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The Bush Presidency,

History and the "United States of Amnesia

A Democracy Now Interview With Gore Vidal

"You must remember, this is a people that has no culture, that has never had one."

Click on "comments" below to read or post comments


AMY GOODMAN: With a career spanning more than six decades, Gore Vidal is one of America's most respected writers and thinkers, authored more than twenty novels, five plays. His recent books include Dreaming War, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia. His latest is a memoir; it's called Point to Point Navigation.

Last week at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I heard Gore Vidal would be there and afterwards went to his home in Hollywood Hills. We sat down in his living room, and I asked him for his thoughts on this election year and on the last eight years of George W. Bush in the White House.

GORE VIDAL: Well, it isn't over yet. You know, he could still blow up the world. There's every indication that he's still thinking about attacking Iran: 'And the generals are now reporting that the Iran are a great danger and their weapons are being used to kill Americans.'

I mean, you know, I think, quite rightly, the Bushites think that the American people are idiots. They don't get the point to anything. There are two good reasons for this, is the public educational system for people, kids without money, let's say, to put it tactfully, is one of the worst in the first world. It's just terrible. And they end by knowing no history, certainly no American history. I didn't mean to spend my life writing American history, which should have been taught in the schools, but I saw no alternative but to taking it on myself. I could think of a lot of cheerier things I'd rather be doing than analyzing George Washington and Aaron Burr. But it came to pass, that was my job, so I did it.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote United States of Amnesia. Why?

GORE VIDAL: That's a good title. You must remember, this is a people that has no culture, that has never had one. After all, I was first published when I was nineteen, and the first time I was a bestseller I was twenty-one, twenty-two. I thought by the time I'm old, this place is going to be greatly improved, not just because I was around, but I was going to contribute to it. But then I saw how the New York Times had blocked in their little tight world of New York publishing, which they really did to publish each other's books. The results have not been very good.

So here we are, cut off from Europe, basically, by the World War II. Then the post-war period was kind of interesting, because a lot of us went abroad and stayed there for a time and got to understand other cultures. And I saw—I saw, with many cases, Jimmy Baldwin, he became a Frenchman, surprisingly. Surprising accent, but he was sharp as a tack.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know him?

GORE VIDAL: Yes, very well.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your memories of him?

GORE VIDAL: He had two voices. One, he sounded exactly like Bette Davis suffering in one of her movies. And the other one was "Call me Ishmael"—it was the prophet's voice. So he was a bit of a contradiction.

AMY GOODMAN: What does "amnesia" mean to you? And how can—

GORE VIDAL: Well, it means what it literally means: people with no memory.

AMY GOODMAN: How do think that can be defeated, conquered in the United States?

GORE VIDAL: Well, it's won. I don't see how you're going to defeat it now. People would forget to defeat it.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in Point to Point Navigation, "I was born October 3, 1925, on the twenty-fifth birthday of Thomas Wolfe, the novelist, not the journalist. I've lived through three-quarters of the twentieth century and about one-third of the history of the United States of America."

GORE VIDAL: Well, I was not counting on them knowing what the word "amnesia" meant.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote two books during the Bush administration. Two of the books you've written are Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War. Why these two?

GORE VIDAL: Well, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, that's my main book during that period. That was the foreign policy of the Bush administration: perpetual war. This was also Harry Truman's dream. He started the Cold War. If any history had been imparted to our people, they'd know all this. And if you think I enjoy having to be the one to tell them about it, I don't.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about Dreaming War?

GORE VIDAL: Well, same thing. They were dreaming war. You can see little Bush all along was just dreaming of war, and also Cheney dreaming about oil wells and how you knock apart a country like Iraq and of course their oil will pay for the damage you do. For that alone, he should have been put in front of a firing squad.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe in the death penalty?

GORE VIDAL: No. But in their case, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, here we are, moved into the sixth year of the war with Iraq, longer than the US was involved in World War II.

GORE VIDAL: Yes, incredible. That was such a huge operation on two great continents against two modern enemies. And we're fighting little jungle wars for no reason, because we have a president who knows nothing about anything. He's just blank. But he wants to show off: 'I'm a wartime president! I'm a wartime president!' He goes yap, yap, yap. He's like a crazed terrier. And look where he got us.

I didn't realize—I think I've always had a good idea about my native land, but I didn't think that institutionally we were so easy to overthrow, because it was a coup d'etat, 9/11. The whole went crashing. And when we got rid of—when they got rid of Magna Carta, I thought, well, really, this wasn't much of a republic to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, Magna Carta?

GORE VIDAL: Well, you know what Magna Carta means?

AMY GOODMAN: Explain it.

