
GORE VIDAL: Thank you.