Gore Vidal's History Lesson

America the beautiful is now an ugly, megalomaniacal mess.

IN HIS 1995 memoir, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal describes his first visit to Seattle as a young sailor during World War II and remembers it as the place where he wasI'll be delicatedeflowered by a brutish merchant seaman at a downtown hotel.

His welcome at McCaw Hall this week (details below) will likely be more genteel. Indeed, though he comes bearing bad news, the audience is unlikely to shoot, much less sodomize, this messenger. No, we'll applaud him for validating our worst notions about what is happening to this country. Seattle requires validation, even in good times. During these dark days, when so much of the nation fails to see what so many of us see, it is mother's milk. But don't expect a Howard Dean rally. While Vidal's critique of American decline is sweeping and unflinching, it goes beyond what flavor of politician is better than the next.

Vidal is one of the most political of our men of letters. He was raised in Washington, D.C., in a political family (and he is distantly related to the other political Gore, Al), ran for Congress, and spent time at Camelot's roundtable (he and Jackie Kennedy shared a stepfather). Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, one of the first TV pundits (he sparred with right-wing archenemy William F. Buckley), Vidal has relished rooting through the nation's closets to bring out the skeletons and tell the forbidden history of our republic. He has lent a sympathetic ear to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; he centered a novel on the life of Jefferson's first vice president, the "traitor" Aaron Burr; he has chastised Franklin D. Roosevelt for getting the U.S. into war and Abe Lincoln for ripping up the Constitution to "save" the Union; he has blamed plainspoken haberdasher Harry S. Truman for turning America into the national security state it is todayJohn Ashcroft, proprietor.

Vidal is worth reading, and listening to, precisely because of his willingness to challenge assumptions and speak the larger truths he sees, however unflattering to our own vanity. His iconoclasm, though, shouldn't be mistaken for lack of patriotism. Indeed, there is a patriotic Gore.

That is reflected most recently in his short, erudite, conversational new book, Inventing America: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Yale University Press, $22). In it, Vidal goes back to the founders and looks at the debates and controversies surrounding the drafting of the Constitution and the early steps implementing it. There, he finds Jefferson and Ben Franklin worrying that our new nation would end in despotism. The aged Franklin was particularly dire in his predictions. Vidal believes we've arrived at that point. In a recent LA Weekly interview, he described George W. Bush as "deranged" and said, "The USA Patriot Act is as despotic as anything Hitler came up with." He pronounced American society "totally corrupt."

IN A BRIEF EXCHANGE with Mossback (by fax from his home in Los Angeles), Vidal writes about the American struggle with ourselves, and where it has left us, especially as regards the current Iraq war.

"The constant division in the U.S.," he writes, "is between those who favor wars, usually of expansion, versus the majority who follow instinctively Washington's advice that nations ought not to have great loves and hates for other nations. Interests, not passions, should guide us. The notion that we were liberating Iraq from a tyrannous regime was nonsense. That we mean to transform a nation older and more complex than we and make it a democracy is advanced megalomania, particularly when we ourselves have never had a democracy and the founders hated the idea of one."

As Vidal relates in Inventing America, the founders were caught trying to balance the rule of the few with the rule of the many. The founders, he says, "feared majority rule, and invented the Electoral College to check it. They feared a tyrant and gave war-making power to the House of Representatives who have, since 1941, illegally and unconstitutionally given it to the president." The current president has gone further, granting himself power to wage pre-emptive war whenever and wherever he likes.

When asked what he'd like readers to take away from his book, Vidal replies: "The knowledge that Washington was the chief inventor. I carefully describe his course of suffering financially at the time of Shays' Rebellion. Then, fearful the tax revolt would spread and the new nation collapse, he called in Hamilton and Madison and set them to work on what would be the Constitution. He has been totally erased by most of our court historians."

SO HOW RADICAL is that, a book praising George Washington? But in our times, it truly is, for the tides of our ambitions and troubled nature have swept us far from where we began when a group of complicated, brilliant revolutionaries founded our nation. They understood the risks, and the fragility, of what they were doing.

I asked Vidal what would he say if he could talk to the founders today? How would he describe what we've done to their experimental republic?

"Good try. But the thing wore out, as Jefferson predicted. Also, no republic can survive the possession and acquisition of an empire."

If true, there's nothing left to do but start over.

Gore Vidal will appear at McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St., 206-628-0888, $15-75), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 22, part of the American Voices series co-sponsored by Seattle Weekly.


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