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Gore Vidal on the “United States of Amnesia,” 9/11, the 2000 Election and the War in Iraq

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One of America’s most acclaimed essayists and historians in an extended interview with Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman. We'll also hear a recent speech by Gore Vidal recorded last week. [includes rush transcript]

On Sunday, Sen. Bob Graham accused the Bush administration of engaging in a “cover-up” of intelligence failures before and after the Sept. 11 attacks to shield it from embarrassment, and said the war with Iraq has allowed al-Qaeda and other groups to become a greater threat to Americans than ever before. This according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Graham, a presidential candidate and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also accused the administration of jeopardizing the safety of Americans by blocking the release of a landmark congressional report on the government failures that preceded the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Florida Democrat said the White House has withheld from the public important information about the continued existence of terrorist cells in the United States — including some with ties to foreign governments that the U.S. has been afraid to go after.

Graham’s critique in many ways is similar to one that appeared in a book that recently topped the New York Times bestseller list. The book is Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. The author is Gore Vidal.

Gore Vidal is one of America’s most prolific and best-known writers. He has written more than 22 books and more than 200 essays. A collection of his essays won the National Book Award in 1993.

Vidal is the author most recently of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Bush-Cheney Junta. Taken together, the books constitute a comprehensive attack on America’s imperialist ambitions and the military-industrial complex.

Writing in The Scotsman, critic Gavin Esler called Perpetual War “the finest serious critique of America’s use and abuse of power in the 21st century that I have read.”

I had an opportunity to speak with Vidal last week. We’re going to play some of that interview. He begins by discussing his thoughts about the United States post-9/11.

  • Gore Vidal, essayist, critic and author of bestselling books Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida Senator Bob Graham said Sunday that he accused the Bush administration of engaging in a, quote, “cover-up” of intelligence failures before and after the September 11th attacks to shield it from embarrassment, and said the war with Iraq has allowed al-Qaeda and other groups to become a greater threat to Americans than ever before. This according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Graham is a presidential candidate, former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He also accused the administration of jeopardizing the safety of Americans by blocking the release of a landmark congressional report on the government failures that preceded the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Florida Democrat said the White House has withheld from the public important information about the continued existence of terrorist cells in the United States and the foreign governments they may be connected to.

Graham’s critique in many ways is similar to one that appeared in a book that recently topped the New York Times bestseller list. It’s called Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. The author is Gore Vidal, one of the most prolific and best-known writers in the United States. He has written more than 22 books. A collection of his essays won the National Book Award.

Gore Vidal is the author, most recently, of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and his book Dreaming War. Writing in The Scotsman, critic Gavin Esler called Perpetual War “the finest serious critique of America’s use and abuse of power in the 21st century that I have read.”

Well, last week, I had the chance to sit down with Gore Vidal in his hotel room in New York. We’re going to play that interview for you. I asked him where he was on September 11, 2001.

GORE VIDAL: The United States is not a normal country. We are under—we’re a homeland now, under military surveillance and military control. The president asked the Congress right after 9/11 not to conduct a major investigation, “as it might deter our search for terrorism, wherever it may be in the world.” So Congress obediently rolled over.

There was—I remember Pearl Harbor. I was a kid then. And within three years of it, I had enlisted in the Army. That’s what we did in those days. We did not go off to the Texas air force and hide.

I realized the country has totally changed, that the government is not responsive to the people, either in protecting us from something like 9/11, which they should have done, could have done, did not do, and then, when it did happen, to investigate, investigate, investigate. So I wrote two little books, one called Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, in which I try to go into the why Osama bin Laden, if it were he, or whoever it was, why it was done. And I wrote another one, Dreaming War, on why we were not protected at 9/11, which ordinarily would have led to the impeachment of the president of the United States who had allowed it to happen. They said they had no information. Since then, every day the New York Times prints another mountain of people who said they had warned the government, they had warned the government. President Putin of Russia, he had warned us. President Mubarak of Egypt, he had warned us. Three members of Mossad claim that they had come to the United States to warn us that sometime in September something unpleasant might come out of the sky in our direction. Were we defended? No, we were not defended. Has this ever been investigated? No, it hasn’t. There was some attempt at the midterm election. There was a pro forma committee in Congress, which has done nothing thus far. What are we? Three years later. This is shameful.

