For years now, the promise of a new Gore Vidal book has been something to get the blood running or boiling. No other American writer has maintained quite such a radical, iconoclastic vision of his nation’s past, and nowhere has Vidal been more provocative than in what he calls his “narratives of empire,” a series of historical novels tracing the American republic from its beginnings to what he sees as its degeneration into a global, quasi-totalitarian behemoth. Throughout these books, which include “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr,” “Lincoln” and “1876,” Vidal punctured our every national pretension. At his best, he has pressed useful troubling questions about our imperial ambitions and the anti-democratic tendencies of our national security state. No approach could be more welcome in this, our season of mindless triumphalism.
“The Golden Age,” which takes place from 1939 to 1954, is Vidal’s seventh and last novel in the series. “The Golden Age” completes the story of the Sanfords, fictional descendants of Aaron Burr, and their friends, lovers and nemeses. Half siblings Caroline and Blaise Sanford, once competing newspaper publishers, are leading lights in Washington high society. Blaise’s son, Peter, is an independent-minded young man and professional skeptic. He is in love with Diana, the daughter of upstanding, old-fashioned Sen. Burden Day. The trouble is that Diana is in love with Clay Overbury, Sen. Day’s unscrupulous aide, and Overbury is pursuing Peter’s beautiful but mercurial sister, Enid.
This may sound like a soap opera, but in fact it works well as a story of love, betrayal and overweening ambition. Or rather, it did work very well, in “Washington, D.C.,” the first and best-written book in this series. Those who have read the earlier book will find it annoying that Vidal tells the same story here, and those who haven’t read “Washington, D.C.” will find this recounting incomprehensible for its hurried and slapdash manner.
Vidal muddies the waters of his plot still further when, more than halfway through the novel, he begins mixing in a curiously flat memoir of New York’s splendid cultural scene in the years immediately following World War II. This is the golden age of the title, when, at last, he informs us, “the United States is going to have a civilization.” The sketchy, distracted quality of both Vidal’s fiction and his quasi-fictional memoir are the product of a greater problem with “The Golden Age”: his decision to subordinate everything to a dubious political polemic.
Every golden age has its price--or rather, as Balzac put it, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. For Vidal, the crime was the usurpation of world power by the United States, which, he maintains, most of the American people did not want but which was foisted upon them through the secret, illegal, even murderous machinations of our leaders, laboring enthusiastically on behalf of “the international banks and their lawyer-lobbyists.”
It is this sort of dogma that has led Vidal into that Great Dismal Swamp of American history, the conspiracy theory. There was some foreshadowing of this in the previous book of the series, “Hollywood,” when he pulled out the hoariest old chestnut of the genre, suggesting that President Warren Harding did not die of a heart attack but was in fact poisoned by his wife. Vidal’s recounting of the old Harding rumor seemed to be some subtle satire on what Richard Hofstadter so famously dubbed “the paranoid style” in American politics. But no, conspiracies cling to “The Golden Age” like tangler vines and squeeze all the life out of it.
Early on, Vidal spends a couple of chapters detailing a supposed plot to fix the 1940 Republican convention, one that hinges on the “suspicious” death of one Ralph E. Williams, the 70-year-old committeeman in charge of seating arrangements. After his death, Williams was replaced with a delegate loyal to none other than Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate whose foreign policy views most closely reflected those of Vidal’s “international banks.”
A grand plot to nominate Willkie? Even in the world of conspiracy theories, this one is a bit obscure. And Vidal himself soon moves on to his charge that President Franklin D. Roosevelt betrayed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor by withholding information about an imminent Japanese attack.
Vidal seems so absorbed by this conceit that he drops the narrative thread for pages at a time to give us his “proof.” Why stake so much on this? For Vidal, the infamy at Pearl Harbor was the seed from which all later hoaxes and conspiracies grew. He includes among these--in no particular order--the Cold War, NATO, Harry Truman’s loyalty oaths, grants to universities and the humanities, liberal periodicals, the CIA, the Museum of Modern Art, Americans for Democratic Action, high income taxes, “mega-socialism,” the SATs and unnecessary airport security. This sort of paranoia has a depressingly familiar sound to it, like some dusty position paper from the Goldwater campaign raving about the fluoridation of water.
Everything, it seems, has been a plot, perpetrated upon the perennially innocent American people by their masters in the halls of power. Yet Vidal’s grand conspirators are rather incredible. FDR, for whom he seems to have a sneaking fondness, is repeatedly compared to Hitler. So is Truman, who is depicted as “ignorant and hopelessly ineffective,” not to mention a drunk. Gen. George Marshall is compared to Benedict Arnold, and Dean Acheson is a warmonger, while Secretary of War Henry Stimson is accused of being “born senile.” Sen. Arthur Vandenberg is said to be twisted around the little finger of a comely British spy.
Yet their various failings never impinge upon their general omniscience and omnipotence. By 1940, they already “know” that the Russians can handle Hitler without our help; by 1945, they already know that Stalin and Mao will pose no real threat to anyone else. Whenever confronted, they lay out their plans in the most bluntly amoral terms. Vidal’s bad guys do more talking about their schemes than James Bond villains. Even so, they are always able to impose their will upon the people, otherwise referred to by such charming sobriquets as “the general sub-population” and “interchangeable citizens.” For all their republican nobility, the old sub-pops are “always kept in the dark” and "[a]lways do as they are told.”
