Gore Vidal remains one of the more prolific contemporary American writers and certainly one of the most politically outspoken. Shortly after his recent 80th-birthday celebration, Nation contributing editor Marc Cooper interviewed him in his Hollywood home. Herewith, a condensed version of that conversation. . –The Editors
Q: In the introduction to your new book, Imperial America, you begin by saying that the four sweetest words in the American lexicon are “I told you so.” What were you gloating about?
A: Oh, everything. The principal bit of wisdom that I had to purvey, which I got from Thomas Jefferson and he got from Montesquieu, is that you cannot maintain a republic and empire simultaneously. The Romans couldn’t do it. The Brits could only manage it up to a certain point, but then ended up going broke. The Venetians were an empire, and the United States. And in each case the republics were lost. Starting with our war against Mexico in 1846, which was to acquire California, we’ve been in a serious, naked grab, grab, grab imperial mood.
Q: In that respect, how different is the Bush Administration? Anything new here, or part of that same historical arc?
A: Well, a lot is different. The machinery is all changed. Nuclear and bacteriological weapons exist. We can kill a lot more people. But there have been things unimaginable to me and most Americans–that we would have a government that is absolutely in your face to every country on earth. We have insulted everybody.
Q: We now see that House majority leader Tom DeLay has been indicted. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, is under investigation by the SEC. We’ve seen the debacle around Michael “Brownie” Brown and FEMA. Is this Administration finally collapsing under its own weight?
A: ”Under its own lack of weight” [laughing], I think, is the phrase you are searching for.
Q: Sort of the unbearable lightness?
A: Yes, the unbearable lightness. Or here DeLay–gone tomorrow. Yes, I do believe it is breaking up. And the indictment of DeLay would not have happened had there not been two hurricanes, which dramatized to everybody in the United States that we don’t have a government. And to the extent we do have one it is not only corrupt but a menace to other countries, to our liberties, to our Bill of Rights.
Q: If, indeed, this Administration is collapsing for lack of weight, what comes after it?
A: Martial law, that’s next. Bush is like a plane of glass. You can see all the worms turning around in his head at any moment. The first giveaway of what’s on his mind–or the junta’s mind.
Q: The junta being…?
A: Cheney, who runs everything, I suspect. And a few other serious operators. Anyway, I first noticed this was on their mind when Bush finally woke up to the fact that the hurricanes were not going to be good PR for him. And he starts to think friends of his are going to be running in ’08. So what’s the first thing he does? The first thing on the mind of a dictator? He gets the National Guard away from the governors. The Guard is under the governors, but Bush is always saying, Let’s turn it over to the military. This is what’s on their mind. Under military control.
Q: Are you predicting a coming military dictatorship? And that the American people would stand for that?
A: They’ll stand for anything. And they will stand for nothing. I deal with a lot of European journalists who are very well versed in American politics. But they will ask me silly questions like, “So, Kerry didn’t turn out very well. So who’s the next leader of the opposition who can become President?” I answer, Well, first the New York Times won’t interview him. He won’t get on prime-time television if he looks like a winner. That’s out. Or he will be made a fool of, like they did with Howard Dean when they amplified his famous cry. That was all done at CBS to make him look like a maniac. They are very resourceful! So if you have a media that is completely controlled by corporate America–or whatever phrase you want to use to describe our rulers–no information is getting through that is useful to the public. No White Knight is going to be acknowledged in the press or seen on television. He would have no way of connecting with the people. And this a permanent fact in our situation…. If there could be a viable opposition to the oil and gas junta that has seized power–all three branches of government, I think–it will have to be at the grassroots. Then you will have to find a way of publicizing through the Internet the White Knight–or the Black Knight, whoever comes along to save us.
Q: What are three or four main things the White Knight would have to say to motivate us, in your words, to keep the Republic?
A: First of all, we should be allowed to keep the money we earn. Because most of us are heavily taxed.
Q: That’s what the Republicans say.
A: That’s what they say, but they don’t mean it. What they mean is, “We people who have money, we don’t want our children to pay any inheritance tax. We don’t want our huge incomes to be taxed. We don’t want the profits of our big corporations ever to be taxed.” And they’ve pulled all that off. When you run against them, you have to say the profits on corporations are going to be taxed. As they always were. The people understand this. And if they don’t, you can explain it in ten minutes.
Q: What would the White Knight do with the military?
A: Cut its budget in half. That would save us a lot of money. We could rebuild a lot of levees. We don’t need it…. We can’t win a war anymore. They can’t bring back the draft. We are at end times now for this regime. Just keep your fingers crossed we are not at end times for our country….
Q: One area where things seem to have improved in America concerns homophobia. Gay marriage can now be discussed in polite company.
A: I don’t know that it much matters as a theme. Talk to anybody in the military and it’s just as bad as when I spent three years in the Army during World War II and those suspected of same-sex activities were Section Eighted out or locked up. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. An issue like gay marriage just keeps homophobia alive.
Q: So you’re not an advocate of it?
A: No. I know to what purposes that issue is put…. You get an issue, like gay marriage, which doesn’t concern 99.9 percent of the population, and you go on and on and on about it. Proving that the Democrats are all crazy, if not all queer. Someone wants to get married, fine. What’s it to me?
Q: If we pick a point forty years ago, in the middle of the 1960s, when you were half your age, did you think then the United States would take the course it eventually did?
A: I never thought the President would dare to favor pre-emptive war. I never thought it would come to this, a sort of maniac for President who goes around attacking verbally and physically any country he wants. The ownership of this country has usually been pretty shrewd. They knew what they wanted. They don’t want to pay taxes, certainly. They don’t want people blowing them up in the night like 9/11. And if there ever was great cause for impeachment it would be over 9/11. Never been a case of negligence like that.
Q: You are not possibly suggesting that the Bush Administration allowed this attack to go ahead?
A: No. I’m not saying anything even close to it. If there had been some sort of wicked collusion between elements of our government and the 9/11 team from Saudi Arabia, in a country like ours, by now, at least two of them would have been on television talking to Barbara Walters. That’s what kind of country we have. We can’t keep secrets. No, it’s unthinkable. Whatever was behind 9/11 was well worked out. And there isn’t a brain in this Administration that could have worked out something like 9/11. Either to prevent it or to do it.