"A dangerous family"

Gore Vidal talks about Cousin Al, the evils of corporate America and why he's supporting Ralph Nader.

By Fred Branfman
Published August 15, 2000 10:38PM (EDT)

If anyone could claim to be the intellectual godfather of the Shadow Convention, the organized uprisings of discontent held parallel to both party gatherings this summer, it is Gore Vidal. When he began writing 30 years ago that America had only one corporate party with Republican and Democratic wings, it was heresy. Today it is the conventional wisdom not only at the Shadow Convention, but in the Green and Reform parties as well.

Throughout Vidal's long career as a novelist and essayist, he has been a social critic and periodic activist. He made a mostly symbolic run for one of California's U.S. Senate seats in 1982, but since then has stayed out of electoral politics. On Monday he addressed the Shadow Convention, and Salon caught up with him to discuss this summer's two-party drama.

Though related to Vice President Al Gore on his mother's side, Vidal says he'll vote for Ralph Nader, and tells Salon why.

You're related to Al Gore?

Actually, he's related to me.


Well, he's a cousin, a blood cousin. And I have actually never met him, although members of the family have tried to arrange meetings and I've talked to his people. But as I repeatedly say, although I am probably resigned to Nader, in the long run Gore is thicker than Nader.

Say what?

Gore is another word for blood. So although I am coming out for Nader I will at the end of the day, as they say in the House of Representatives, discover that Gore is thicker than Nader.

Do you agree with Nader's argument that it doesn't matter if his campaign helps elect Bush, because he'll build a progressive movement by doing well?

I don't see any progressive movement coming from anywhere in the United States. The country is locked up by corporate wealth, by the fact that it's a totally militarized society. And there's not a chance on earth of demilitarizing it under any of the candidates, least of all Ralph Nader, who comes in with no power base. These others have the backing of corporate America, which owns the country.

Whether a politician who becomes president with money from corporate America can ever change anything is a question that has never been answered. I suspect not. When the Clintons tried to give us healthcare, which every civilized country has, corporate America went into action. The insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, the AMA, got together and killed it for all time. And in the process they demonized the Clintons so that no politician would ever go dare go against them again.

If Al Gore was beaten by George Bush as a result of Nader's run, would that bother you?

I would lose not a night's sleep. My mother is a Gore, and there's a clan loyalty. There's a saying in Mississippi, where my branch of the family came from, "If a snake bites a Gore, they all puff up." They're a dangerous family. Don't mix with them.

Basically I can't imagine any Bush outdoing any Gore at anything. The Bushes are incompetent people. You can tell when they try to make a speech, father and son. Barbara has a nice bite to her, but she isn't running for anything.

Have you read Al Gore's book on the environment?

Yes, I've read it. It's very virtuous for its time and place. It was reflective of the, you know, conventional wisdom. But will he act upon it? He hasn't as vice president. What could he have done? I don't know. It doesn't work like that. One of the things that you people in the media do is make it seem as if the individual who becomes president is of any importance to the government of the United States. The second you forget him and start worrying about General Motors and General Electric and Northrup and Lockheed, then you'll be getting at their power. They own the Congress, they own the president, they own the single party with two right wings, Republican and Democrat.

It's like a magician. He starts doing a trick with one hand while with the other he's picking your pocket. The trick is the personalities of the candidates, which don't mean anything. They've all been bought. Yes, Nader has criticized General Motors, and he's done a lot of useful work, saved lives with safety belts, and he should be rewarded. If he wants to spend his last years living in a big white house, I'm all for that too, you know. But he isn't going to change anything. It's their country.

You've been talking a long time about how America has only one political party, which seems the accepted wisdom here at the Shadow Convention. Do you feel vindicated?

Well, you know, the three most beautiful words in the English language are "I told you so." But no, I'm not very happy about being right.

Are things worse than they were 30 or 40 years ago?

Totally worse. I mean, George Bush enters the Republican primary with $70 million raised by corporate America. That's shocking. That such an amount of money would be so openly given to him. The people didn't give it to him. Corporate America did because he represents their interests and will do whatever they tell him to do.

Do you have a solution to campaign finance reform?

Of course I have a solution, and it could be done by a simple act of Congress. You pass a law saying that the election period, let's say, for president would be eight weeks. During this time no candidate will be allowed to buy one second of time on television, nationally if it's a national candidate, locally if it's a local election.

