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'This Place Is Broken': The Gore Vidal Interview Part II

Sheerly Avni
Contributor
Sheerly Avni is a San Francisco based film and culture writer. A former editor of Salon.com, her work also has appeared in The Chicago Sun-Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Toronto Star, San Francisco…
Sheerly Avni

Last week, Gore Vidal spoke with Truthdig’s Sheerly Avni about a range of topics, including this year’s Oscar-nominated films (see Part I). He also commented at length about many of the real-life concerns these films attempt to address, including terrorism, war, propaganda movies and, finally, the troubling relationship between the U.S. government and the American entertainment industry, which Vidal refers to as White House East and White House West. Sheerly Avni: We were talking about “Munich,” “Paradise Now” earlier, and how both of those films faced the criticism that they were too soft on terrorists.

Gore Vidal: I wish the word terrorist would be erased from our language. All meaning has been pumped out of it by our rulers and their media, who wish to demonize everyone or -thing they dislike starting with Us The People. Certainly under the name of fighting terrorism we are conducting wars with everyone on Earth, shifting feverishly from old loyal employees like Noriega and Saddam Hussein to new servants to be abandoned in due course. We are treacherous friends. Meanwhile, thanks to all this maneuvering, more and more of our freedoms are being erased.

So you would be comfortable using the word fascism to describe the direction we are heading in now?

No, most uncomfortable. After all, the original fascist Mussolini could never explain just what fascism was in his native Italy. Let’s say arbitrary, dictatorial government that says any law may be ignored if the leadership dislikes it in the interest of fighting terrorism, which is… whatever the controlled media tells us that morning. Although the 9/11 bombings released all sorts of fascistic measures, as I listed in my “President Jonah” piece, the detonating trigger was not 9/11 but Oklahoma City. When the federal building was struck, the Clinton administration came up with an anti-terrorist Bill of Wrongs which is still at the heart of the USA Patriot Act and other curtailments of our liberties. And it is also clear that there is no terrorist army supported by an evil empire out there. Angry Muslims who have nothing to lose will always do some suicide bombing, to blow up our buildings and so forth, but with decent intelligence and a moderately competent government we can anticipate them and thwart them.

If I had been in charge of things at the time of 9/11, I would have called the police. You don’t declare war on an innocent – two innocent countries – Afghanistan and Iraq that had nothing to do with September 11th. A bunch of crazy religious zealots from Saudi Arabia did it all, and I would go to Interpol. I’d say, “Arrest these guys” — out of religious frenzy, they’ve just blown up a part of New York, a part of Washington. Arrest them, try them, do whatever you like with them, but get them.

Unfortunately we were waiting for an excuse to attack Iraq and Afghanistan, and establish American bases up and down the Middle East, for all sorts of nefarious purposes, starting, dare I say?, with oil.

How far back does this “waiting” go?

The early terrorism legislation was cooked up by Janet Reno and the Justice Department under Clinton: as usual, a lone crazed killer, T. McVeigh, was found guilty. But it’s my impression that there was a considerable conspiracy, and the FBI didn’t follow up. One newspaper editor, Joel Dyer, got hold of all the FBI interrogations of suspects who might have been involved in the blowing up of the federal building in Oklahoma City. They didn’t follow up on one of them.

I remember reading that you said it would have taken nine people to load the bomb in the truck.

Yes, this skinny little guy could not have loaded it, much less – have you ever driven as much explosives as he is supposed to have driven? A forensic expert in Ireland who had examined a lot of explosions found that the IRA was constantly blowing themselves up, they would put the bomb on a board across their lap, and then drive the car across bumpy roads, and the car would often explode. And all that would be left of the drivers would be the genitals, because they’d been covered by a board.

Everything else blew up, except that treasured part, which would be in the dust under the cars. It was a grimly funny report.

This is old news now, but in terms of terrorism, there was a lot of protest against the Palestinian Oscar nominee, “Paradise Now,” with a 36,000-person petition to get the film dropped from the roster because it sympathized with “terrorists.”