The media, which is controlled by the great conglomerates, which control the political system, has done an atrocious job of reporting, though sometimes good stories get in. I’ve worn my eyes out studying the Wall Street Journal, which despite its dreadful editorial policies, is a pretty good newspaper of record, which the New York Times is not. If you read the Wall Street Journal very carefully, you can pretty much figure out what happened that day.

At the time of the first hijacking, according to law, FAA, it is mandatory, within four minutes of a hijacking, fighter planes from the nearest airbase, military base, go up to scramble. That means go up and force the plane down, find out who they are, find out what’s happening. For one hour and 50 minutes, I think it was, no fighter plane went up. During that hour and 20 minutes, we lost the two towers and one side of the Pentagon. Why didn’t they go up? No description from the government. No excuse. A lot of mumbling stories, which were then retracted, and new stories replaced them. That, to me, was the end of the republic.

We no longer had a Congress which would ask questions, which it was supposed—in place to do, of the executive. We have a commander-in-chief who likes strutting around in military uniform, which no previous commander-in-chief ever did, as they’re supposed to be civilians keeping charge of the military. This thing is surrealistic now, and it is getting nastier and nastier as we are more and more kept in the dark about those things which most affect us, which are war and peace, prosperity and poverty. These are the main things that a government should look after and we, the people, should be told about. We have been told nothing. And every voice is silent.

So I wrote two little books, which were then noticed by people who like to look at the internet, and then a few hundred thousand people have bought them. And I don’t come out with conspiracy theories. I never became a journalist. I’m a historian. Because journalists give you their opinions and pretend they’re facts. I don’t give you my opinions, because they may be valuable to my mother, but they are of no value to anybody else. They may be of value to me. But I give the facts as I find them, and I list them. And they’re quite deadly.

This government is culpable of, if nothing less, negligence. Why were we not protected? With all the air bases, fighter planes, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, not one of them went aloft while the hijackings took place. Finally, two from Otis Field in Massachusetts arrived at the Twin Towers, I think at the time the second one was hit. If anybody had been thinking, they would have gone on to Washington to try and prevent the attack on the Pentagon. They went back to Otis, back to Massachusetts. So I ask these questions, which Congress should ask, does not ask, which the press should ask, but it’s too frightened. It’s a reign of terror now.

AMY GOODMAN: A recent exposé shows that even the congressional committee that’s looking into this can’t get a hold of documents that are classified, and even public testimony is now being reclassified.

GORE VIDAL: Well, isn’t it pretty clear that the dictatorship is in place? We’re not supposed to know certain things, and we’re not going to know them. They’re doing everything to remove our history, to—they’ve damaged the Freedom of Information Act. Bush managed to have a number of presidential papers, including those of his father, put out of reach of historians, or anybody, for a great length of time, during which they will probably be shredded, so they will never be available. And what I’ve always called jokingly the “United States of Amnesia” will be worse than an amnesiac; it will be—have suffered a lobotomy. There will be no functioning historical memory of our history.

AMY GOODMAN: How has George Bush accrued so much power?

GORE VIDAL: Well, the election of 2000 was the end of the republic. It was—it was the second time it had happened that somebody who got the popular vote didn’t get the election—1876, when Governor Tilden, the Democrat of New York, won the election, but they were able—we still had troops in the South—they were able to turn the election around the electoral college. Tilden didn’t want another civil war, so he just withdrew. But there was no sinister group taking charge. It was just a party group of Republicans who wanted to continue the reign of General Grant. That was mildly sleazy. This is major corruption. This is corporate America, as one, putting in place a president who was not elected, getting the Supreme Court to delay and delay, when under the 10th Amendment every decision about the voting in Florida should be made by the Florida Supreme Court, not the U.S. Supreme Court, which the Constitution rules out in matters of election.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did that happen? And how did—well, isn’t he your relative, Al Gore?

