The telephone line to Italy is lousy but Gore Vidal’s razored tongue slices through the static like a rat snapping through a garbage bag.
“The United States lives in a total bubble,” the novelist and pundit declares from his home in Ravello. “No information comes in from the outside. Have you ever seen a story in an American paper about a foreign country . . . that is complimentary?”
Xenophobia, he adds, reduces the typical U.S. press story about another nation to something like this: “The Swedes all commit suicide. Of course, they have great social services.”
Vidal--who lives in Los Angeles when he isn’t looking aghast at the New World from over there --is expanding on his essay in the current issue of The Nation, a small-circulation platform from which he regularly launches barbs into the flank of the Establishment. Whether these darts actually change any minds--except perhaps about Vidal--is debatable. But they almost always are entertaining and seldom fail to “inflame as well as enlighten,” as the magazine’s editors once put it. They added that Vidal’s preoccupation in these hyperbolic compositions is “the changing image and reality of the American empire.”
While the latest essay echoes many of Vidal’s past positions, especially about the U.S. defense budget, it seems to strike an even more strident tone than usual. Toward the end of the article, for instance, Vidal argues that encroachments on privacy and individual freedom--such as restrictions on abortion and drug use--are violations of the Constitution. Then in a personal declaration of independence, he appears to reserve an option on a second American Revolution. “I take these rights to be absolute and should the few persist in their efforts to dominate the private lives of the many, I recommend force as a means of changing their minds,” he writes.
When the passage is read to him over the phone, Vidal, who sounds pretty cheerful for a man looking over a brink, downplays its import. He explains that he was “simply paraphrasing” Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. President, who warned in a celebrated statement that blood must occasionally water the tree of liberty.
Potential rebellion aside, this time around in The Nation Vidal’s target is the presumed confinement of U.S. public opinion to a very narrow political spectrum, partly through what he asserts is the banishment of truly dissenting viewpoints on television current-affairs shows. Until recently at least, Vidal maintains, this exclusion has been in service of “our national religion, which is anti-communism.” Within this framework Vidal, famous for his best-selling historical novels such as “Julian,” “Burr,” “Lincoln” and “Empire,” manages to criticize just about everybody in public life--either specifically or in general--as well as Americans’ ignorance of the world beyond our borders.
“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world,” Vidal writes. “No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity--much less dissent.” While those with the time and the will can “work out what is actually going on” most people must rely on network news that “may not be news at all but only a series of flashing fictions,” he adds.
For the Sunday morning public affairs programs, those question-and-answer forums served up by the networks, Vidal, a sometime congressional and senatorial candidate, has only scorn. These shows are populated by “seedy Washington journalists,” government officials “who could not dispose of a brand-new car in Spokane,” and “think-tank employees etiolated from too long residence ‘neath flat rocks,” he acidly notes. Often appearing among this bestiary is former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “whose destruction of so many Asians and their once-charming real estate won him a prize for peace from the ironists of outer Europe,” he writes.
Vidal scores these productions because “The level of the chat on those programs is about as low as it is possible to get without actually serving the viewers gin. The opinion expressed ranges from conservative to reactionary to joyous neo-fascist.”
The chief target of Vidal’s diatribe, however, is Ted Koppel of ABC-TV’s “Nightline,” billed by the novelist as “the principal dispenser of the national religion.”
Citing a study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting that purportedly found an over-representation of “white male Establishment types” such as Kissinger and Jerry Falwell, Vidal charges that “there are other more interesting and more learned--even disinterested--voices in the land.” Vidal has the candor to admit that he has some sour grapes to mash here, having been edited out of a “Nightline” segment about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
ABC representative Laura Wessner disputed Vidal’s skewering, saying that while the FAIR report was “helpful” it did not accurately portray the show, which is keyed to headline stories of the day. Anyone who believes that Nightline’s guests don’t get “their feet held to the fire” probably “doesn’t watch Nightline enough,” she added.
“Ted is not an easy questioner,” she said. “I think he would remind you that’s why we have trouble getting some of these people on the show. . . . Nobody gets a free ride on our air.” After speaking with Koppel, Wessner also relayed the message that the newsman is “an admirer of Gore’s work.”
In the final paragraph of his polemic, Vidal summons a bare ounce of optimism from some recess to conclude that a global environmental movement--sparked by “the Green God,” his term for heightened consciousness about man-made threats to nature--may yet save us from ourselves. And television.
“Soon there will be a worldwide Green movement, and the Establishment of a worldwide state, which the few will take over, thus enslaving us all while forgetting to save the planet. That is the worst-case scenario. The best? Let the many create a new few.”
Handguns and Security
Just in time for August vacationers, Conde Nast Traveler arrives to warn that people “carrying concealed handguns and other potentially dangerous weapons are still eluding U.S. airport security checks and boarding aircraft.” Airports in the South and Southwest were the leaders in confiscated weapons last year, the magazine reports, noting that the Federal Aviation Administration declined to reveal the specific U.S. airports where a total of 2,773 firearms were confiscated.
Security violations included passenger screeners asleep on the job, failure to screen passengers on a charter flight and failure to detect firearms in carry-on baggage, the magazine notes in its Stop Press section.
Glasnost hasn’t managed to kill doomsday. At least not at U.S. News & World Report. This week’s issue cautions readers that though East-West tensions have abated, the American government’s “planning for doomsday continues.”
This warning comes in the cover story, headlined “America’s Doomsday Project,” about the U.S. government’s elaborate plans and preparations for “continuity of government” in the event of nuclear war. While the article is a reprise of information that has been available for years--and has even been the source of novels--it does offer a useful reminder that the nuclear arsenal and the powers behind it are far from perfect.
For instance, the magazine reports that the sophisticated communications systems, costing billions of dollars and designed to keep leaders in touch during a nuclear war, “do not function properly.” Moreover, millions of dollars spent on government survival “may not be justified” and that security at “some bunkers and supply depots, which contain massive amounts of food, drugs and chemicals, has been plagued by numerous breaches.”