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Gore Vidal, interviewed by Doug Henwood


Thanks to W. Kiernan for doing this transcription.

Recorded on May 6, 2002 and broadcast on WBAI radio May 16. Doug Henwood's show can be heard most Thursdays, 5-6 PM U.S. Eastern time, on 99.5 FM in the New York area, and here via RealPlayer.

Order Gore Vidal's book on these topics, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, by clicking here.

part one

Doug Henwood Thank you for joining us, Gore Vidal.

Right now we have a lot of liberals wagging their fingers telling us, "I
told you so," about the George Bush regime, that people who said there
was no difference between the two parties are now saying it's enormously
big. How in the wake of the reaction to September eleventh do you read
that kind of "no difference between the two" argument?

Gore Vidal Well, Bush acted more quickly with repressive legislation
to push us further along the road to a police state, which Clinton, two
years after Oklahoma City, launched when he signed a special piece of
legislation, the Anti-Terrorist Act, which removed a number of our
freedoms as enumerated in the Bill of Rights. It was a bad bill.

Then in the wake of 9-11, the Bush people, particularly Ashcroft, they
were ready with, they had all sorts of terrifying totalitarian
legislation ready, which was promptly passed. The USA PATRIOT act it
was called, went through Congress without any debate, and many people
said many congressmen never read it. Then when they began to look and
see what was in it, you know, the decapitation of the first-born, I
believe, was in there, or something like it, it was filled with....

H The liberals would have waited for the second-born...

V Well, they would wait till the last-born perhaps, thus doing away
with contraception, which is causing their constituents such worry.

Anyway, it was created, the bill, and now it's being corrected, I don't
know what state it's in now and I don't think anybody does. But we are
losing our liberties, and there is no doubt about it. And every day
there are more and more examples, as Ashcroft gleefully says that he
single-handedly suspended the confidentiality between lawyer and client,
"if it's a terrorist situation." And now he's trying to lock up a woman
who, a woman laywer who's worked for a terrorist, which it seems it has
got the legal profession quite angry.

The idea of a supine Congress, the best that corporate money can buy, is
allowing this to go past them without any question, puts me in mind of
my favorite Emperor - and I always talk about Emperors when I do
Pacifica, at least on the West Coast - Tiberius, who was a very
brilliant man, and a patriot in his way. When he became Emperor, the
Senate passed a bill, assuring him that any legislation that he sent
them would be automatically accepted, and become law. He sent back word
and he said, "You're crazy. Suppose, suppose the Emperor is mad,
suppose he's ill, suppose there's a palace coup and somebody else is
sending things in his name? How can you be so certain that what you're
passing is really his, or should be passed?" They sent it back:
"Anything your Imperial Majesty sends us is law for us." And Tiberius
said, "How eager they are to be slaves."

And this is more and more my view of the American people in general.
They've allowed an election to be stolen in November 2000. They made no
fuss. We have perpetual war for perpetual peace. We have the
Enemy-of-the-Month Club: one month it's Noriega, one month it's Saddam
Hussein, one month it's Khadafy, currently it's Osama bin Laden, we

"It's going to be a loooooong war!" said George W. Bush, with such glee,
'cause it means he has Imperial powers. And it also means that we are
not going to get the Constitution back. Once civil rights are gone,
they are gone. People get out of the habit of them.

There is no peace party in the United States, a party that might say
stop spending all this money on pointless wars, particularly in the
Middle East and with the Moslem world - there are one billion Moslems
and only a quarter billion Americans, and they seem to be extremely
angry at us for a number of reasons. Since I am in the "why" business,
I give in "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," I go through many of the
things that we have done to other countries that make them angry at us.
And that's why the subtitle is, "How We Came to be so Hated."

Americans say, "What? How could we be hated? We're the good guys.
Everybody else, they're evil-doers." And when I heard the baby-talk
coming out of George W. Bush's mouth in front of Congress, there's this
Axis of Evil, Iran, Iraq and ... North Korea? I mean, he doesn't know
where these places are, much less what evil is, and he doesn't even

H Two of them hate each other and the third has nothing to do with

V Exactly, and he doesn't know what an axis is, also. So...

