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Gore Vidal: America and Empire

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Posted on Apr 14, 2006
Gore Vidal
Zuade Kaufman

National Book Award-winning author Gore Vidal

By Gore Vidal

Editor’s Note: The following essay by Gore Vidal is the full-text foreword to Robert Scheer’s new book: “Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton—and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush.” Ordering information here. Read Scheer’s introduction here.

America and Empire

by Gore Vidal

The twentieth century produced a great deal of writing about American politics, much of it bewildered when new notions like empire started to sneak into nervous texts whose authors were not quite certain if “empire” could ever be an applicable word for the last best hope of earth.

The bidding then changed dramatically after World War Two, when Harry Truman armed us with nuclear weapons and gave us an icy sort of permanent war against Godless Atheistic communism, as personified by Joseph Stalin, standing in for Hitler, whom we had got rid of with rather more help than we liked to admit from the new world demon Stalin. How, why did Truman lock us all into a national security state, armed to the teeth? The simple story was dread of communism everywhere on the march, but those of us who had served in World War Two knew as well as our political leaders that the Soviet Union, as of 1950, was not going anywhere very soon: They had lost twenty million people. They wanted, touchingly, to be like us, with consumer goods and all the rest of it.

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What actually happened was tragic for the Russian people and their buffer states: Truman, guided by that brilliant lawyer Dean Acheson, was quite aware that by 1940 the world Depression of the early ‘30s had returned. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt had largely failed. What was to be done? FDR took a crash course in Keynesian economics. As a result, he invested $8 billion into re-arming the United States, in order to hold our own against the Fascist axis of Germany, Japan, Italy. To the astonishment of Roosevelt’s conservative political enemies, the U.S. suddenly had full employment for the work force and a military machine of the first rank with which we were able to defeat Fascism, and just about anyone else who defied us.

Truman and friends learned and never forgot an important lesson: It was through war and a militarized economy that we became prosperous with full employment. After victory in Europe and the Pacific, Truman himself began to play the war drums. Stalin was menacing Turkey and Greece (Acheson threw in nearby Italy, and why not France?). We must stop the rising Red tide, while acquiring that era’s latest propaganda toy, a TV set. This wearisome background was well known to historians like William Appleman Williams, but hardly suspected by too many of the usual publicists of the American way of life.

Robert Scheer has had the good fortune to observe first-hand the last half-dozen Presidents, from Nixon to “W”. He has also had the perseverance as a journalist to insist that he be able to conduct one-on-one conversations with the odd sort of men who were playing (or trying to play) President. This makes for a fascinating immediacy in the book at hand, particularly when he is giving his protagonists a harder time than they had expected. Scheer has always suspected that he would be one of the last journalists able to use the print medium fully in the electronic age that had dawned around 1960.

Scheer makes a telling analysis of Nixon and his “frozen smile,” with the comment that “despite being unquestionably the best prepared of all modern Presidents before assuming office, it was his indelibly awkward and secretive style that did him in.” Scheer is impressed by this President’s mind despite himself, as was Walter Lippmann, whom I once teased for supporting Nixon. Walter was serene: “I only know,” he said, “if I had a difficult lawsuit on my hands, I would go to him as a lawyer. He presents you an entire case before your eyes: He is simply brilliant, unique in public life.”

Print journalism is a challenge to the writer’s intelligence, as well as to that of his subject. Of course, few journalists and player Presidents are up to Scheer and Nixon. Yes, Nixon did much that was evil along the way (Cambodia, Watergate), but he usually managed to harm himself most—a form of good manners. He was primarily interested in foreign affairs and the opening up to China; dtente with the Soviets; these were significant achievements, and he had no strong domestic policies, which should have been a great relief for Us the People. No wartime tax breaks for cronies is quite enough for us to applaud him in other roles.

Presidents are trapped in history as well as in their own DNA codes. After Watergate, Nixon starred as Coriolanus for a while, but when he saw that this got him nowhere, he realized he was so steeped in blood that he could not turn back, so he went on as Macbeth, to our benefit at times. Scheer is not the first of our journalists to recognize how like classical players the Presidents tend to be if they have the right war or disaster to contend with. Scheer is generally good-humored about them, though Bush I’s implacable self-love seems to rub him the wrong way; also, Reagan’s rambling does not get either of them very far, yet Scheer has grasped what few others have: Mrs. Reagan’s importance not only to her somewhat listless husband but to our country, where she seems to have understood before other politicians that the Cold War was getting us nowhere.