Simultaneously, television and radio must be obliged to provide free time in prime time. They have a license to print money. They are the ones who benefit from these conventions, they benefit from these campaigns, they make billions of dollars now. Let's take that money away from CBS, NBC, etc., and let them provide the time. This is what civilized countries do.

But Americans are not told anything that's going on anywhere else. I've been reading the American press for more than half a century. I have never read a story favorable to another society. The Swedes have better education, healthcare, day care assistance for working mothers. But they're all alcoholics and they kill themselves. They're wretched, because they have bad lives, and we have good lives.

What do you think is the cultural signicance of Gore naming Lieberman?

Well, I'm happy to see a Jewish vice president. But why get the most right wing one that you can find? He's for the privatization of social security. Privatization, which George Bush and Senator Lieberman are so keen on, is a great gift to banks, to mutual funds, to the Wall Street casino.

As you know, Sen. Lieberman has been awarding "Silver Sewer" awards, together with William Bennett, to Hollywood for what they regard as its worst movies. What do you think of the point that Hollywood is at least partly responsible for rising violence?

May I say that the people who award "Silver Sewers" are eventually flushed down those same silver sewers. I don't see that they are in any position to be our critics, or in any position to judge our morals. Hollywood is, you know, an obscene moneymaking machine. It also makes great movies from time to time.

We could say that of members of Congress, except they very seldom do anything in the way of good legislation that isn't already given them by their corporate employers. I don't think this is any business of Mr. Lieberman or Mr. Bennett, of all people.

You remember Bennett on television: (mimics) "Where's the outrage?" Well, the outrage is that this fool is allowed on "Larry King." He has nothing to say about anything except to peddle his idiot books.

As a historian, what do you think historians will say was the Clinton legacy 100 years from now?

None of these presidents is going to be remembered. The United States is a fading power, despite the nuclear empire out there. It's over with. The presidency is going to be of no interest to anybody. After Eisenhower, we entered a twilight period of twilight presidents. There isn't anybody who's going to be noticed. Some scandals might be remembered. But the power isn't there, the power is elsewhere.

If I was a young person listening to this, I might think "why should I get involved? This guy's been talking about this for 40 years and now he says things have only been getting worse." Why be politically involved? Why are you even here?

Well, I'm here for the simple reason that very few people say what I say, because very few people have the long perspective I do. The fact is that I've spent my life studying American history and politics. I know how the country's run. There will be an opportunity to get rid of this system. And the opportunity will come from the total collapse of the economy, which I think is on the horizon. The Dow-Jones, the Nasdaq, will collapse and the people will be very angry. At that moment you can make big changes.

So "wait and see" would be my advice to a young person. And in the meantime keep your powder dry, and link up with others of a like mind. Don't look to any political party and don't look to any charismatic leader. If you had one who was any good, the New York Times would make sure that he would never be heard from again. They would smear him in some fashion so he would vanish. So I would advise them to wait, watch and learn, and the moment will come.

We've never had a democracy or anything close to a democracy. Nor was it intended. The Founding Fathers feared democracy and they feared monarchy. They wanted a Republic that was safe for white men of business.

So why do you care? Why go to the trouble of reading newspapers every day? Why not pursue your interest in art, music? Why spend so much of your mental effort at this time in your life reading about American politics?

My subject is the American state. My family helped found this country, and I have a personal, familial feeling about it. I hate what has been done to it. I would like to see the Republic restored, which was taken away by Harry Truman and replaced by the national security state, now a global nuclear empire. It's done our people no good, and it's certainly done the world no good.

If you have a conscience of this sort -- I can't tell you why I have it, but I have it, I'm not going to analyze why I do, that's not for me to do. But it is there, and I have demonstrated it for half a century. I'm not changing character, and I will always be present to say "no."

As you get older, has that changed your perspective on life in any way?

I don't spend much time looking at myself. So I wouldn't really know.

How old are you ?

I'm in my 75th year.

If you could write the first paragraph of your obituary in the New York Times, what would you like it to say?

In the immortal words of Groucho Marx, "What has posterity ever done for me?" I think we're done now.

Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at Fredbranfman@aol.com. His Web site is www.trulyalive.org.

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