H Somebody else wrote the words for him.

V Somebody else wrote them, would God made somebody else say them,

I've never seen Americans so supine. I'm one of the few people around
who remembers Pearl Harbor. I was fifteen years old. And that was the
worst thing that had happened to us until 9-11. I also remember that
two years after Pearl Harbor I enlisted in the Army. People like me did
in those days. Unlike George W. Bush and Vice-President Cheney who both
fled from the Vietnam War. Bush ends up in the Texas Air Force and
Cheney was hidden away in some invulnerable place...

H Setting a precedent for...

V Setting a precedent for a Vice-President. And here these total
non-patriots, they're what we used to call "draft-dodgers," are now
leading the United States into war, war, war, next is Iraq, next will be
Iran. They've listed about twelve possibilities for us to attack.
Nobody quite knows why, except they might turn terrorist. Well, I can
assure you one thing, if we attack them, they'll hit back, and we will
have created terrorists, so we can have more war.

H I want to get back to a point you made a while ago. Do you think
the American public is ignorant, or kept deliberately so, of the real
behavior of our government abroad, or do you think they're complicit
even if only tacitly, as they sort of know what's going on but don't
really want to hear the details. They might on some level realize
it takes some ugly force to keep us a hundred times richer than the
world's poorest people? How much complicity is there?

V Very little. Eighty percent of Americans are doing badly, and they
range from poverty to middle-class people who've lost their jobs at
Enron due to the crookedness of the management, newly-unemployed
formerly rather well-off people. That's eighty percent. Twenty percent
are doing very well, working for the one percent that owns the country.
The twenty percent, they go to Congress, they sit on the courts, and
they run the corporations. So if you're talking about the eighty
percent, you're talking about people who've never been educated.

They stopped teaching geography about the time I left school. They
don't teach it any more. Here, now we've got a world empire, nobody
knows where anything is. They showed a bunch of students a map of the
globe, all the continents and the oceans and so on, but with no labels,
and they asked them to identify the United States. Well, eighty percent
couldn't. Didn't know where it was. A number had a real sense of humor
and they picked Panama, 'cause it looked kind of cute, you know, with
two big blobs, one above it, one below it.

So if they don't know where we are, I don't think they're ever going to
know why we are. The media is so poisonous, and so brilliant at
demonizing the Enemy-of-the-Month Club as I call it, you go from Khadafy
one month, Hussein, Saddam Hussein another month, it never lets up,
we've always got a new enemy. Because they're evil-doers; they have no
motive for being evil, except they like being evil. That is the George
W. Bush mantra. Well, we have made everyone in the world hate us. The
contempt that Europeans have for Americas now, even in Italy where I
live part of the year, and Italians have always been the most tolerant
of us, even they are turning. I'm getting very nervous. I mean, their
oil all comes from the Middle East, If we screw up again with Iraq -
and I'll make you a bet that we are at war in Iraq in October, and Bush
will be conducting that war in order to get more Republicans elected in
a wartime atmosphere, so he can remove more of our liberties.

And also get a crack at Caspian oil and natural gas. The last great
reserves are in those five republics that used to be part of the Soviet
Union and are now independent states with names like Kazakhistan. Well,
we're after the oil in the five Istans.

We went into Afghanistan not to get Osama bin Laden, that would have
been nice if we did. We went in for a very good reason. The Taliban
had been invented by us, to fight the Russians when they were occupying
Afghanistan. The Taliban turned out to be flaky beyond belief and we
couldn't do anything with them. Unocal, which is an oil company in
California, had made a deal with the Tailban, to put a pipeline from,
that would take, siphon off Caspian oil, pipe it through Afghanistan and
down through Pakistan, to Karachi, to the Indian Ocean, and ship it off
to China and make a fortune. It's the last great oil reserves in the
world. That's what we were doing in Afghanistan, and that why we'll be
hitting at Iraq. We are entering to steal.