Scheer had problems with Jimmy Carter and, perhaps, with Southern politicians in general. He struggled with the man’s compulsive fibbing about himself and his place in an imaginary Plains, Georgia, which kept changing to fit his restless re-imagining of his career, recalling homely barbershop quartets as well as killer rabbits at large in catfish ponds. Scheer had an edgy time with Carter, but it was to Scheer that Carter confessed he had lusted in his heart for ladies, causing much of the nation to admire and smirk.

Scheer concedes Clinton’s brilliance as a player but frets over (as many of us did) “the end of welfare as we know it.” It is with this President that Scheer is most interesting, largely because Clinton is as intelligent as he, at least on the subjects they discuss. Clinton has dared occasionally to touch the third rail of American political discourse: the superiority of other nations’ economies to that of America the Beautiful and the Earmarked.

Scheer: Some now blame the Europeans and Japanese for our problems and call for protectionism. Are you sympathetic to such calls?

Clinton: But to be fair, the biggest problems we have in maintaining the manufacturing base are our failures to work together to achieve high levels of productivity, to control health care costs, to have a tax system which is pro-manufacturing. Our tax system now is anti-manufacturing. And it was during the Reagan/Bush years. I think, you know, it rewarded money making money and not production, not jobs, not goods, and not services.

Scheer: Well, that’s what we say now. But when the last tax-reform package was passed, many Democrats supported it. It was supposed to help production.

Clinton: I never thought it would . . . You know, the elemental principle of taxation should be [that] people should pay according to their abilities to pay. And you should have incentives that do specific things. Those ought to be the two driving, in my view, principles of the tax system.

This is very grown-up stuff.

The final chapter, perhaps in every sense, deals with George W. Bush. Scheer confesses he was ill-prepared for someone who seems to have no idea of, or interest in, playing President, as opposed to playing “Wartime President,” easily the trick of the week when Congress has modestly declined to declare war on anyone.

Certainly, with these observations on a section of our history, Scheer joins that small group of journalist-historians that includes Richard Rovere, Murray Kempton, and Walter Lippmann.

Buy Robert Scheer’s Book


Gore Vidal is an internationally acclaimed novelist, essayist, playwright and screenwriter whose historical fiction and collected criticisms have garnered him the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. An outspoken political activist, he ran for the U.S. House in New York in 1960 and in the 1982 senatorial primary.

ROBERT SCHEER'S new book offers an unparalleled first-hand insight into the presidential mind. Available in the TRUTHDIG BAZAAR

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By alexgreend, June 22, 2010 at 4:42 am Link to this comment

This makes for a fascinating immediacy in the book at hand, particularly when he is giving his protagonists a harder time than they had expected. Scheer has always suspected that he would be one of the last journalists able to use the print medium fully in the electronic age that had dawned around 1960.

Bistro MD Reviews

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By Santinhos, May 31, 2010 at 12:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article, thanks for sharing.

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By Tom, May 8, 2006 at 8:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I now long for the good old days when Tricky Dick was around. Bush and the other incompetent, swaggering war criminals make Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.

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By WrathfulManjushri, May 4, 2006 at 6:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore V. is indispensible, but he can be, indeed, exasperating.  For instance:

“Nixon did much that was evil along the way (Cambodia, Watergate), but he usually managed to harm himself most ...”

I’m embarrassed for Mr. Vidal that he did not catch the obscenity hidden in this sentence, and delete it.  Mr. Nixon was a self-destructive ball of neuroses, but the depthless evil of prolonging the war in Vietnam and then spreading it to Cambodia should not even appear in the same sentence as the harm he did to himself (which consisted of nothing worse than a blighted career, which he did not even fully appreciate, since he was psychologically incapable of not blaming others for his many downfalls.)

Young Mr. Bush has “harmed himself” on an even grander scale than Nixon did, and will be remembered, if there are any to remember him, as the most toxic and foul-smelling turd ever to float to the top of the cesspool of Republican politics, but such painful judgements are nought in the face of such grim historical facts as the tens and tens of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqi men, women, and children who have paid with their lives and homes and body parts for the fact that the American political machine elected this well-born fuckwit, bringing into power the cabal of borderline psychotics he leads into endless fields of death and despair. 

Powerful creeps like Nixon and Bush, no matter how miserable they make themselves and those who pin their hopes to them, will have to spend endless eons in some particularly loathsome hell before their “self-harm” begins to match that of the horrors they have afflicted on places like Cambodia and Fallujah.

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By Evan Jones, April 29, 2006 at 10:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal asserts that the American-Russian
Cold War was started on purpose by Truman to satisfy the demands of the American Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) for an enemy worthy of high military expenditures.

The assertion is intriguing and contains more than an element of truth.