GORE VIDAL: Tell your readers, your viewers. It's the basis of our law. Out of it comes the whole theory, practice, on which our—certainly judicial system is based: due process of law. You cannot deprive somebody of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, because that is a right, constitutional right. And that is—I mean, every proper American, that's graved on his psyche, certainly was on mine. There wasn't a day passed—I was brought up by my grandfather in Washington—hardly a day passed that he didn't want to talk about due process. And he was blind from the age of ten.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was your grandfather?

GORE VIDAL: Senator Thomas Pryor Gore. A Mississippi family. His father had served in the Civil War, even though the Gores—they came from Mississippi, they were not secessionists. They regarded themselves as patriots. And the entire family was against going into the Civil War, but because their friends and neighbors did and honor required that they do so too, so they got killed off quite a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: Your grandfather was a senator from Oklahoma?

GORE VIDAL: He was the first senator from Oklahoma. Last year was the hundredth year of his election, 1907. That's when he was elected.

AMY GOODMAN: You're also cousins with another Gore: Al Gore.


AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of what happened in 2000?

GORE VIDAL: He was robbed. I don't know him. I never see him. But within the family, I gather it was a great shock to him. He did everything right in life. He was the good boy and loved the Supreme Court and went by the rule of law, due process and everything. And then the Supreme Court bites him in the throat, because they have a lot of crooks on it. And I watched the Dred Scalia the other day on television. Did you see him?


GORE VIDAL: Oh, he was saying, "Get over it! Just get over it!" He was talking to the liberals, and you know what awful people they are—and about 2000, about the interference of the Court in a national election, which is unheard of. It's not their job. They're not even supposed to be referees. They're just—they're doing something else. And he was a snarling: "Get over it! Get over it!" I felt, go back to Little Italy, you know? It's a type I know very well from Naples.

AMY GOODMAN: That's where you lived for many years.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, Gore Vidal, when you say you think what happened after 9/11 was a coup?

GORE VIDAL: Well, it was. The first move they made at the time when Timothy McVeigh decided to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City—he started to write me letters, and I wrote him back, and he's a brilliant kid, very interested in law, would have made a good constitutional lawyer, and a patriot. He's a professional soldier. But he has to be depicted as a monster, because who else would blow up little children?

But he didn't know he was blowing up any little children. He was acting out of a fit of rage at what had happened at Waco, when that whole religious community was set fire to by the Army. And as a soldier, he thought to himself, you see, the one thing that divides our country from being another military or militarized republic, it is not only due process of law, but it is also the Posse Comitatus Act of 1875, which the Army may not be used in any action against the citizens of the United States. And they just wandered—bang! bang!—they set fire to the place, burned down more children and mothers and so on than ever Mr. McVeigh did.

So, at that time, it happened during the—must have been what's-her-name, Janet Reno, when she was Attorney General. It was during Clinton's watch, which was a sloppy one. And they got some panicky legislation, because they thought, and with some reason, that there was a group of people, many of them ex-soldiers, who were ready to overthrow the government. And they were anti-Semites, they were—I mean, anything you can think of, they were that. They were in rebellion against this country.

And I wrote about it in warning terms. I went so far as to write Mr. Mueller, who was the new director of the FBI. And I saw he was never going to follow up. They did all these interviews with various guys living in the woods around Fort Hood. I said, "They're going to be trouble one day, and you don't even follow up on them? Yet you go on inventing stuff about McVeigh which isn't true." They tried to pretend he was a crazy and this and that. Well, he got the Silver Star, I think it was.  

AMY GOODMAN: Persian Gulf War.

GORE VIDAL: Yeah. So the coup d'etat comes out of this. They saw their chance. They—Cheney, Bush—they wanted the war. They're oilmen. They want a war to get more oil. They're also extraordinarily stupid. These people don't know anything about anything. But they have this—there's a thick piece of—sheet of—a thick series of actions to be taken, among others—I think one of them was to lock up every person of color in the United States in order to protect us from the enemy within. It was evil stuff. So they latched onto that. I guess Mr. Gonzales was already in place by then. And that was the coup d'etat. They seized the state. And from that moment on, they were appointing all the judges, they were doing this, they were doing that, they got rid of Magna Carta—I will not explain what that is a second time—and they broke the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of torture?

GORE VIDAL: Oh, everything was in there, yes. The USA PATRIOT Act is just the unnatural child of the Clinton 'Oh, we've got to do something about these wild men in Montana.'