Now between stealing things that might benefit us, as you suggest, and
going to war out of vanity, which was Vietnam. There was nothing there
we wanted. But we went there because they dared defy us. And the
domino theory, and every country would go Communist... I mean, the
American people have been so pumped up with laughing gas that it's a
wonder that they're sane enough to go about their business, which should
be business and not war.

So there we are, embarked upon a great adventure, with one billion
Moslems hating us, and the contempt of all of Europe, the hatred of most
of Latin America - for very good reason, we can't blame that on George
W. Bush, we've had two hundred years to make them hate us down there.
And we're making trouble in China, we're looking forward to a war in
China. If I could find a way to get to the American people and say,
"This junta that is governing us, this Enron/Pentagon junta, dedicated
only to enrichment through the oil business, as all the Bushes and
Cheneys and so on are oil people, they are going to destroy, for
personal profit, the United States. We are going to be destroyed by the
hatred of the rest fof the world."

Suicide bombers. We always thought, well, we're pretty safe, we've got
more bombers and more missiles and so on, when you're up against that,
they could take out every city if we make enough of them angry. Every
move that these fools in Washington make antagonizes more people. The
first law of physics is there's no action without reaction. This has
never been learned by an American government. We can swagger around,
kill all the Indians, enslave these people, steal money - anything we
want. And they're not supposed to get irritable. They do.

H George Bush, a blue-blood exposed to the most expensive education
money can buy, seems like one of the dimmest men ever to occupy the
White House, and there's a lot of competition for that title. He almost
makes Reagan look like an intellectual. What if anything does this say
about the state of American society, or does the individual not matter
that much?

V Doesn't matter. We're run by corporate America, they have their
interests. I've just explained why we're in Afghanistan, and back of
that, if you want to go into the real "why," in this little book of mine
that I've just done, I explain really why the Moslem world was
sufficiently angry at what we had been doing to strike us at 9-11. We
had built up a lot of hatred there and they took it out on us.

I don't think it's Osama, I think he's part of it in some way, but...
The best, the only news you really get, unless you know people who are
actually involved, is from the European press, they do follow this, and
they are not as strictly censored as the American press, where we don't
get any facts of any kind. But the former foreign minister Mohammed
Hakum, I used to know, of Egypt, he said, look, we've been tracking
Osama for years. We know all about him, talking about the Egyptian
Secret Service, as also Mossad had, the CIA has, we know everything
about him. He's no more capable of pulling off as intricate a stunt as
9-11, organizing it, putting it in place, he said, that's a major
country's has done that, with a secret service and modern forces. It
isn't coming from a bunch of religious fanatics no matter how
dedicated. They can't do it, any more than Timothy McVeigh all alone
could have made that bomb and detonated it without blowing himself up.
There was a larger group involved. And the FBI had a pretty good idea
who they are.

part two

V Who governs? Obviously the oil companies are involved in our
Middle-Eastern capers. And for those reasons we have motive, and we've
provoked a response from Moslems. What Mohammed Hakul is suggesting,
was that a country was involved, and he didn't say which one, but he was
sort of pointing his finger at Pakistan. They had the secret service,
they had the intelligence. And we do know that the head of their secret
service, which is called ISI, a man called Mahmoud Ahmed, happened to be
in Washington by the way at the time of 9-11, he had sent about two
weeks before 9-11, a hundred thousand dollars to Mohammed Atta, the
first suicide bomber who was in the United States. This was
embarrassing when it came out, and he took early resignation, early

So it probably comes from something like that. But our country is so
put together and the media is so poisonous and collusive with
government, none of this gets out to the people. They're never told any
of this. They're told that there are evil-doers, and good people,
that's us. And evil-doers do evil because that's their nature. And
we're supposed to be satisfied with that. Maybe they think that all
this sick religiosity we're suffering, particularly in the Protestant
movement, and I am a Protestant, Southern department, that that may have
made everybody sort of Fundamentalists and slightly simple-minded.

