Johann Hari writes about his interview with American writer and political commentator Gore Vidal. I like his pessimism-
In Russian, the phrase “gore vidal” means “he has seen grief”. As Gore Vidal is wheeled towards me across an empty London hotel lobby, it seems for the first time like an apt translation. In the eight years since I saw him last, he has lost his partner of 50 years, most of his friends, most of his enemies, and the use of his legs. The man I met then – bristling with his own brilliance, scattering witticisms around like confetti – has withered. His skin is like parchment, but the famous cheekbones are still sharp beneath the crags. “It is so cold in here,” he says, by way of introduction. “So fucking cold.”
Gore Vidal is not only grieving for his own dead circle and his fading life, but for his country. At 83, he has lived through one third of the lifespan of the United States. If anyone incarnates the American century that has ended, it is him. He was America’s greatest essayist, one of its best-selling novelists and the wit at every party. He holidayed with the Kennedys, cruised for men with Tennessee Williams, was urged to run for Congress by Eleanor Roosevelt, co-wrote some of the most iconic Hollywood films, damned US foreign policy from within, sued Truman Capote, got fellated by Jack Kerouac, watched his cousin Al Gore get elected President and still lose the White House, and – finally, bizarrely – befriended and championed the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh.
Yet now, he says, it is clear the American experiment has been “a failure”. It was all for nothing. Soon the country will be ranked “somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs.” The Empire will collapse militarily in Afghanistan; the nation will collapse internally when Obama is broken “by the madhouse” and the Chinese call in the country’s debts. A ruined United States will then be “the Yellow Man’s Burden”, and “they’ll have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport”.
Is there any hope? “Every sign I see is doom. But then people say” – he adopts a whiny, nasal voice – “‘Oh Mr Vidal, you’re so negative, can’t you say something nice about America? It’s a wonderful country, everybody wants to live here.’ Oh yes? When was the last time you saw a Norwegian with a green card who wanted to come here because of the health service? I’ll pay you if you can find one.”
But there is, he says with sudden perkiness, some “good news. Afghanistan will be terminal for the American empire, yes. Which is a happy way of looking at it. We’ll be out of the empire game, rapidly. But it’s too late for the country and the constitution.” He raises his drink, and smiles ironically. “To a better republic,” he says, and drinks in one long gulp.
The current spasming death of America was foretold at its birth, Vidal says, and it can only be understood by whirling back there. It has been his mission to explain the past to the “United States of Amnesia,” through his novels and essays. When he speaks, he sweeps over two millennia of history – from Caesar to Obama – as if he was there, forever spraying one-liners from the back row. Today, he was stopped time in Philadelphia, at the birth of the republic. “Benjamin Franklin saw all this coming,” he says. “I quote him because most Americans don’t even know who he was now. You’ll have to explain to your readers.” Franklin was a writer, scientist and soldier who became one of the founding fathers of the United States. “In Philadelphia in 1781, when the constitution was being put together, he was an observer. He didn’t want to have any part of it, and as he was leaving the Constitution Hall in Philadelphia a couple of old ladies said, ‘Ah, Mr Franklin, what is going to happen?’ He told them: ‘Well, you’re going to get a Republic, if you can keep it. But every constitution of this sort has failed since the beginning of time due to the corruption of the people.'”
So the American people are corrupt? Americans weren’t good enough for America? “Precisely. They were only good enough to be a restive colonial power – or the dregs of one.”