Gore Vidal on the Great Republic and its Fall

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Gore Vidal (25 min, 14 meg)

Having read all the Gore Vidal obits and the many more-and-less grudging encomia, I find the man himself at very near his best in my own conversational files — from an evening at Harvard just before Thanksgiving in 2003, on the occasion of his publishing Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams and Jefferson. He’d walked into the hall slowly, on a cane, that night, but his chatter was was crackling with fresh mimicry and mischief. (Two nights earlier, his reward at a joint reading in Provincetown was discovering that ancient nemesis Norman Mailer was getting around on two canes.) Great entertainer and great complainer, Vidal at 78 came through as passionate historian and erudite old comic who could still fill the house, and whose repartee was not all repertoire.  I asked him, as the novelist of Empire, whether the hard plunge in these Bush years from republic to empire was now irreversible.  He said the temptations of empire and the fate of ours were inescapable: “I think Gibbon would say: no.  It’s highly reversible.   And try to step aside when the Capitol falls on you.  Ours will go as the others have gone.”

Harry Truman’s Cold War was the beginning of the end of our Great Republic, in the Vidal litany — the “Russians are coming” campaign when Truman and Dean Acheson knew that the Russians weren’t going anywhere.  “Senator Vandenberg told Truman: ‘if you want this buildup because “the Russians are coming,” you’re going to have to frighten the American people to death or you’re not going to get any money out of Congress.’  Truman said: ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did!” Vidal’s heroes turned out to be General U. S. Grant, for writing in his celebrated memoirs that our Civil War was God’s judgment and retribution for the cruel folly of our war on Mexico; Benjamin Franklin, for forseeing the corruption of the people; and John Quincy Adams, for the Munroe Doctrine and his warning not to “seek out monsters to destroy” in the world. 

Of the living, Vidal spoke nothing but evil that night in ’03.  “The cheerleader from Andover” was the worst of a very bad lot.  Howard Dean “assessed the unpopularity of the war, but you can’t just do anger at the war.  For a second act, why not restore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Take your stand on the recovery of our liberties.”  Wesley Clark’s resume was too long: “I don’t like these men of great accomplishment who’ve accomplished nothing, and who mean nothing.”  Of Dennis Kucinich: “The hair is deplorable… but it’s the only negative thing I can say about him.”

The sum of our political scene was the vanity of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. “I think: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’  This is what you’re up against.  It’s just ambition.  King-of-the-Castle is what they’re playing.  Well, I want a better castle, suitable for a better king.  So this system isn’t going to give it to us.”

There was nothing the slightest bit encouraging here except Gore Vidal himself and the indomitable fierceness of his campaign to reprove us, improve us and amuse us, all at the same time.  The overflow Cambridge crowd ate him up, and I hope you will, too.

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  • Shaman

    Wonderful. Thank you for re-posting this conversation.

    Paraphrasing your question to Vidal, “How do we get out of this?”
    Vidal: “You run out of money”

    His tirades are brilliant. The truth hurts. Vidal nails it.

  • Shaman

    By the way, the last 3 minutes is breathtaking as Vidal sums up – nearly 10 years ago – exactly how the ‘advertising culture’ has deceived the general population into thinking that it has no power.

  • Sean McElroy

    Although I feel a consanguinity with Mr. Vidal here, I get no clear sense of sanquinity. It seems so much simpler to forsee decline than to foresee renewal and yet both are possible.

    In retrospect and if I am a reliable witness to my own predilictions, I was strongly convinced that we were headed down the Orwellian path to totalitarianism back in 2003. And although I am not yet freed from that nightmare, 9 years hence, I see hopeful signs that things are not yet as bad as all that. Perhaps this dessensitization is at least partly due to the Occupy Movement and its ability to convey at least the idea of a vigilant populace. Or perhaps, there was no significant stimulus present. A tragedy averted is not a tragedy. But and opportunity lost is not an opportunity either.

    All this time I have had the notion that an incompetant government is incompetant equally. That is, it is equally capable of the tragic and the opportunistic and equally unable to control which it promulgates or when.

  • The Parrot

    Nota bene: “We must bear witness to what we do and to what the nation does.” A call to action of this sort must flow from a core conviction with deep roots in optimism. Even if that optimism is tempered with some degree of cynicism. Vidal’s gaze was on America, and that gaze produced output about the human family’s core, its activities, and the betrayals of its core. That is, the psyche’s movement within the individual into the pores of its collective bridle (using a western world view of dualism as inescapable tether). For me, Mr. Vidal had romantic’s soul with an empiricist’s unflinching acumen.

    Regarding empire and its inevitable demise: the only probable cure for empire is to simply become one (my personal hobby horse). And, it’s not only money, a fungible instrument of paper with vacuous pictures, that will bleed one out into oblivion.

    I want to add another obit to this thread. That is, Robert Hughes’ passing R.I.P. It is germane because Mr. Hughes also had taken a long gaze at America, though through its artistic aspirations, output, and market machinations. And this gaze went all the way back to pre-revolutionary days.