But Americans are not simple-minded, and they're very quick when their
interests are at stake, to figure out what's wrong. So I think that
anyone who could find a way to break through - because you have to break
through the media, the media is controlled by the bad guys - to break
through, and start to tell them about things, why such-and-such has
happened, why it is we always have two candidates, one Republican, one
Democrat, that nobody wants to see President. This has been going on
every election since Franklin Roosevelt, nobody has wanted any of them,
and people used to ask, they don't ask any more, they just take it for
granted, it's going to be somebody we don't care about. How does he get
the job?

So to get back to your obsession with George W. Bush, yes, he is very
dumb, but his father's dumber. Poppy. When I was at Exeter, Poppy was
at Andover, and Poppy's son George W. also went to Andover, where he was
a cheerleader. A very distinguished cheerleader. Then he muddied
around with a lot of Osama bin Laden's people, who have interests in
Texas, and helped him with a little oil company, so they're all helped
out by Saudi Arabians, people, future terrorists, of course they
couldn't have known that. But they were chosen because they're
malleable, they'll do whatever Enron, Andersen, you name the great
financial entity wants them to do, they'll do it.

H I'm speaking with Gore Vidal, author of many books but most recently
Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.

American lefties are used to looking to Europe as a somewhat more
civilized, humane environment; we're also looking at the rise of a very,
of people painted as a kind of neo-fascist right in Europe. They've got
Heider, Berlusconi, we're recording this just after Le Pen lost the
runoff election. But what are your thoughts on this rise of the
European right?

V I think a lot of it is the American influence. I think they're so
appalled by... They're calling the U.S. "the new Rome." And "the new
Rome" doesn't, at least the lefties you advert to don't like it, and
there's a great anti-American feeling, and they know that we tend to be
always on the side of totalitarian politicians. We've never been on a
liberal's side unless by accident. So they think of us as a pretty bad
influence and there we are with NATO, which controls them militarily,
and the CIA, controls a lot of their politics, their newspapers and how
they view the world. I think also there's a sense of anomie going on in
Italy and in France, that they've lost the old nation-state - at least
that's the latest received opinion - and people are becoming
nationalistic, 'cause now that's all one common currency and one common
market. They have no sense of identity any more, other than a dislike
of immigrants, foreigners, much like the United States.

There are many jobs that Americans who are doing well in the
twenty-first century were doing well that they don't want to do, they
don't want to collect the garbage. So we go down, smash up a country
like Colombia or Guatemala, and we get a lot of immigrants from those
countries, and they do the work for less than the usual wage. That's
how we keep our empire going, they depend on Moslems, they depend on
Bengalis, people from that part of the world, and they're having trouble
assimilating them, and they really don't know what going to happen to
their culture. I think that's what they're going through now. I see no
signs of fascism, certainly not in Italy. The French have always been
bad-tempered, and they always come up with somebody really bad-tempered,
who represents, you know, the national hangover, which is endemic due to
that red wine they drink.

H Tell us how you got to be friendly with Tim McVeigh, and ended up as
a witness to his execution.

V Well, I didn't go to the execution. I was invited by him. Very
delicate, you know, when somebody asks, "Will you come to my
execution?" If you say "no" you sound, you know, cold-hearted, as
though you were rejecting him. If you say "yes" sounds as if you were
delighted that he's being executed, I mean it's a very delicate thing.

I did a piece on our loss of Bill of Rights in Vanity Fair, which piece
is included in "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace." This was about,
this was after he'd been condemned to death about five, six years ago.
And he read it when he was on death row in Colorado, and he wrote me a
letter about the piece. I'd also mentioned his trial, and how part of
the loss of our civil liberties was also the loss of our control over
the Government, that suddenly the FBI declares war on a religious order
in Waco, Texas, the Branch Davidians, and calls the Army in, and uses
Army weaponry, poison gas and so on, against the Posse Comitatus Act of
1875, I think it was, and I then tied that in with what McVeigh had
done, which was take revenge on the Federal Government. What they had
done, Janet Reno presided, she's the head of the FBI or was at that time
as Attorney General, it was the greatest massacre of Americans by
Americans at Waco since Wounded Knee. Timothy McVeigh then, if he did
it, went her one better and he killed more people at Oklahoma City. Do
I have proof of that? No, I don't.

