Sunday, July 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Revisiting Vidal, America's problems

Special to The Seattle Times

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Gore Vidal is one of the great class traitors in American history and, for that, all of us who won't see a penny from the recent repeal of the estate tax should thank him.

Growing up as a member of what he refers to as the American ruling class - the rich and powerful who control politics in this country - Vidal began writing novels, essays and plays after serving in the Pacific during World War II.

"The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000"

by Gore Vidal
Doubleday, $27.50
Throughout his successful career - his novels include "Burr" and "Lincoln," and his collected essays, "United States," won the National Book Award in 1992 - one of Vidal's main messages to the American people is this: You're getting royally screwed.

In "The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000," Vidal turns up the heat. The American Republic is dead, he writes; it became the National Security State in 1947 (July 26, to be exact, when Congress passed the National Security Act, creating the National Security Council and the CIA).

The Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures "is now daily breached both by deed and law."

The Constitution is kaput because Congress has conceded to the executive branch its power to declare war, while its individual members are too indebted from corporate campaign contributions to look after the good of the people. These corporations now own the media as well (GE/NBC, Disney/ABC).

"When last I nodded off," Vidal writes in the essay "Mickey Mouse, Historian," "there was something called the Sherman Antitrust Act. Whatever happened to it?"

Meanwhile, corporations are paying a smaller and smaller percentage of federal taxes.

Most Americans suspect all of this, Vidal says, which is why so few of them bother to vote. Like most of Vidal's essay collections, "The Last Empire" is divided between subjects literary, historical and political, but the political has become increasingly important to him and infects his other subjects. As he writes of Frank Sinatra, "I leave (debate over his voice) to music critics. What interests me is the rise and fall of a political hero. ... "

Aesthetics is almost a non-issue now. Instead, Vidal's subjects are inflated or deflated, depending on their relationship to American imperialism.

Mark Twain, an anti-imperialist, is good; John Updike, one of the few writers who failed to condemn the Vietnam War, is bad. Charles Lindbergh, an anti-interventionist, is positive. Less so Truman, who began "an imperial expansion that has cost the lives of many millions all over the world." Even sacred cow Abraham Lincoln gets a good going over.

Because these essays were written over many years for various publications (The Nation, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books), Vidal can get a little repetitive.

He doesn't connect the dots as well as he should, or provide footnotes that would help interested readers with their own research. And what a disparate crew winds up in his political bed! Jerry Brown, Pat Buchanan and Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

In one essay, he even suggests taking advantage of Article Five of the Constitution to request a constitutional convention. Ours isn't working, he says. Let's begin anew.

Yet nobody afflicts the comfortable like Vidal, whether this means the materially wealthy, or those comfortable (read: somnambulant) in their world view.

"The media constantly deplore the drug culture," he writes in his essay "Shredding the Bill of Rights," "and, variously, blame foreign countries like Colombia for obeying the iron law of supply and demand to which we have, as a nation and a notion, sworn eternal allegiance."

In fact, the most difficult part of reviewing Vidal is deciding which of his many bon mots to quote. He's the linguistic Ali - his aphorisms sting - and one wouldn't want to be at the receiving end of his literary punch. A favorite, which enlightens: "Put bluntly, who collects what money from whom in order to spend on what is all there is to politics, and in a serious country should be the central preoccupation of the media."

In the 1950s, Vidal, along with Norman Mailer and James Baldwin, was one of our great literary/political essayists. Baldwin died 15 years ago, and Mailer seems to have abandoned the essay form altogether. Only Vidal still stands in the ring, throwing punches.

What happens to our less-than-serious country when he's gone?


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