GORE VIDAL: Well, it’s nothing I go through the streets boasting of, no. But yes, he’s my cousin. And very un-Gore—the Gores are very known for their belligerency. And he is not known for self-defense, let us say. He should have asked—it’s easy to say he should have, but it was pretty clear at the time. I would have, had I been in that situation. “Count the total Florida vote.” He has every right to demand that. And they couldn’t have played games, because it’s too big, too big a vote. Instead he asked, I think, three counties—Dade and Broward and one other—to do their count over again.

AMY GOODMAN: Concerned that he wouldn’t win outside of those.

GORE VIDAL: No, he—I think he figured that he had won those. Dade is certainly a large minority vote, which had all voted for him. There’s a wonderful vote by Nichols called Jews for Buchanan, and it’s a marvelous shot of four Jewish gentlemen looking terribly alarmed. And you see Dade County goes for Buchanan. Even Buchanan said, “Look, these were not my votes down there. Something’s wrong.” And they—it was stolen, by the secretary of state, that lady who has now been rewarded with a seat in Congress. The president’s brother, the losing president candidate’s brother, was governor, and he took part in it.

And the court did by five to four. Two of the five should have recused themselves, should have just withdrawn from the case when Gore v. Bush came before the court. Why? One of them, Scalia, had a son who was working for the Bush team of lawyers before the Supreme Court. Does Justice Scalia recuse himself as he should because his son is arguing? No. He wants to kill Gore. He wants to make sure that the bad guys win. Thomas’ wife was busy getting curricula vitae of potential people to serve in a Bush administration. Clarence Thomas should have recused himself and withdrawn from the case, in which case it would have been four to three for Gore, who would now be president. And Iraq and Afghanistan, I could guarantee, would not have been knocked down in order to benefit Halliburton and Bechtel.

AMY GOODMAN: Antonin Scalia recently went to Cleveland. He spoke at the Cleveland City Club, which is known as the oldest free speech forum in the country. He allowed no press in. And the night before, he spoke in the city, and he said that that vote, choosing George Bush, was his proudest moment.

GORE VIDAL: I would impeach him. And in a well-run country, the Senate should make a movement toward the impeachment of—the trial of, anyway, of Justice Scalia. And back of that, there’s some interesting organization going on, which is hard to determine, Opus Dei. Both Scalia and Thomas have connections with Opus Dei, which is a secret Catholic order, originally fascist. General Franco in Spain was a sort of godfather to it. And we don’t know much about it, and it’s all over the place, about 80,000 worldwide. Louis Freeh of the FBI at that time was a member, as was Mr. Hanssen, the spy, who had been giving all of our secrets to the—he was with the CIA. He had been giving our secrets to the Russians for many years. I make no charges, but I simply bring up questions. Why not ask questions of these people? Does it suit Opus Dei that Bush is president?

Now we’re getting into God territory, which I normally would stay away from, as any good American should. It’s not my business, other people’s religions. But, Bush is born-again. That’s why he uses biblical language: “He’s evil. He evil. He evil-doer.” Well, that’s theological language. Wouldn’t say he’s a bad man; he’s a dishonest man, ruthless man. Evil-doer? And he believes the end of the world is coming. He’s a—born-agains believe in rapture. They don’t care about this world. When it ends, he’s going to be lifted up. George W. Bush will be lifted up in a state of rapture into the bosom of our Lord. Also, among the born-again category, though not that kind of Protestant, is Tony Blair, who is—has become, like his wife, Roman Catholic, which is difficult for a British prime minister, since the prime minister is supposed to be an Anglican, what we would call Episcopalian, as he picks the bishops of the Anglican Church, so you can’t have a Roman Catholic picking Anglican bishops. But he is. So now we have two boys who think that Jesus wants them for sunbeams, who are willing to put at risk—I’m extrapolating on my own, just from the evidence at hand. This is mostly humorous. You can judge it as you may. But two believers in our Lord’s coming, an Armageddon and the end of the world. This is the way Ronald Reagan used to talk, and made him very popular in the Southern states.

