College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4
Reviews Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia
Gore Vidal
New York: Nation Books, 2004.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Gore Vidal, by most standards, is a class traitor. A Washington insider, he was raised by his grand-father Thomas P. Gore, the United States Senator from Oklahoma. A member of the Kennedy clan, he was Jackie’s step-brother. A well-connected southerner, he is a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter and claims a blood relationship to former U.S. Vice-President, Al Gore.

Gore Vidal is also militant anti-imperialist, a fierce critic of American society and a self-described radical, though he means by this that he is a genuine conservative. He wishes that the USA would return to its roots and restore the values and possibilities of its early republican heritage.

Gore Vidal has dabbled in politics as a twice-defeated aspirant congressman. He remains prouder of his first try when he ran as a Democrat in a traditional Republican district in upstate New York where he gathered more support than any Democrat had done in fifty years and more than his presidential ballot-mate, John F. Kennedy. The year was 1960. Vidal, of course, has been far more effective as a political writer than a practical politician. He has lived by his pen for well over fifty of his eighty years. His pen has made him rich.

At just twenty-one, he was among the first of an inspired group of veterans to produce a novel based on their World War II experiences. The group included James Jones (From Here to Eternity), Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) and eventually Joseph Heller (Catch-22) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five). Vidal’s book was Williwaw. It has been followed by at least fifty more books, seven plays and numerous television and film scripts (notably Ben-Hur, though a studio dispute robbed him of authorial credit). His historical novels, Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1976) remain my favorites among his fiction, and his main essay collections, United States (1993) and The Last Empire (2001), are superb.

Vidal’s view of American history is sufficiently controversial to have him all but blacklisted from the mainstream US broadcast media. (As literacy rates plummet, he is welcome to publish books, presumably on the assumption that anyone who would read them is not likely to be recruited by the religious right anyway, and publishers’ profits can legitimately rise even on the sale of ideologically dangerous material). Vidal argues that the overseas American Empire began in earnest with “Teddy” Roosevelt’s clever little war against Spain that won the US its first important colonies—Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He also speaks of “shredding” the Bill of Rights—a process that launched by Harry Truman’s creation of the “national security state.” His loathing of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both president Bushes is limitless—and he doesn’t think much of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton either.

To anyone already inclined to regard the United States as a pseudo-democracy governed by a single political party with “two right wings” (amusingly called Republicans and Democrats), Vidal’s keen wit, skillful phrasing and relentless argument will amuse and occasionally amaze. Those disinclined to such a view will quickly experience apoplexy. His disdain for organized (or disorganized) religion, his unwillingness to compromise in his analysis of the American plutocracy and his goading of the supine journalists, academics and other “opinion leaders” who gull and lull the unhappy citizenry into somnambulance are not unparalleled (the essays of Lewis Lapham, another “class traitor” and publisher of Harper’s magazine are similarly well informed and often equally stinging), but his darts are unusually lethal and very well-aimed.

If Gore Vidal is unhappy, it is because he is wholly committed to concepts such as truth, honor, justice and democracy, and he is unwilling to settle for fraudulent goods. He is most distressed by the degree to which the US Constitution has been sacked in the interest of an ideology of Empire that is so badly managed that many of its citizens are denied basic education and health care, its middle class is declining precipitously, its economic infrastructure is in disarray and it is now the largest debtor nation in human history.

A “small-r” Republican, Vidal thinks that the “war on terror” is as nonsensical as a “war on dandruff,” but that it is incalculably more dangerous for the country he plainly loves. With this book, the last in a trilogy of short collections that include Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (2002) and Dreaming War (2002), he concludes his sly, sardonic inquiry into the political pathology of the USA. The contents were composed over three decades, and it is striking to see how well he anticipated the problems of the new millennium while living in the old, how easily he predicted the broad outlines of the Bush 43 administration while commenting on Bush 41, and how firm is his moral compass as he negotiates his way through the first decade of the 21st century.

Imperial America is not Gore Vidal’s best work, but it is an engaging introduction to a political pundit whose approach, while hard for some to accept, is powerful and becomes even harder to jettison once its clarity and wisdom are even provisionally acknowledged. Moreover, for those who complain that critics are quick to carp but quiet when constructive comments are called for, Vidal has a surprise. He reminds us that the venerable founders of his republic did not expect their Constitution to remain unaltered. It would, they thought, have to be continually renewed. Recalling the words of Thomas Jefferson, Vidal advises that, when all else fails, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Vidal hopes that the US will avoid the fate of all tyrannies. He therefore calls, in the tradition of his country, for a new Constitutional Convention. It is not a novel thought. In 1787, Benjamin Franklin observed, at the Convention that was asked to ratify the original Constitution, that the sacred document was deeply flawed. He wrote that it would do for a time, but that it could “only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” Says Vidal: “Think of Enron.” Think “of chads and butterfly ballots.” Think also that less than half of the US citizens bother to vote, that the US now trails Luxemburg, Norway and Switzerland in raw per capita income (with nothing like the social programs in those or other European countries), that the US government spends about two-thirds of its revenue of what it terms “defense,” that (again) American literacy rates are low among industrial countries and are falling further behind while American poverty rates are climbing, and that all these uneasy markers must be seen in the context of a national debt that passed the $8 trillion level on 18 October, 2005 and reached $8,003,897,406,911.24 by the end of the day, and continues to climb by an average of $2.83 billion (US) per day at a time when the chief economic policy initiative of the second Bush administration is a further tax reduction for the rich.

It may not be always be pleasant to listen to Gore Vidal, but few others seem to grasp such simple truths.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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