Back in the 1970s, a pair of polar opposites hit the American scene. One, the super-conservative, was William F. Buckley, the owner and publisher of the National Review, the country's first conservative magazine, who had written a book, "God and Man at Yale," shortly after he'd graduated from that college. He had an oily voice, but on TV he put across an argument or counterargument with aplomb, and could never be said to lose a debate. You could be a political arch-liberal, but as you listened to Buckley he so gradually won you over that soon you could vote to have the English king take over the United States again. He appeared frequently to break the sanctimoniousness of Sunday morning TV shows, and it was a treat to watch and listen to him tear apart his opponents. Which he invariably did, of course. The theme song of his own TV show was, naturally, one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. How's that for pandering to the American TV audience!
The liberal, not to say radical, persuasion was represented by Gore Vidal, a handsome, erudite writer and speaker who had a massive knowledge of U.S. (and world, for that matter) history that he could draw from to support his political arguments. Vidal's family had been at the center of American political power for ages, so it was no surprise that, in the early '70s he began writing a series of novels that, while fiction, drew on his easy understanding of U.S. history for backing. First, there was "1876," to mark the United States's first hundred years, then "Burr," to not only describe the duel by which he killed Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, but to dramatize Burr's grandiose scheme to establish a personal empire in the west. Both these novels became best-sellers, perhaps the first time such success had come to a book mixing early American history and fiction. And the fiction was so immediately accessible; it wasn't at all abstruse and obscurely Jamesian, as you might imagine.
Then came the others. "Empire" dramatized the early efforts to create an American-ruled world spurred long by Teddy Roosevelt; "Lincoln" probed the character that drove our 16th president, and revealed the warts as well as the virtues of the man. "Washington, D.C." discussed the reason a small, swampy backwater town became the center of the early 20th century world. "Hollywood," second-to-last in the series, wittily satirized the make-believe world that the movie business created out in California. And there was a final novel (I think its title is "The Golden Age," ) that brought the series to a satisfying conclusion in the same way that Dos Passos did in the three-volume series "USA."
In the 1990s, Vidal (having served to fill out the TV series "Laugh-In" by lending his name to Lilly Tomlin's hilarious sketches where she portrays a telephone operator), moved to his villa in Italy, where he thrived in solitude and wrote freely at his own pace. And, if you glance at the list of his works which prefaces all his works, you'll see that, together with 22 novels, the man has written countless other essays, plays, memoirs, and more than 200 essays. Vidal is one of those writers who believe a writer's life-work is not to be as public as a TV personality or a weekly guest on Jay Leno, but to write. William F. Buckley, on the other hand, the TV celebrity, has always relished the public attention he gets. In the 1970s, he decided to run for mayor of New York City, against, among other candidates, novelist Norman Mailer and newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin. When asked what he would do if he were duly elected, Buckley replied, "I'd demand a recount!"
Recently, I picked up Vidal's 2004 collection of essays, "Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia," and wondered how I'd all my life been unlucky enough not to have taken an American history course from a professor like Vidal. And I guessed it was because a man like Vidal, whose ideas are so likely to stir the placid waters of academe, would never receive tenure.
His novels were published by Random House, I imagine because they were relatively uncontroversial and made heaps of money. His essays, on the other hand, and this includes "Imperial America," could never be expected to make much money, and would always be thrown across the room by angry readers who read books largely as a way to validate their own opinions, and so would have to be published by off-the-wall publishers like Nation Books. ("Nation Books is a co-publishing venture of the Nation Institute and Avalon Publishing Group Incorporated.")
Vidal's slim volume is, by and large, an explanation of how the Republican party, after World War II, hijacked the country's power from the people, without their really knowing what had happened. "As early as 1950," Vidal writes, "Albert Einstein understood the nature of the rip-off. He said, 'The men who possess real power in the country have no intention of ending the cold war.' Thirty-five years later they are still at it, making money while the nation itself declines to 11th place in world per-capita income, to 46th place in literacy and so on, until last summer we found ourselves close to $2 trillion in debt." Who runs the country? How do we get involved in all these wars that drain our country's wealth and sacrifice our young men and women to worthless and unwinnable causes? What ever happened to the law that only Congress could declare war? Isn't that in our constitution?
Instead, in the last few decades, the electorate has been ruled by something called the "executive order," which makes our president a dictator. And, as Vidal notes, "it is odd that there has been no effective challenge by Congress to this usurpation of its power by the executive." And this laxity on the part of the Congress is the reason that "as of December 31, 1975, the presidents had issued 11, 893 executive orders. The Constitution makes no allowances for them." No, of course not. Our Founding Fathers had more sense than to make allowance for them.
And so, it's clear from observing the actions of our President and Vice President, that swaggering and arrogant couple who is driving us farther and farther from the kind of benign democracy that Jefferson had in mind, we are at the mercy of "the ever reckless Cheney-Bush junta," and in the process threatening the welfare of the globe.
Surely, Mr. Vidal is getting tired of writing these civilized but corrosive essays about our country. Well, if the writing style is any indication of the man's presence of mind, then he appears to be "younger than springtime."
May he live to write another dozen or so novels and another book of essays and a play or two more.