But on the other hand, Vidal, a leftist, doesn’t talk much about Stalin’s motives.

To what extent did the need of the MIC for “perpetual war” worsen the Cold War?

And to what extent was America merely defending herself from communist aggresssion?

To what extent was Cold War communist aggression a product of the likes of Time-Life Corporation?

To what extent were the major wars of the 20th century sponsored by the industrial barons and media barons of the time?

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By candide, April 27, 2006 at 8:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Re: Ms. Nelson,
But it is true that without WWII the Depression would likely have continued much longer.

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By Patricia Nelson, April 25, 2006 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I am a long-time fan of Gore Vidal—we are of the same generation and I’ve read most of his writings, both fiction and non-fiction. Nevertheless, I must point out that he is dead wrong about FDR “took a crash course in Keynesian economics” in order to “re-arm” the U.S. Roosevelt had already started his “New Deal” economics during the first “One Hundred Days” (March through June, 1933)before Keynes published his theory more than a year later. In fact, Keynes visited Washington and talked with FDR and cabinet-members in 1934 to observe part of his theory in action.  The New Deal was never completely Keynesian—a digression I’ll not go into. What should be emphasized was expressed by “Candide” (comment #7713): “FDR did all that he could to get us into war because of the danger of a fascist victory.” By the time the U.S. entered the war, our banking system was already recovered and fostering a return to economic stability.

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By Anne, April 25, 2006 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Vtial also enjoyed Nixon’s dark humor.
When Nixon came to office, he said he was writing to everyone in Who’s Who. When Vital’s envelop came, it contained a blank page. That tickled him

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By candide, April 23, 2006 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal has many valid things to say about American foreign policy, but the notion that FDR rearmed America to end the Depression is nonsense.  Everyone knows FDR did all that he could to get us into the war because of the danger of a Fascist victory.  Like many left-wing radicals Gore never knows when to stop with his conspiratorial views.

You can believe that Truman unwisely went into the Cold War without believing he had crass motives.

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By bill orr, April 21, 2006 at 3:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

dear Gore,
        was glad to learn of your acquaintance
with Sam Harris.  Hope you’ll visit bilbo’s sting.
http://whitegold.blogsource.com/
Bilbo’s sting
                very truly yours,
                            elford

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By George Fuller, April 21, 2006 at 7:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There’s an insightful comment on Williamette Week’s website likening GV to a latter day Cicero.  The parallels are unnerving…

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By richard baker, April 19, 2006 at 1:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with other comments about being surprised to see Nixon credited with anything in the brains department. Was the “Checkers” speech the creation of a fine intellect? He did possess an impressive vocabulary of four-letter words, of course… I also would really love to see someone, someday, credit Jimmy Carter for his courage in trying to make human rights the cornerstone of American foreign policy rather than the economic interests of multinational corporations. Who cares if he was a peanut farmer or Mr. Peanut? Not the people in Nicaragua who got out from under Somosa during his watch, one imagines. Still, it’s always a pleasure to read Vidal; even if he misses some minor points he hits the bullseye on all the big ones. And what style!

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By Badri Raina, April 19, 2006 at 11:39 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Not having read the book, I can say with confidence that GV’s lending his name to it does it credit. Mr.Vidal is reminiscent of an America—largely pre-world war one—that still had a sense of history, of its infinite complexities,and of the conglomerate of demands it makes on those that seek to lead. To the extent tha Mr.Vidal speaks for an America that had an intellectual life and tradition, and that defined its own uniqueness in close affinity with and understanding of world history, his words are nostalgic. It must seem shocking to modern neocons that Vidal uses Shakespeare and the Romans to elucidate the track record of American Presidencies.

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By Jack Crain, April 19, 2006 at 7:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In general, I do not like or trust popular histories, but Gore Vidal, the person who is the real voice of my generation, has made me want to read this book.

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By john Y, April 19, 2006 at 5:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I, too, have been hugely influenced by Vidal. The only ting that doesn’t sit well with me is when he says Nixon did more “harm to himself,” a kind of “good manners.” What about the 2+ million Southeast Asians he helped do terminal harm to?

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By Paul Dolza, April 18, 2006 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is yet, to my mind, a better insight into the events that have and will shape our world, than Gore Vidal’s insightful writing. Just after the Iraq War debacle was first born, clawing its way from an untimely womb, Mr. Vidal in “Blood for Oil,” hit upon the facts driving the madness with clarity and truth. Only now, years after the beast of war has already savaged so many, do the cardboard cutouts of the evening news, find these same facts with utter surprise and amazement. Whether history or present history, Mr. Vidal is one of the finest voices for the time.

