Gore Vidal, Novelist of U.S. Past Sees an Empire Replacing Republic He So Admired

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Some talk about the Bill of Rights and others use it--testing the power of the freedom enshrined. Gore Vidal does both--exquisitely.

Love him or hate him, Vidal is one of the smartest, most provocative and productive writers in the country. Author of five plays, six collections of essays and 22 novels, he has also worked on numerous screenplays. His collection of historical novels includes "Burr," "Lincoln" and a sort of trilogy that takes a group of political characters from "1876" to the 1920s. In these books he has written the equivalent of a history of the United States, and in conversation is on a first-name basis with such American icons as George Washington, "our first millionaire," and Thomas Jefferson, "not politically correct."

Now 66, Vidal shows no sign of slowing down. Last week was typical: a rousing and irreverent speech to the National Press Club, which produced an avalanche of requests for reprints when broadcast on C-SPAN and National Public Radio. Then off to Pennsylvania to play a cameo role of a liberal senator in a film about what Vidal calls "apple pie fascism." Finally, he checked in at the Plaza Hotel in New York, for meetings with his editors about a collection of his essays due out in the spring and the publication of his newest novel.

At the end of a long discussion, it was more than an hour past midnight, but Vidal was still going strong. "Too bad you can't send me a copy," he said, "so I can add some more jokes." On a more sober note, before leaving for Italy, where he lives half the year when he's not at his Hollywood home, he said, "I'm just trying to be a good citizen."

As his role models in this effort, he invoked the memory of Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, the grandfather who raised him, and Eleanor Roosevelt. "We were brought up to take part," Gore said, noting that he and George Bush come from the same background. "I find Bush interesting, because when I was at Exeter, he was at Andover. He's a year older than I. And I enlisted in the Army at 17, he enlisted in the Navy at 18. He was brought up by his father, who was a senator. I was brought up by grandfather, who was a senator. We had quite similar backgrounds--and look at the routes we took, which I don't say pejoratively in either case. It's just interesting." Vive la difference .

Question: How would you sum up the state of the Bill of Rights on this, its 200th anniversary?

Answer: I would say that each year we lose more and more of the inalienable "rights." The First Amendment is always being besieged--currently by the President. . . . When a doctor cannot tell a patient "go to your friendly abortion parlor" . . . that is an abridgment of the Bill of Rights. If we had a Supreme Court that was separate and took itself seriously, (the so-called gag order) would be struck down. The court now is a nine-member legal counsel to the executive branch, in place to validate executive imperial decrees. This is not what the founders had in mind.

Q: What did they have in mind?

A: Well, I'll tell you one thing they had in mind was that their handiwork was pretty makeshift. They did not worship their own creation. We worship the Constitution but do not observe it. Particularly the Bill of Rights. They knew it was kind of thrown together. And Thomas Jefferson went on record as saying that there should be a constitutional convention at least every generation . . . every 30 years . . . on the ground that you cannot expect a man to wear a boy's jacket.

Q: And the relevance of that today?

A: Well, we've gone 200 years now without a constitutional convention. Our entire system now is dedicated to making sure that nothing is altered, that the status quo continues. And the dumb liberals start shrieking, "Oh, if you have a convention, they'll take the Bill of Rights away." To which my answer is: Well, they're doing it anyway behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court.

Q: Why are you so sanguine about the majority in this country turning out a good constitution. Are we more able than the founders' generation?

A: We are not only a less homogenous population than we were when we were3 million ex-colonists, but we're less educated. On top of that, we have constant misinformation and manipulation by media. Between having no education on the one hand, and listening to all this nonsense on the other, you do not have Jefferson's enlightened electorate. But I have a sense that there's a basic common sense . . . . That's called majority rule--write that down before you forget it. And that's why you need a Bill of Rights--to protect the minority.

Q: But wasn't it also to protect the economic interests of an elite?

A: It all begins with Shay's Rebellion, when George Washington was terrified that at risk were his western lands--Shays was in western Massachusetts. Washington, our "first millionaire," as he's billed, had great territories along the Ohio and was ever westward-moving. And he felt endangered by this mob.

What happened was that, after the Revolution, all the common soldiers, the common people, thought that they wouldn't have to pay tax any more to England. Well, they didn't have to pay to England. But the property tax was doubled in Massachusetts. So they're in rebellion against taxation yet again. . . .

Anyway, Washington panicked. There's a famous letter from him to Hamilton saying: If we are to preserve our property, we'd better organize some sort of a federal structure, because we're faced with anarchy, and so on. It's quite a hysterical letter. So Hamilton, quite happily, started the machinery and ended up with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Q: Were there no debates among the Founding Fathers about the intent of the Constitution?

A: The only politics the United States has really is between Jefferson and Hamilton. And it's like two tectonic plates, meeting in the cellar of the national divided house. You're either Jeffersonian or you're Hamiltonian, whether you like it or not. Hamilton is obviously our present world, which is energy, industry, trade, greed . . . . But Hamilton was very shrewd. He was no fool. He said: Why not use self-interest as a motor to the state? Why not employ people's self-interest instead of trying to deny it exists?--which Jefferson tended to do. Or sounded like he was doing.

