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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