That’s why the big thing was just now about South Carolina. That’s the heart of it. Why? Though those states don’t have much in the way of population, but they have a very strong born-again, evangelical Christians, Protestants, and they believe in our Lord returning at any moment. And if you can collect them all by saying you hate abortion and this and that, they are the swing vote in those states because of the electoral college. They don’t have much population, but they have a lot of electoral votes among them.

The electoral college was devised. You call yourself “democracy.” You’re very un-American. The Founding Fathers did not want democracy in the United States ever. They also did not want tyranny—a king or a Hitler. They wanted a republic. And they devised the electoral college so the majority could never control anything. So you have a popular vote out there—in those days, it was just for Congress. Then there was one electoral vote per congressman, one per senator in a state, and some other officials, and they get together and decide the election. So what Scalia was doing is he was going back to the electoral college in order to put together a majority to put in his candidate, who will probably hasten the end of the world. I don’t know where Scalia will be during rapture. He may be, or he may be.

AMY GOODMAN: He pointed up and then pointed down. Gore Vidal, essayist and historian, author of Dreaming War. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Gore Vidal, essayist, critic, author, he was in Italy on September 11th, when he tuned in to CNN. First thing he saw, a plane going into the tower. Today, he talks about the significance and aftermath of 9/11. His book, Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, as we continue with the interview with essayist and historian, Gore Vidal.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about religion. You’ve written about Pat Robertson and about John Ashcroft.

GORE VIDAL: Yes, I have. They are very religious men. The wall that Thomas Jefferson thought that he had built, as did John Adams, who was pretty much of an antagonist to Jefferson, but they were both agreed that religion ought not to in any way intrude itself into politics. It was something separate. Whatever your religion, you obeyed its laws if you believed in those laws, and nobody would stop you. But once you start raising money in tax-free institutions whose tax-free money you use to influence elections, like Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell, then you’re out of the Constitution, and you should be taxed, anyway, before you use it. But they are free of taxation. And with that, the whole country began to change. And this very small minority of evangelicals, mostly in the South and Southwest, have achieved great power in states of small population, where their electoral college count, state by state, adds up to quite a lot—in fact, added up to a Bush, quote, “victory,” unquote.

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal, you’ve said, “I don’t see us winning this war.” You’ve also said that this will force Saddam Hussein to use whatever weapons of mass destruction he may have. Maybe you were prophetic, and maybe in fact that was true, that if he had them, he would have used them. And he didn’t.

GORE VIDAL: Well, it was pretty plain he didn’t have them, and nobody in Europe thought he did. The Europeans at least have a free press, which we don’t—or most of the countries there do. I said he probably would, if we pressed him hard enough. It never—you see, when you live with nothing but lies being told you on the media—nothing but lies—and it’s done the way they do advertising: it’s repetition. “Weapons of mass destruction. He’s got weapons of mass destruction, mass destruction, mass destruction.” When you hear that 10,000 times a day, you finally think he must have. You know, they can’t go on like this forever. Well, he didn’t have them. Now I’m sure we’re busy planting them, you know, all over the place, and we will discover — “Oh, look what we found! Goodness me! Here’s an atom bomb! 'Made in U.S.A.' No, no, no, scratch that out. Scratch that out. That’s—he made that mark.” I fully expect us to plant something or other. But, as it’s United States of Amnesia, why go to the trouble. It’s expensive to have troops going around looking for stuff. I think they think the public will have forgotten it, and I think the public is forgetting it, doesn’t much care.

I thought, when I said that we would lose the war, I still think we will. Afghanistan, the fighting is going on rather rougher than it was during the so-called war. It will keep right on going as long as we have a presence in Iraq. And we will eventually be driven out. Somebody will have a bright idea, one of those neoconservatives, and—we know what they’re like—will decide to kill everybody there, that this would be a very good thing to do. “Got to show force.” And all these sissies, you know, all of whom ran from the idea of going into the Army, talk so tough when they get together. “Boy, we’re going to show our muscle.” And you look at Mr. Kristol and Mr.—oh, who’s the sidekick that rides with him? You know, fat boys with asthma talking tough—makes the blood run cold.