So the Jefferson side--to which I belong, but I don't much care for him . . . . But that's the side that said: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The Declaration is the radical document. The Constitution is not much except for the Bill of Rights. But that was startling. Nobody else had thought to do that, to say "the pursuit of happiness." . . .

And that is really the battle, I think, that goes on constantly between the instinctive Hamiltonians and the instinctive Jeffersonians. You find that all through our history. It's going on today, with Hamilton very much in the saddle.

Q: Why don't you like Jefferson?

A: I've had to deal with him as a writer you know. The hypocrisy, the issue of slavery, really. He is, let us say, not politically correct. But you can be sympathetic to him. He's stuck. He doesn't have a penny except those slaves. That's his capital. And if he gave them up--he had 120 or something--he was a poor man most of his life, he would have starved to death. So he was a creature of his time and place. It's the sanctimoniousness of him that gets on my nerves. Which is why I wrote a book called "Burr" and not a book called "Jefferson." Burr's sharp. And he never lies to you. Well, he may lie to you, but he's not a humbug. He's not a hypocrite.

Q: And the future of the Constitution and Bill of Rights?

A: Well, we've lost the Republic. I mean, that went in 1950, when it was replaced by the national security state, which ignores the Constitution whenever it can. And I mean the Constitution gives Congress only two powers, but it gives them the two greatest powers: to declare war and the power of the purse. Both have been abdicated by Congress. So the Congress is now pointless. The Supreme Court is, as I said, just . . . a bunch of legal mediocrity working for the President. So that's the end of that.

So there goes the checks and balances. The system is finished. And all we've got now to hang on to is the Bill of Rights, which is a kind of red light, saying, "Government can go this far and no farther." . . . Well, the court is now experimenting in ways of taking it past every red light that the founders put up. The primitives have risen up.

Q: How do you explain that? Why do we have this phenomenon of the primitives whether it's in religion, politics, etc.?

A: Well, we never developed a civilization, I'm sorry to say. I thought I'd see one in my lifetime but I haven't. There's less now than when I was young. You can put that down--if you're an elitist--to the vast waves of immigration, which takes time to absorb.

I'm all in favor of this. I'm a pluralist. And in the long run it will probably do us a lot of good. But how do you explain Jefferson and Hamilton to a well-educated Confucian from Saigon? I don't quite know how to do it. Do you? Or even to get him interested.

These are the problems. You have to have a language in common. Literally, a language in common. Then you have to have an education in common. Our rulers allowed the schools to go crashing for the last generation and a half, so they don't know much of anything . . . . Civilization is that you do share a few books . . . .

Q: What about the old melting pot?

A. No, I'm for making a cantonal system. The massive waves of Latinos sweeping across the border are quite correctly taking what they call "the occupied lands"--Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. They're reoccupying it, and have no particular interest in the Anglo culture. And many of them will go back to Mexico or wherever--or Central America, where we displaced them with one of our imperial incursions. So what do you do about that? How do they join the party? Or can we get them interested? My theory is that, essentially, the thing is never going to integrate anymore. . . .

We're going to end up with, if we're lucky, something like Switzerland with sort of Spanish cantons . . . . I like the diversity of it. Q: Well, we've had waves of immigrants before who were assimilated into the dominant values. Why not now?

A: But you're speaking of a time when assimilation was in the air and to assimilate into the United States was the greatest thing on Earth. For anybody from anywhere. That's no longer true. If you want to blame the WASPs--they certainly are culpable. It's under their leadership that we lost the game.

But, we lost the game when we took on the empire and got rid of the Republic. And, you know, that debate went on at the time of Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. They said you cannot be a world empire and maintain a republic. The radicals of that day were complaining about Jefferson. They even talked of impeaching him. But he couldn't resist the deal to take over Louisiana--then two-thirds of our country.

. . . . I keep coming back to 1950. Since you don't have representative government any more, you don't have political parties. You have one party with two wings--one Democratic, one Republican--it's all the same party. The elections are without issues. You have numerous elections but no politics. You have interchangeable candidates, paid for by the same people. What is there to be debate?

Q: Why 1950?

A: You can start to trace it, I mean, Harry Truman put in loyalty oaths for Christ sake. Then he drafted kids in peace- time because the Russians were coming. I mean, it was just that bull--. The Russians weren't going anywhere, as everybody knew. They were broke, 20 million of them dead and they were a Third World country.

Q: What about the hope of some now that the Russians clearly are not coming? Can you turn the clock back?

A: No, I think we're going to have to accept the fact the U.S. is off the world map. We are not a great player any longer. And when we come home--as we will have to do because we've run out of money--we will discover that Argentine debts means Argentine politics. And on that note, you can wake up in the middle of the night.

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