Never forget there are 1 billion Muslims on Earth. The United States is far too small a country to play big boss – and now far too insolvent a country; we have no revenues, we can’t repair our own infrastructure, much less rebuild the cities that we’ve just knocked down in the Middle East. I think we should learn a little modesty, we’re not number one! At invoking terrorism, yes, we’re pretty good at provoking people to hate us. In fact we’ve been quite successful at that. But we live in a small country, a vulnerable country, a country with no defenses, only “homeland security.” But there’s no true security here – anyone can do anything he wants and will!

Right, so now we have these proposals to build a wall on the Texas/Mexico border, to fill in the tunnels….

Oh it’s just Looney Time, but you see, we have no educational system for the general public. If you come from a well-to-do family, you get a fairly good education, but you get a lot of propaganda along with it. And we have a media that is quite poisonous and only echoes what the administration — and corporate America, which owns the administration — wants us to hear. So the average person has no information, or what he has is so distorted. How can he make up his mind intelligently on any subject?

As far as the American media goes, though, you’ve spoken out strongly against The New York Times, but I’m thinking now of a Bush-voting friend of mine who gets most of his information from Bill O’Reilly and Fox News. The reason he won’t read The New York Times is that he thinks it’s a left-wing mouthpiece.

Ignorance is an epidemic in our country, and it’s kind of virulent. No, they don’t have any information, they don’t have access to it, and the newspaper they like to hate, they might very well hate for other reasons if they had any other reasons, but they don’t have any. They have no evidence.

Or if they’re told about the lies of Judith Miller — it would take you 10 years to explain who she was and how she got to tell lies. And what the lies were about. There’s no such time for us. By the time you are grown and able to read The New York Times without moving your lips, you’ve been had.

So how can the media get to my red-state friend?

I don’t think you can get to him. You can get to him if something blows up somewhere — he certainly grasps that. I think what’s most apt to be getting to him these days is the firing of people at Ford, and General Motors, and people being out of work. He’s no fool when it comes to his own welfare. If he sees that jobs are drying up, he may be inclined to think “well, we’d better get another war” because he’s learned from experience that when we have a war we have full employment….

In 1940 the Depression had returned. It had not been defeated in ’33 by Roosevelt: alas, it was back, so Roosevelt put 8 billion dollars into defense to build up particularly our air force, and we had full employment for the first time in 50 years. By the time Truman got to be president we were totally militarized, which was a very bad thing for us, but he had thought it was for a good reason. I mean, he feared, as did Dean Acheson and the others, that we would slip back into the Depression unless we had all this fueling, with federal money, of the military-industrial complex, as General Eisenhower so nicely advised us. Having served it all of his life, so he knew what he was talking about.

And the need for war now is systemic. There’s no going back. You can’t just say OK, we’re just stopping and we’re going to cut down the Pentagon budget by 50%, we’ll build some hospitals, we’ll do this, we’ll actually try to educate people.

[If you do] you’ll find a huge movement against it. Look, there are all those enemies out there: The Mexicans are armed with anthrax, and they’re entering El Paso even as we speak though hidden tunnels. Isn’t that good for conspiracy theorists? Those tunnels are great symbols.

And then there are the Canadians. Who knows what they’ll do to us from up north!

[sotto voce] They’re the most vicious of all, because they pretend to be quiet and orderly.

Altogether, this is not a very optimistic prognosis.

Well, I’m not very optimistic. This place is broken. It’s going to take a generation to repair what’s been done to the Bill of Rights, what has been done to the legal system.

Meanwhile, they’ll get a chance to add a couple more Supreme Court justices giving us, for a generation, a very, very right-wing interpretation of our liberties, because they don’t like them.

Quite openly they don’t like the freedoms we have, particularly freedom of speech, so they classify it – Top Secret. Don’t speak, whisper.

What will it take?

Organization, there will be quite a few demagogues who will say let’s burn Lawrence, Kan., like Quantrill, but there will be others, like Huey Long: Every Man a King. Make the Standard Oil pay — which is what he did in Louisiana. Built Tulane, built hospitals, siphoned all that money right into the state so everyone could benefit.

Roosevelt was scared to death of him in 1936, because Huey was going to run on a third ticket. And he could have denied Roosevelt a second term, and Huey’s plan was that he himself would be — in 1940 — he would be the Democratic nominee and Roosevelt would be finished. And then we would get Huey Longism, which was true populism. The money was going to go to the people for the things that would make the people’s lives better. Then he was killed in the state capitol at Baton Rouge, by a crazy MD, a doctor, who wasn’t political at all.