But we started a correspondence, and he was very intelligent and very
bright. He knew exactly what he felt about what had happened because
he'd been a highly decorated soldier in the Gulf War. Got the Bronze
Star, and he was a born sort of Eagle Scout type. An Eagle Scouter, he
couldn't be responsible for many evils like killing innocent people in
Oklahoma City. It would have been much better if he'd blown up an empty

But he was serious about our liberties and about the country. He was
also part of a much larger plot. I've gone into a lot of FBI reports in
my book, indicating that there were so many leads that they did not
follow up on. Why didn't they? They wanted one lone, crazed killer,
and that was it. So I slightly undid them when I wrote about McVeigh,
in a separate piece after his execution, suggesting what the defense had
made a great case for, that it was a much larger plot.

Now, the word "conspiracy" has been so demonized in America. America is
the home of conspiracy. There has never been a conspiracy as large as
Enron. It's the largest financial conspiracy on Earth. And what is a
political party but a conspiracy to take power? We are the home of
conspiracies, and fixing prices, and getting our money away from us for

And giving us nothing back. We're the only first-world country that
does not have national health, does not have decent education for the
general public. Every other country insists on that. That's why when
you adverted to those American lefties who seem to think Europe is
ahead, well, it is ahead, in the amenities of life, and in
civilization. And we're way behind. And we're just pleased to have
somebody as inferior as George W. Bush doing a war dance in front of
Congress about axis-of-evils and how many enemies we've got, we're going
to go after terrorism wherever it is on Earth! 'Cause we're good!

H Everyone else envies the American way of life, right?

V Not in my opinion.

part three

H Several times you suggested that American democracy's been hijacked
or circumscribed over the years, but when was there a time when it was
really more robust than now? Hasn't it always been an oligarchy, or has
it gotten worse in that regard?

V Well, it's much worse, because there are fewer safeguards for the
average citizen. We always had the Bill of Rights, and if you could
afford a lawyer, right there that puts you in a small category, you
could fight the Government, you could maintain a certain amount of
freedom. That's the thing that has been visibly most lost in the last
few years. A perfect state we never achieved, because after all, we
were founded with, slavery is in the Constitution, it was part of, it's
a national institution, and though some of the Founders disliked
slavery, there it is. It took a great civil war to get rid of it and
the Civil War wasn't even about slavery, it was about preserving the

I would say that the years that produced the Depression, up to then I
think we had a pretty good country. Certainly had a good public
educational system - geography was my favorite, was a great school
subject. And we had a good educational system, and those of us who went
into the Army in the Second World War were far better educated at
seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, than our equivalents today.

H You ran for Congress many decades ago. Would you recommend that
strategy to anyone else?

V No, not today. You have to be a born mendicant, that is, beggar, to
go in for Federal office. It costs too much. I went in to a Democratic
primary for Senate in California about fifteen years ago, just to see
what was going on. And a rather nice guy, senator from California, said
to me, "You know, what do you want to do this for?" He was one of the
good guys. And I said, well, I want to see what's going on, and by
entering the race I can at least change the dialogue. I can bring up
issues, and the papers have to cover you, that other people won't talk
about, and so from that point of view I'd enjoy that.

But get this: he said to me, "You realize," he said, this is his own
experience, and he was not a rich man, nor was he owned by rich men, he
said, "When I was elected, to a six year term, if you want to be
re-elected six years later, you must raise ten thousand dollars a week
for all six years of your first term." Well, how do you do that without
selling your ass? So, I don't advise it for anybody unless you are in
the prostitute business, or unless you like begging, there are some
people who really like going around asking for money. Not I.

H That's a strange fetish, I think.

V Yes.

H You were born to the elite and raised accordingly. How did you end
up as a critic of oligarchy and empire? You could have written novels
and not gotten into as much trouble as you have for taking political
stands. How'd you end up this way?

