Gore Vidal


Gore Vidal’s ‘The Last Empire- Essays 1992-2001’ (Abacus Books UK  2002)


           We’re used to thinking of eccentric aristocrats who enter politics (or vice versa) as a British specialty. But here comes Gore Vidal writing a book of mainly political essays in his persona as The Last American Aristocrat when America is not supposed to have an aristocracy, or even an upper-class in the first place. As Vidal himself delights in pointing out ( “one facet of the national condition that can never be discussed with candor is the class system”) this is nonsense. There have been aristocracies throughout American history, from the plantation owners of the antebellum South to the great robber baron families like the Rockefellers to today’s faux-Texan rich like the Bushes. But the heyday or Golden Age (the title of  Vidal’s novel on the subject) of America’s elites was during and directly after the 2nd World War. That was when the so-called Eastern Establishment, a small group of wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestants educated in the American equivalent of English public schools and at Ivy League universities, effectively ran the US government (short of the Presidency) as their private fiefdom. Depending on your point of view, either their predominance enabled America to confront Communism and take on its new responsibilities as a world superpower; or they destroyed the historical, halcyon American republic, replacing it with a corrupt and militarised National Security State at home and a bloated and brutal American Empire abroad.

            Vietnam shattered, without entirely ending, the influence of the Eastern establishment, but by then their work was done and set in stone. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and the other Bush hatchet men are just cruder copies of Harriman, Acheson and Kennan, rotweillers to the original greyhounds. Meanwhile, the Cold War came to an end and-after a confusing interval involving several possible candidates from Saddam Hussein to the War on Drugs- has been replaced by the War on Terror. Plus ca change.

            Like his passim friend Jack Kennedy, Gore Vidal was a charter member of the Eastern establishement whose young life coincided with its Golden Age. The Vidals may not have had as much cash as families like the Kennedys; but they had a pedigree and connections better than most. Vidal’s father was one of the founders of  America’s first transcontinental airline (later TWA). His stepfather for a time was Hugh Auchincloss, a Standard Oil heir. Through his mother, Vidal is connected to the Southern political family of the Gores (Al Gore is one of his innumerable distant cousins), whose considerable achievements include the creation of the state of Oklahoma. The American political world was Vidal’s natural home, “the family trade” in his own words. Vidal’s eccentricity, therefore, consists in his not becoming a part of it.

            As Vidal tells his story, he became a novelist instead, driven by a talent that “outed” itself. In 1948, Vidal published ‘The City and the Pillar’, an openly homosexual novel which finished him as a serious political player, though not as a periodic, losing candidate for public office. According to Vidal, he sacrificed his political career on the altar of his art. But if the picture of the flamboyant, supremely self-confident and multi-talented Vidal as an early gay martyr doesn’t ring quite true, consider this: did Vidal’s homosexuality, and the outsider status that went with it, lead to his developing his radical take on America as “The Last Empire”? Or was it actually the other way around? Did Vidal already know-or sense- back in 1948 that he was incubating political views which would rule him out of the American mainstream? In those cimrcumstances, publishing his novel may have been a shortcut to authenticity. It’s so much easier to publish and be damned when you’re going to be damned anyway.  I don’t know the answer but I do know that self-exploded bombshells like “The City and the Pillar” are mysterious events. Their causes are not always obvious even to the individuals concerned.

            Whatever the truth of that may be, Vidal hardly turned his back on politics forever- quite the opposite. If a single thread links his many roles- as TV presenter, essayist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, movie actor, talk-show guest, and occasional political candidate- it’s American politics on a view-from-the-summit, state-of-the-nation scale.  Throughout his extensive literary output (25 novels, multiple essay collections etc.), Vidal has been working towards and elaborating a single, comprehensive critique of what Henry Luce famously called “the American Century”. This latest volume of essays confirms that Vidal’s critique is in the grand European tradition, meaning it’s a professional statesman’s critique, made by the insider as outsider- or in Vidal’s case,  the outsider as insider- who knows many of the major players and was present at many of  the crucial events. Vidal may have been an observer rather than an actor in high US politics but he’s been an observer with a uniquely privileged position, one of them who is also “one of us”.

             Unsurprisingly, then,  personalities are as central as analysis to Vidal’s account of politics, just as they are to his account of history (for example in the historical novels he’s written about great American figures like Burr and Lincoln). As a writer, Vidal has always been the ultimate gossip, having met many of the headline names of the last 70-plus years in politics, show business and the arts. What am I saying, “many”? Vidal knew them all! His social access makes him the kind of writer late-period Capote wanted to be but didn’t have the intellect to handle. Unlike Capote, Vidal never dishes the dirt for its own sake. He understands that the best gossip is not (just) sexual but  as much, or as often, political and literary. More important, he understands that, while waspishness is permitted, truly great gossip is not unkind. Hence the rather odd result that Vidal’s anecdotes about his rich and famous friends, expertly recycled from essay to TV talk-show to fiction and back again, are what give his work its heart. In his best book, the autobiographical ‘Palimpsest’, they  also rise to the level of art.