Then there were rumors that Roosevelt had hired people to kill him. Seems to me a little far-fetched since I’m pro-Roosevelt.

FDR gave a presidential address from the Academy Awards thanking them for being so patriotic. How much has Hollywood changed since you first started working there, in terms of its relationship to the government?

The change had started much earlier than Roosevelt. The change began with Woodrow Wilson…. The whole country did not want to go to war in Europe, nor did we care about whether Germany organized Europe or whether France organized Europe. It was not a matter of concern to the average American. Nor should it have been. There was no Hitler in Germany. Those days, there was the Kaiser, he was no worse than the French leaders, so it was just a continuation of that long war that had gone on and off and on for centuries between [the] French and Germany. Who’s the heir to Charlemagne? That’s what it was about.

Wilson wanted to go to the war very early, and the American people didn’t. So he found a great public relations man called George Creel…. And George Creel, he sent out to Hollywood to get people to make anti-German movies. So we had nothing but blind nuns being raped by German soldiers. “The Huns are coming! The Huns are coming!” A lot of those movies were made, and then others to show how great the British were, how great the French were. And Wilson, he was shameless; he went so far as to put himself into a number of movies.

That’s how it all started, the marriage between Washington and Hollywood. And I remember when I was first under contract to MGM, in about ’54, I had nothing but dj vu every time I looked around the Thalberg Building. I said, “What does this remind me of?” These little offices, these whitewashed walls and powerful producers on every other floor, talented people like Scott Fitzgerald working in little cubbyholes….

And I said, “This is the White House. This is the White House West, the Thalberg Building. And the White House itself is the Thalberg Building East. And they’re bound to marry.

With an oligarchy bureau chief on each side.

Yes, and George Creel was the bridge.
How was that marriage going in the ’60s?

In the ’60s, well, it got a big boost when Jack got to be president. Everybody out here was very pro-Kennedy. So it looked like a new generation had picked up the torch, and would “Bear any burden” – a pretty terrible inaugural speech, when you think about it. It was sort of a period of nostalgia: “Since You Went Away,” “Best Years of Our Lives,” it was putting a golden haze over WWII and perhaps over Korea, which had been a total mess. It was getting us comfortable and relaxed, homebodies at last, but really once again, to march and follow the flag, wherever it might lead.

That’s what Kennedy’s speech was about: We will bear any burden. To which the answer is, well, why? We’re not in charge of the world. There are a lot of places that we have no business bearing any other burden.

So does the marriage ever get rocky? In the ’70s when you have start having these more acerbic films, you have people like Robert Altman….

Oh yes, and as Vietnam got worse, that was what the ’70s were about, and the movies began to push back, and you have Altman doing it with satire wonderfully well, and quite a few others making their contributions, showing that war is hell… not too much picking of sides either.

Woodrow Wilson would have seen to it that we did.

And then we have Reagan….

“It’s morning in America,” he said – just as night fell.

And Clinton, the most telegenic president we’ve ever had.

Probably the most intelligent one we’ve ever had. It does not necessarily make him the very best, but certainly he was the only one who understood economics and could get up and explain it to the public — for example his first State of the Union. The teleprompter broke down, he did the entire speech from memory; now that’s over two hours of nothing but statistics and analysis. It was a brilliant coup of memory and showed that he thoroughly understood what he was talking about, he wasn’t reading.

What were some of his big errors?

Well, ending welfare as we have known it brought on disastrous effects. The business about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” whatever that was about. People who were interested in same sex in the services, so the officers were not supposed to ask questions and they weren’t supposed to give answers. This proved to be totally disastrous. And still is, to the extent that it’s enforced.

If Washington West is Democrat and liberal and Washington East is Republican, who gets custody of how the nation thinks?

Hollywood won’t. Washington East picks up all the marbles: They have the Congress, they have the courts, and of course they have the executives.

They also have the Christian right, making advances in Hollywood. What about that?

Oh they all get locked up as rapists sooner or later. [chuckles]

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