V Well, I think I have an overdeveloped sense of justice, probably,
something that is largely lacking in our fellow citizens, who are
brought up with this totally different ethos from many of us in my
generation. It's just, you know, how do you get ahead, that's what most
people think about. They think about themselves, their careers, and why
not? At the same time, there should be issues that affect everybody.
You see, I have a sense of country, and I have a great affection for the
country, and particularly the country as devised by the Founders, and
modified, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not, by their
successors. I take it personally. It's a family affair. My family was
in on the founding of the United States. So I take it personally. And
I know quite a few people of my generation who did take it personally.

I don't meet anybody now... can you imagine Bush Jr., staying out,
obviously he was thinking about a political career, 'cause his father
was doing well in one, but he felt safe staying out of a national war?
Or Cheney, who became a congressman before he rose to invisibility,
staying out? Even Clinton, whom I kind of liked... The only noble deed
that Clinton ever did was the famous letter to the draft board saying
why you...

H Mixed bag, he was also worried about his political career...

V Yeah, he was worried about that, but it was a Hell of a good letter,
and very noble.

H How does he get excoriated for that, then Bush and Cheney get a free

V Well, because everybody knows they've been bought. Everybody knows
they're hired. And, you see, no one takes them seriously. Clinton,
people took seriously, because he was a wonderful speaker, he was a
great explainer, he understood the economy, everybody knew that. The
other presidents just went blank on the subject of economics. Clinton
could lecture your ear off. So if you don't respect the man who's
president, you don't expect much from him.

H Years ago I heard that White Supremacist Tom Metzger, on his Aryan
Uptake phone hot-line offering a video of one of your lectures for sale,
and the sympathetic things that you said about Tim McVeigh also have
given people pause. Now there's a long-standing...

V I want to know more about Tom Metzger.

H He just offered this video on his hotline for sale of one of your

V. Is he alive?

H Yeah, he is. He runs White Aryan Resistance, in Southern

V Oh, that Metzger.

H Yeah.

V He was around twenty years ago.

H There is this long-standing, kind of right-leaning nativist critique
of Empire and centralizing power. What affinities or lack of affinities
do you feel in that?

V Well, look at Pat Buchanan, who borrowed a great deal from me, for
"A Republic, Not an Empire." That is what I've been saying for half a
century, that we're not in the Empire business, or we should not be in
the Empire business, because we're not very good at it, and we have so
much wrong in our own country. So there is a moment, I would suspect,
that the far-right has to have something positive to talk about, instead
of worrying about getting rid of the inferior breeds, or what they think
of as the inferior breeds. So, the anti-imperial is an interesting
thing for them to take up, 'cause I'd think they'd be on the other
side. But as many people want to join that, why not?

H How do we extricate ourselves from this drive toward a repressive
imperial state? Is there any way the American population can rise and
throw off the chains, or are you kind of pessimistic that it's going to
be irresistible?

V Well, we have very little, since we don't have representative
government I don't see how we could do it.

I see it ending, and I see it ending fairly soon. You're an economist
of sorts, I gather? We're going to go broke. This deficit spending
that we're doing now, in just the last few days, it's horrendous. We're
in the, they've already spent Social Security, as if it had ever been
saved, 'cause they used to replace the real money that we sent in, in
the form of taxes, they replaced them with IOUs called Treasury Bonds.
I owe you some money, and one day I'll pay it back. As if we'll ever
get that back. Now they're going to use it all up, that famous surplus
that Clinton went on about, was the Social Security surplus. They were
counting that as Federal revenue. Well, it wasn't Federal revenue, it's
a separate trust fund, not to be touched. I think all the money in it
is gone, or has been, you know, put off to one side as collateral, to
pay for perpetual war.

H Well, there's a lot of room in the country, as Adam Smith said.

You once anointed Christopher Hitchens as your successor. Has his
support of the war, and even the kind things he's had to say about
George W. Bush, made you think about rewriting your intellectual will?

V Well... growing pains. This will pass. It's like acne.

H OK, I think that will bring it to a close. Thanks for joining us,
Gore Vidal.

V Thank you.

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