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By Ken Duerksen, April 18, 2006 at 12:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Like John Van Doren, above, I was surprised by the description of Nixon. 

While Nixon obviously possessed a form a sharp cleverness, he lacked any degree of morality.  I remember him nostalgically bragging in one interview about fleecing combat soldiers in poker during WWII - as the soldiers went off into the meatgrinder and he sat safely in his rear eschellon supply depot.  Also: in 1954 VP Nixon tried emphatically to get Ike to use Nukes on the North Vietnamese as they kicked French ass at Diem Bien Phu - it wasn’t even our war yet, at that point. 

I think to be wise one needs a strong morqal compass - and this guy did not have one.

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By Paul Kibble, April 18, 2006 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal remains one of the last surviving voices of sanity in these increasingly mad and maddening times. He has a very long memory and a correspondingly short manner with the fools and knaves who have turned our Republic into a deep (but not bottomless) hog trough for the insatiable greedheads of Haliburton et al. In a better world, someone with his wit, his and his deep understanding of history would play a major role in shaping U.S. foreign and domestic policy. But when I last checked, this was not a better world, and wisdom, not to mention intelligence, of GV’s sort has as often as not been a detriment to holding public office in this country. So we must instead content ourselves with the brilliant dispatches from a great writer who in his later years has chosen (in his own description) to become a political pamphleteer in the honorable tradition of Thomas Paine. 

Mr. Scheer likewise belongs to this tradition, and after the vile Jeff Johnson’s purge of the L.A. Times editorial page, I am happy that he has found another venue in which to continue serving as a beacon of light amid the encroaching political darkness.

Mr. Vidal elsewhere quotes Tiberius’s reproach to the Roman senate: “How eager you are to become slaves.” In light of the appalling passivity of much of the American electorate, may I add this line from Rousseau?: “Someday the slaves will rush to put on their chains.” And so they have.

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By J. Prole, April 18, 2006 at 4:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have been wishing that we could get Vidal to run for president. His presence in the debates would be worth it as he’d expose the lamestream canditates for the hypocritical corporate whores they are—and with great humor.

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By Trammell, April 17, 2006 at 10:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I admit to being an avid Gore Vidal fan. I shall never forget the screaming match between Vidal and William F. Buckley, when Buckley called Vidal a “Queer” on live television, long before CNN was even a sparkle in Ted Turner’s eye.

In the last comment, the term, “limited Nuclear war” stands out like it is in Neon. I remember rumors of such insanity during the Reagan years.

The sad part is that we have fought three limited nuclear wars already: Gulf war I, Kosovo and now, Iraq. In each of these wars Depleted Uranium was used. It will kill and deform for years to come, not ony the “enemy,” which is bad enough, since the current enemy are peple we are supposedly liberating, but our own troops have been exposed as well, and there are already horror stories about the hell they and their families are going through.

Henry Kissinger once said that soldiers are just big, dumb animals to be used for the foreign policy needs of the U.S, or something to that effect. Do all Republicnas think like that? Democrats?

Some Christain nation we have here!

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By blackdog, April 17, 2006 at 1:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal is a must hear or read for everyone, even the heathens who won’t get it. When I think of the unbelieveable loss of trillions of dollars during most of my lifetime by idealogues bitching over ideas I just get sick. For the average joe, a trillion is 10 followed by 12 zeros. How many thumbs were stuck in that pie? Egad, someone with the ability give me $250,000 and I promise to shut up and go away.

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By John Van Doren, April 17, 2006 at 11:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Gore Vidal, when not exasperating, is a brilliant
commentator on our political fortunes.  I was not aware of Nixon’s quality.  He struck me as one who, as someone said of Senator Taft, had the best mind in the Senate until he made it up—recall his fixation on Alger Hiss.  It was opportunism that did him in.  Even his overture to China was suspect, folowing as it did the scare tactics he had played to a farethewell, making it impossible for anybody else to make such an overture, though good men tried.  No one trusted him.  Carter?  Vidal may have him right.  Surely he has Scheer right, a national treasure, beyond doubt.

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By chris k, April 17, 2006 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

always juicy perspectives from this lad.

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By Alice Brown, April 17, 2006 at 8:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Of course, Gore Vidal speaks with authority and moral compassion.  He is one of the few Americans living with compassion, backbone, education, intelligence and every now and then, a public platform.  It is unfortunate that our mainstream media is so dumbed down, so corrupt, .....Katie Couric being a good example….that GV is seldom give the opportunity to help our sheeple figure out they’ve been screwed.
We cannot afford ignorance as a nation.  It may even mean the end of our species, if we actually think you can have a ‘limited nuclear’ war.

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