AMY GOODMAN: Author Gore Vidal. We'll come back to our conversation with the writer—his memoir, Point to Point Navigation; among his books, Imperial America—in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the second part of my conversation with Gore Vidal, as we sat at his home in Hollywood Hills, his walls bedecked with photos of history. Gore Vidal has authored more than twenty novels, five plays. His latest book, his memoir, Point to Point Navigation.

AMY GOODMAN: How did we get to be so hated, Gore Vidal?

GORE VIDAL: Well, there are many odious traits that Americans have that the rest of the world doesn't like. Constant boasting with not much to boast about, that gets on other people's nerves. The idea that, somehow or other, the whole world belongs to us and everybody should do what we tell them to do, they don't really like that. Weird, but they don't. There has never been a people less suited for world dominion than the Americans of the twentieth century and twenty-first century.

Henry James was very good on that subject. The time of the Spanish-American War, he was a violently against that war and saw it as the beginning of imperialism, and he was not an imperialist. And he said, "You know, where empire civilized the British, empire will corrupt us even more, and we will extend the reign of Tammany Hall to every island country on earth."

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think we're going to pull out of this today?

GORE VIDAL: No, not today. Bush has arranged it so it can be dragged on for a long time now. And nobody has asked, is Petraeus a good general? I mean, he's been given lots of stars, but that's what an ignorant president would do when he wants a general to do things that maybe the general thinks are unwise. "You will get four stars for this, General." That's the way they play the game

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Iraq saved Latin America? We're seeing a major shift in Latin America.

GORE VIDAL: Well, I'm something of a fan of Chavez. He's just what certainly Venezuela needed, and he's continuing in a sense the reforms of Castro. But you must remember, I know too much about media to be taken in by anything that most people read about Castro. "He's got people in prison!" But yeah, a lot of rich people lost their money, and they're very angry, so they exaggerate his crimes. But he never came up with Abu Ghraib. We did that, because we were fighting for democracy everywhere. So important to bring all this League of Nations together.

Now, any dum-dum president—this is a guy who could not be a freshman at Swarthmore. His brain's too feeble. There's no information in his head. To take him seriously is the biggest insult to the American people. He should not have been president. It's fascinating. You remember when his father broke down in tears on television?


GORE VIDAL: Well, it was guilt. It was intended by that not-particularly-royal family that Jeb, Governor—by then Governor of Florida, would run for president in that slot when W. ran. And Jeb would be easily elected. He's an intelligent person and a source of pride for the Bush family. Then little—the black prince breaks out of order and goes after it and gets it. And that's what you saw the father weeping. This was Shakespearean, this collision. And old Bush was historical. I've never seen a grown man so out of control, and one who's used to television. And there he was, and they couldn't stop him, because he was praising Jeb for all of his good qualities, and as he was doing it, it was all coming back to him, ironically, and he's the one who should be president. Let's hope one of my atavars will make a play out of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you?

GORE VIDAL: Not my material.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you write more about Bush?

GORE VIDAL: Of course not. I've written too much already. I mean, it's a non-subject.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you hold out hope right now?

GORE VIDAL: Well, what hope?

AMY GOODMAN: That's what I'm asking, if you have any.

GORE VIDAL: No, not much. You know, Benjamin Franklin, after the Constitution of 1789 was ready to—was being voted on, actually, in Philadelphia, he was leaving the hall, and he had been warned—the people running the Constitutional Convention, they knew he was very sharp-tongued and he was not an admirer of their works. He thought they were naive. He thought they were missing the point. He had read Aristotle, who explains how every republic has gone crashing. And he was leaving the hall, and an old lady that he knew said, "Well, men, what are you giving us?" He said, "Well, we're giving you a republic, if you can keep it."

Well, there were three or four boys who had been assigned to follow him around and make sure he didn't say anything embarrassing to the people. Well, he went right around saying exactly what he wanted to say. So the kids sort of cornered him on the way out to the street, and they said, "Why do you take such a dark view of the Constitution? It's the best work of some of the best people in the United States. Why are you so skeptical?" And he said, "Well, Aristotle or indeed history tells us that every republic of this nature has failed because of the corruption of the people." And he stepped off the stage.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen right now?

GORE VIDAL: It's happened. We're broke. Do you follow television, as they find out we're running out of food? That's never happened in my lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there's a way to fix this?

GORE VIDAL: A crash will do it. But that's pretty extreme.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Eleanor Roosevelt?

GORE VIDAL: Very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about her?

GORE VIDAL: What do you want to know about her?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us about her personality. What did she stand for? What effect did she have on FDR? What was their relationship?

GORE VIDAL: Well, it was irritable. They didn't really like each other. She admired him, but he didn't admire her, which is stupid. She was much more intelligent than he.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you meet her?