            So what is Vidal’s political thesis for which these glittering recollections and who-said-what-to-whoms act both as the surface décor and also as the embodiment- the quid est demonstrandum of his argument? The title of this collection pretty much sums it up. Whereas Frances Fukyuma saw the End of History in the triumph of American-style liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, Vidal sees nothing but History, History incarnate, and Ancient History in particular recidivus, in the selfsame process. America has become The Last Empire.The Puritans who helped colonise the continent saw America as the City on the Hill, a beacon for mankind. But over two centuries, the power-brokers and the fat cats have turned it into the New (or at any rate the Latest) version of Ancient Rome, a de facto Empire run by a bunch of “political reactionaries and religious maniacs” at the behest of the military-industrial complex., the playpen of capitalists who never saw a free market they couldn’t monopolise or, failing that, bomb into submission.

            So far so Noam Chomsky, or any of the other handful of America’s home-grown dissenters, along with their more numerous counterparts in other countries. What makes Vidal’s critique more interesting than most is that it rests on a coherent account of America’s history as a whole, and its last half century in particular. According to this account, Vidal himself, as a radical, homosexual artist, isn’t the class traitor he appears to be. Rather, according to Vidal, it’s his class, the Eastern political establishment, that betrayed him- and America as a whole.

            They did so in two ways. In the first place, they took America’s founding tradition of isolationism and avoidance of foreign wars and dumped it in the rubbish bin of history, in the process exchanging a democratic republic for a militarised, oligarchical empire. In the second place, they lied about what they were doing in the first place. Vidal’s survey of US high politics since 1945 (or actually since 1917 when Woodrow Wilson took America into the First World War) is a history of perfidy, at first by individual politicians, then later spread and developed to the point where the US Federal Government itself, together with the American political system as a whole, is fundamentally untrustworthy, inherently corrupt.

           The milestones along this road are the familiar milestones of the war and the post-war period, only re-interpreted. For instance, Pearl Harbor wasn’t down to the Japanese. FDR provoked it (and probably had advance warning of the actual attack) as a way to shoehorn his  nation into the 2nd world war. Truman didn’t drop the atom bombs to end that same war. He dropped them to impress and intimidate Stalin. The Berlin blockade, considered to mark the start of the Cold War, wasn’t an example of Soviet aggression . It came about because the Americans abandoned the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and pushed the formation of a West German state, forcing Stalin to respond. Truman then fed the American people a line. “Fun house politics” Vidal calls all this with a curl of his famously chiselled lip.

             The making of any empire involves lying or, to put it more politely, the creation of an imperial ideology. According to Vidal, making the American empire has involved more lies than most. He sees the main problem facing post-war US policymakers as how to persuade a reluctant, traditionally isolationist mass democracy to take on an active role as a world power, and he’s right about that (just as he’s right to dismiss the endless quibbling about whether the current American hegemony is an empire in the strict, historical sense of the term or some strange post-modern hybrid. Here the medical mantra “if you hear hoof beats, don’t look for a zebra” surely applies.). The answer the establishment came up with was to lie or exaggerate or both. Vidal quotes a leading Republican Senator, at the very outset of the Cold War, telling Truman that if the President wanted the money for a military build-up, he’d have to “scare the hell out of” the American people, which Truman duly did with warnings of a Communist plot for world domination.

            Vidal’s take on the key events isn’t original. As he makes clear, his interpretations rest on the work of a number of revisionist historians. What’s original is the use Vidal makes of them. While historians, of whatever stripe, generally view America’s foreign policy as reflecting the themes and concerns of its domestic history, Vidal turns this whole argument on its head. To him, the greatest tragedy of “America-The Last Empire” is the damage it’s done to what the Bush people call “the homeland”. He dutifully records the Empire’s colonial-style crimes (Vietnam, South and Central America etc.) but his real fire, his polemical passion, emerges when he describes his own country. Scratch the surface of  the sophisticated globe-trotting cosmopolitan, who lives half the year in an Italian villa outside Ravello, and you find an anguished American patriot, grieving for his lost republic. Page after page of these essays denounces America’s terminally corrupt money politics, its government bought and paid for by the rich in the form of the military-industrial complex, waging “perpetual war for perpetual peace” abroad while at home it elaborates ever-increasing surveillance and repression (prison culture, the War on Drugs, Waco) against its own people. And this was before September 11th!