To read all this is to realize just how absent the people have actually been from Vidal’s narratives, even as he has posed as their champion. Very few of the great mass movements in American history have been depicted in this series, and Vidal has largely skipped over the Great Depression. The travails of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the free soilers and the Populists, the civil rights and antiwar movements--all are generally absent as well.
Even during wartime, the sound of the guns is kept well in the background. In “The Golden Age,” as in “Washington, D.C.,” the leading veteran is a fake hero, a sort of Nixon-Kennedy composite who is using his claims of valor to launch an equally unscrupulous political career. War is something that anyone this side of a sub-pop can see through and evade. Hence, Diana Day announces, “I can’t see how this war [World War II] is worth the life of any of us.”
Not worth the life of any of us--to stop Hitler? Even operating on Vidal’s own geopolitical level and believing, as he does, the worst of our motives, one must ask just what the United States was supposed to do in the 1940s. If the United States had refused to enter World War II, or to check Soviet and Chinese power after the war, these totalitarian powers would not simply have gone away. At the very least, the world outside the Western Hemisphere might have been given over to the Nazis or Stalin or Mao or the Japanese empire or some combination thereof.
Such blinkered visions abound in “The Golden Age,” and they are increasingly infuriating. Even Vidal’s golden age is absurdly reductionist. No American civilization before 1945? How about jazz, blues and country music, the Harlem Renaissance, the Hudson River School, most photography and film, William Faulkner, Thomas Eakins, Melville, Poe and Whitman, just for starters? None of it counted, apparently, until Abstract Expressionism and musical comedy hit New York after the war.
Yet these sorts of sweeping generalizations are necessary, lest Vidal be forced to admit that all those “interchangeable citizens” out there might have had something to do, for better or worse, with creating the America we have today. To be innocent, after all, is to be helpless, and it is always difficult to envision the American people as helpless.
“It is no accident,” Sen. Day tells us, “that for three hundred years our people willingly, I believe--maybe even joyously--slaughtered their way across this continent, enslaved Negroes, drove out Mexicans, broke more Indian treaties than Hitler ever bothered to make. Then, for the last half century, we’ve made the countries of the Caribbean and Central America our property while occupying most of the islands of the Pacific including, after due incineration, our only Asian rival, Japan. Who are we to say that this was the work of a few war-lovers . . . ?”
Who indeed. It looks for one heady moment as if Vidal will provide us with a real debate, but all such speculations are quickly waved aside. Instead, Vidal--fully ensconced now as a character--leaves us with this positively Olympian benediction at the end of “The Golden Age”: “As for the human case, the generation of men come and go and are in eternity no more than bacteria upon a luminous slide, and the fall of a republic or the rise of an empire--so significant to those involved--are not detectable upon the slide were there an interested eye to behold that steadily proliferating species which would either end in time or, with luck, become something else, since change is the nature of life, and its hope.”
As one of those luminous-slided bacteria, I, however, would like to set a few things straight before shuffling off to the great mutation. To deal with Vidal’s main charge in “The Golden Age”: Did Roosevelt and his leading aides and commanders knowingly allow the American garrison at Pearl Harbor to be surprised by withholding vital warnings of an impending Japanese attack? One undisputed fact should suffice to torpedo all of Vidal’s wild distortions and insinuations.
On Nov. 27, 1941, the commanders of the American forces at Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short, each received his third official warning from Washington that year that a surprise Japanese attack was possible. This one began, “This dispatch should be considered a war warning. . . .”
Such an advisory, coming from Washington, should be sufficient for any admiral or general worthy of the rank to take precautions against a sneak attack. It is disturbing to even have to refute Vidal’s scurrilous theory. But by setting his whole novel--indeed, his whole series about the character of the American nation--to rise or fall on this sort of paranoia, Vidal gives one no choice but to have to argue with the conspiracists.
The truth matters. The truth should matter to any writer of fiction, and it should matter even more to a writer of historical fiction, lest our history be reduced to no more than a collection of Holocaust deniers and ethno-propagandists. By squeezing the universe into such a neat little ball, Vidal has become so cynical about the workings of power as to actually sound naive. He seems unable to envision a world of any real complexity--a world where there are chance and bad timing and people are driven by mixed motives or hobbled by uncertainty. A world where, for a start, leaders are sometimes influenced by the people they rule, and where people and leaders alike are neither perfect dupes nor perfect villains. To deny, at every turn, this complexity is not only bad history. It is bad writing.
But then, conspiracy theories are so temptingly simple--so conveniently disempowering. After all, if everything is fixed, if the ruling class is so impregnable, what responsibilities do we have to the truth or to anything else? What hard choices are there to make?
Small wonder, then, that Vidal ends his great American epic in his spectacular Italian villa. He has spent his decades on the Gulf of Salerno, he informs us, helping to “wean the bakers and their clients from using olive oil as shortening for leaden pastries; they now use butter.”
Hey, we all do what we can. Perhaps it is unfair to imply that Vidal has lost his radical chops when he has, in fact, provided us with an answer to that oldest of radical questions, “What is to be done?” His reply is an ecstatic Nothing, nothing at all.