GORE VIDAL: I lived in Dutchess County for years. I ran for Congress in Dutchess County. She launched my campaign up there. And I came with—I don't know what it was—20 percent of winning it. And we became great friends during that. This was the campaign of 1960, which was going on simultaneously while Jack was running for president. And she was for Adlai Stevenson, and I was a delegate to the convention that chose Jack. And she forgave me for that. There's no reason why I should be following her advice, and I knew him better than she did. But she was always very suspicious of him. Joe McCarthy, partly. His father, another, partly.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, Joe McCarthy?

GORE VIDAL: He was a friend of Joe McCarthy, but a real friend and somebody who sort of spoke up for him. And she—I told her, because she wanted to know why Jack was not being accommodating. And I said, "You know, he thinks you want me to dance on—him to dance on McCarthy's grave, and he won't do that." She got that. I don't think she liked him any better for it, but—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if Eleanor Roosevelt lived in a different age like today she could be running for president?

GORE VIDAL: I'd propose her for Dalai Lama, just to keep her in office as long as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: What were her values? What did she stand for?

GORE VIDAL: Well, they were more human than American. You know, she came to the White House speaking six or seven languages. Roosevelt couldn't do restaurant French. And she was the brain. And she was the one who really cared about those who had been left with all of her hall houses and so on, those left outside of the ordinary stream of life. And she was very active on that front. No, she was extraordinarily admirable.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who say there needs to be a New Deal today, what do you say to them? What does that mean?

GORE VIDAL: Well, I don't want to—we don't need another repetition of the original New Deal, which is economically structuring, but if we had something like that—or we may need something like that because of the mess—it's going to take two generations to undo the mess of the Bush people. Too much has been damaged. Too much is now—just look at the judicial system. Look at these, you know, judges they've been appointing. No, the power was seized using the 9/11 adventure as a cause to overthrow the government of the United States, and it was overthrown.

And was any voices raised against it? The first one was Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace. So I wrote that one, because I was seventy, and I didn't want to sit down and do a whole batch of political books, but there was no choice. So I wrote that first to try and explain who the enemy was. Every time I hear "Islam" or "terrorism is on the march"—

AMY GOODMAN: Or "Islamofascists"?

GORE VIDAL: Oh, "Islamofascist," the phrase makes no sense. How can a non-Italian be a fascist? It never spread that far. The stupidest group of people that I have ever seen in public office are in it, have been in it for the last ten years, whatever. They don't know anything. And you can see, when George Bush is trying to read his notes—"Well, we're trying to protect the Grecians who are on the march. No, I mean, it's the Turks. We're having problems with Turkey. Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah." And when Americans don't know stupid people, the country is out of business. 

AMY GOODMAN: As we sat in Gore Vidal's living room, I asked him about his long-term companion and their home, which they shared for decades in Hollywood Hills.

GORE VIDAL: Well, there are a batch of these houses were built around 1920 in an area called the Outpost. This is the Outpost, I always thought a suitable place for me to be living. And so it came to pass that Howard and I—my friend, now deceased—Italy was going to be impossible to live in, where we had been for some time during what I call the Cedars-Sinai years. We saw them up ahead—and he didn't survive them, I did—and we had to be near American hospitals. So—

AMY GOODMAN: When did you meet Howard?


AMY GOODMAN: 1950. Where?

GORE VIDAL: Manhattan. He was in advertising. His name was Auster, just like Fred Astaire's. And he was turned down by every advertising agency—and he had graduated from NYU—because it was a Jewish name. Can you imagine? He was rejected because he was Jewish. And I said, "Well, this is silly." I said, "Change the 'R' to an 'N.'" So he became Howard Austen, which has caused a lot of confusion to biographers, but immediately he was hired at Doyle, Dane & Bernbach, a very good house. Amazing to think how recently all that was still in effect.

AMY GOODMAN: So you were with him for over half a century?


AMY GOODMAN: What is the secret to a long relationship?

GORE VIDAL: Oh, no sex. You can't tell Americans that, because they think everything is sex, because they're so beautiful and vital and, you know, full of joy, which they want to spread around. And I always thought that there's nothing that can destroy a friendship as much as sex. So would you rather have a friend or you would just—you can always get sex out there in the dark.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you live past your partner? How does your life change?

GORE VIDAL: Well, you go into a room, and it's empty. One notices that. That's about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like you're continuing the conversation with him?

GORE VIDAL: A bit, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you want to be remembered?

GORE VIDAL: I don't give a goddamn.

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal, sitting in his living room, where he's lived for decades, most of that time with his partner Howard Auster. This is Democracy Now! Gore Vidal authored many books, plays. His latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation 

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