            AJP Taylor once described the Hapsburg Empire as “a machine for the conduct of foreign policy.” In Vidal’s view, post-war American policy, created by his contemporaries from among his own class, has turned America into a sort of diabolical, perpetuum-military machine. As a classicist by temperament and education, Vidal’s own preferred analogy is with ancient Rome. The good quasi-democratic Roman Republic was destroyed and replaced by the bad quasi-oligarchical Roman Empire. Much the same process has gone on in America, Vidal’s “United States of Amnesia”, whose citizens, indifferent to and ignorant about their own history, haven’t even noticed the change.

            Vidal’s self-appointed mission is to remind them, to wake them up. To the trinity of free market capitalism, military might and Empire, he opposes social democracy, republicanism and neutrality. It’s the good old (European, left-wing) cause. Vidal wants to restore his fellow countrymen to their original rightful (righteous?) condition, but how can it be done? This is where Vidal’s analysis of America’s rise to world power runs into trouble, despite its superficial coherence. Even if we grant his cavalcade of “lies”, was there ever a viable alternative scenario? For example, could the US really have stayed out of either of the two World Wars- and can we imagine any desirable world resulting from such an abnegation?

             On a deeper level, wasn’t the development of the US as a great economic power through the 19th and early 20th centuries bound to lead to its emergence as a great political and military power? Isn’t that how history works, regardless of the character, or lack thereof, of individual leaders and statesmen? There’s even an historical school which questions the conventional wisdom- in this case, adopted wholesale by Vidal- that America was  isolationist from its origins. Things like the Monroe Doctrine have been (re-)interpreted to show that early America, rather than seeking neutrality and avoidance of foreign entanglements, aimed to preserve its independence and freedom of action in the world. The reason America didn’t want allies and treaties was not because they might draw it into foreign wars, but because they might restrict America from exercising power unilaterally. George Dubbya in wig and knee breeches.

            And what about the small print of Vidal’s indictment- all those supposed lies? The best consensus of historians is that Vidal is mistaken about them, or just plain wrong-headed. FDR was indeed opposing Japanese expansionism, not trying to finagle his country into the war. Truman dropped the bomb for several reasons, but mainly because neither he nor (hardly) anyone else thought not to drop it: because it was there. The origins of the Cold War involved misunderstandings on both sides, but not the sort of misunderstandings that could have been cleared up with goodwill and a heart-to-heart between the two sides. The misunderstandings arose from reading certain situations as conflicts of interest when they weren’t, or didn’t have to be. But the reality behind the misunderstandings was a real conflict between two newly emergent great powers, the USA vs. the USSR.

            . Among Vidal’s many roles, the role of historian seems to be his favourite, but it’s also one of his weakest. He’s really a classicist and a polemicist. As Enoch Powell’s career demonstrated in this country, that can be a dangerous combination. You end up taking history too personally while applying too rigorous a logic to history. The result is paranoia. “The Last Empire” is split between spirited denunciations of the American system and a willingness to flirt with almost every conspiracy theory of the last 50 years, from JFK’s assassination to the Oklahoma bombing. Actually, it’s worse than that. Vidal defends both Charles Lindbergh, the famous flyer widely criticised as pro-Nazi for his isolationist campaign in the 1940s, and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. This is not just healthy iconoclasm. It’s Vidal allying himself with people you really don’t want on your team. And that in turn follows from Vidal taking a view of American history which ultimately isn’t credible, which leaves him with no place else to go. If you oppose all foreign entanglements on principle, you’re bound to end up alongside the real isolationists, the Bundists, the neo-Nazis, the know-nothings. If you condemn the US Government as an oppressive outfit by nature, then you’re equally bound to end up with the real government-haters, the militias, the conspiracy nuts, the gun-toters, the black helicopter boys.

            The good Gore knows this perfectly well. The good Gore knows the answer to American Empire isn’t an America that has nothing whatsoever to do with the world- just as the answer to an overweening Federal government isn’t to abolish Federal government. The good Gore knows the answers to these things are much more complex and difficult and may be impossible to bring about, but the first step is to have a clear idea of what we’re dealing with. Vidal turns out to have half of a clear idea.  The good Gore, the polemical, social democratic Gore, has the right half. The bad Gore, the classical, pseudo-historical Gore, has the wrong half.

            In the end, America’s story isn’t the same as ancient Rome’s. America isn’t a retake of the Roman Empire now, and it wasn’t like the Roman Republic before 1945 (or 1917, if you prefer). America is something new, just as Americans have always claimed it is. The task for America’s friends, none truer than Gore Vidal, is to encourage America to chase that newness, to see where it might lead, rather than extinguishing it in a futile, counterproductive quest for world supremacy and control. We can always use a New World. Nobody needs a Last-or any other kind of-Empire.   












dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents © mike bygrave 2014