    Furthermore, like Mr. Vidal, Mr. Hughes gave us his honest and sophisticated appraisal, but in a clear voice that any member of the laity could understand. And through his personal wit and charm, art is made not only comprehensible, but interesting to where it felt within reach (something drained from much artistic discourse post ww2). Given the state of politics, money’s eclipsing shadow cast over speech and the speech of the voting franchise (alas, one dollar, one vote), I find an interesting rapport between contemporary art and contemporary politics. Both are awash in money. Which, should surprise no one

    Here’s a youtube video of Mr. Hughes in action (I differ with Mr. Hughes on some of his assessments, but can’t help but enjoy the moment anyway). “Isn’t it a miracle what so much money and so little ability can produce.” Certainly, a Vidal sentiment about our political climate over the last few years. http://youtu.be/jUh_NSpiTsY

  • The Parrot

    Chris, I was so caught up in the conversation and trying to comment on it that I forgot the most important part: thank you sir. A wonderful conversation. A thousand blessings upon you and yours.

    • Sean McElroy


      • Yes, Christopher, a great conversation, brimming with insight.

  • Potter

    Amazing that this interview from 2003 fits right into this ROS series prompted by Tony Judt’s book.

    Here I go again: The Republican National Convention, 1984, “God Bless the USA” with the lyrics “I’m proud to be an American” sung by country singer and composer Lee Greenwood. The song took off again after 9/11. And then it took off again the invasion of Iraq.
    Kucinich seemed like a clown when he was prominently on the political scene no matter how right he was. It wasn’t his hair. Recently he popped up in the news, now graying, and it was refreshing to see and hear him.

    Gore Vidal was a standard bearer of sorts, a soldier at war with the current situation in our politics, getting worse, not better. He is right that it’s all about ambition (Paul Krugman ends with this in his latest blog post) and less about vision. George Bush the elder, I remember, clearly just wanted to be the President.

    As JFK complains to Vidal, the players in our politics are so second rate. Trying to get a hold of how we got here and how we get out of this mess, this particular interview Chris with Vidal, with an audience from 9 years ago, fits right in. Vidal was sharp acerbic pointed… but also an entertainer. The audience laughs through it. Vidal’s analysis sounds right to me. But he has no answers, no realistic ones, that is, about what to do to change where we have been headed for decades now.

    Is it only a money problem?

    Vidal brings up an idea that has been floating around for quite awhile- Clinton even played with it- that the people’s airwaves, belonging to the people, should be used to give candidates some free space in which to send their messages. Simple. But how do we get the National Association of Broadcasters out of it, especially now with more money than ever flowing from the superpacs? And then forget about that because we are not living in a broadcast TV era anymore. We have cable and internet.

    But if we had the collective will (somehow) we could get somewhere.

    Vidal suggests is that we go backwards in time… restore the Constitution … (sotto voce the USA Patriot Act)

    But when, Chris, you ask about 25 minutes in, how do we do all this, Gore goes off on an unrelated tangent. He had no real answer. (Am I mistaken?)

    Again, the (seemingly) young audience laughs throughout. Are they too easily shrugging off some very serious criticisms. I was not laughing.

    Thank you so much.

  • Potter

    Vidal might have liked this blogpost by Krugman:

    The Culture of Fraud

  • Potter

    In honor of Gore Vidal, addressing his complaint that this quote is available nowhere in textbooks (or other books) may I put more here? The title has it as unpublished. Amazing isn’t it that Franklin’s papers are online. Thanks to Yale and the American Philosophical Society.

    (Hopefully this is “fair use”)


    From Benjamin Franklin: Speech in the Convention on the Constitution (unpublished)

    (Addressed to Mr. President September 17th 1787….. excerpt)

    ……….In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, there is noForm of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administred; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well adminstred for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution: For when you assemble a Number of Men to have the Advantage of their joint Wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those Men all their Prejudices, their Passions, their Errors of Opinion, their local Interests, and their selfish Views. From such an Assembly can a perfect Production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this System approaching so near to Perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our Enemies, who are waiting with Confidence to hear that our Councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel, and that our States are on the Point of Separation, only to meet hereafter for the Purpose of cutting one anothers Throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good. I have never whisper’d a Syllable of them abroad. Within these Walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the Objections he has had to it, and endeavour to gain Partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary Effects and great Advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign Nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent Unanimity. Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing Happiness to the People depends on Opinion, on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that Government as well as of the Wisdom and Integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own Sakes, as a Part of the People, and for the sake of our Posterity we shall act heartity and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours to the Means of having it well administred.

  • Edward Souza

    I was touched to find this interview. I missed the first time through. Though I may disagree with Mr. Vidal at times, I have never found him boring or disingenuous. I like his innovation of recovering the constitution. More accurately, I think he was referring to the Bill of Rights. It would help though if congress actually passed a budget and was held responsible for it.

    What prompted me to write was his comments on Grant’s biography. I read it for the first time this summer and was completely taken with it. His close chapter should be required reading in all American History classes. I am not sure why it has been missed. It covers slavery, citizenship, Republican backed infrastructure, the wealth of nations, democracy, empires, the course of nations and the limits of military power. How could you go wrong by sharing it.


  • paul

    Looking for Vidals use of Parenti quote … “fanangaling founders.”