History and the “United States of Amnesia”
Now Interview With Gore Vidal
"You must remember, this is a people that
has no culture, that has never had one."
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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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
AMY GOODMAN: Who was your
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.
GORE VIDAL: True.
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?
AMY GOODMAN: No.
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
AMY GOODMAN: That’s where you
lived for many years.
GORE VIDAL: Mm-hmm.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
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
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
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
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
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
GORE VIDAL: Very well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about
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
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,
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean,
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,
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
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
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
AMY GOODMAN: When did you meet
GORE VIDAL: 1950.
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?
GORE VIDAL: Yeah.
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
GORE VIDAL: I don’t give a
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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