So I think that we haven’t a chance of winning in the Middle East. Nobody else has—nobody except the Turks with the Ottoman Empire, which Woodrow Wilson, one of the great fools in our history, has decided to break up after the end of World War I. So we get Turkey, which turns out to be really quite a formidable country now, and broke up bits and pieces into Syria, into Jordan, into this, into that, which had formerly been—then became French and British mandates and then are now countries that are uneasy with all sorts of warring religious groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal, you developed a relationship with Timothy McVeigh. Can you talk about that?

GORE VIDAL: I never met him, nor did we ever speak on the telephone. But we exchanged letters. He read a piece I wrote in Vanity Fair about the shredding of the Bill of Rights, which has been further shredded since his death, and he read it and wrote me a letter, and I wrote him back. And he wrote me some very informative letters about himself. He was very smart, knew the Constitution backwards and forwards. I was struck by reading about his trial. At first I had no interest.

You know, he was the lone, crazed killer, that our public must always have. Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. We all know that. They even get a big—you know, the Warren Commission to say that. Well, he was obviously not alone. And it’s always a lone, crazed killer. Well, that worked so well then, and the people fall for it every time, so they decided to—they decided that Timothy McVeigh, a rather slight young man with no knowledge of explosives, had put together this—I think this two-ton bomb, which he himself and a guy called Nichols loaded on a Ryder truck. It took at least nine people, it’s been figured out, to get that bomb onto that truck, and then a very careful, experienced driver to get that thing, without blowing himself up, into Oklahoma City in front of the Murrah building. He was not alone. And we have a pretty good idea of some of the people that he was associated with who might have been in on it.

The FBI began quite professionally pretty well. They had infiltrated a lot of these patriot movements out there in the middle West, the people who don’t like the government, and others who were angry, as was McVeigh, at what the federal government with the Branch Davidians at Waco. For McVeigh, this was revenge upon what he regarded as an odious government, a tyrannical government. He had gone out there and watched them using military, Army stuff. And remember, he was an Army hero, the Gulf War. And he watched them break the law, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1876, I think it was. And in one of the letters to me—these are all reprinted in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, if you want to read McVeigh’s actual words about it—he said, you know, soldiers are trained to kill. The police are trained to protect persons and property. These are two different functions. The Justice Department called in the Army. They wanted tanks. They wanted all sorts of things, sort of Army materiel, with which they shot up the building, set fire to it, and the people died. There was, once again, no proper investigation.

In the course of McVeigh’s trial, which was a kind of joke, the FBI behaved pretty well. I mean, they had a lot of interesting leads—305s I think they’re called, where they take down the evidence that people give them, directions in which to look, and so on. They followed up nothing. And I wrote Louis Freeh, who was then the head of the FBI, a letter, which I include in the little book, a letter which I read aloud on the Today Show, just to make sure that he saw it. No answer. But I said, “Why don’t you? There’s certain very interesting leads here.” And this is all from evidence at the pretrials, which anybody could get at. And I said these should have been investigated, and they weren’t. They decided it was McVeigh, and that was it, period. Now, a couple of days ago, we find out the FBI was faking it, some anti-McVeigh stuff in their labs trying to prove that he had built the bomb. He had ammonia on his trousers or something. Well, he may well have been in on it. I don’t know. I’m not a prophet. But it’s my impression that he could not have done it alone. So there are others to follow up. And on television, I said, “You know, you’ve got to start doing your job at the FBI, at the Justice Department. Your job is to protect persons and property. You didn’t follow up. There may be a hundred McVeighs out there waiting to take another crack at us. And you did nothing, because you wanted one lone, crazed killer, and you wanted the book shut.” So what sort of government is this? I’d say a bad one.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect do you think the Persian Gulf War had on Timothy McVeigh? It’s said that he was involved with bulldozing people on the Highway of Death as Iraqi soldiers retreated after surrender.

GORE VIDAL: Well, he was shocked by it. He also got the Bronze Star. He was a great marksman. And he did his share of shooting soldiers. But he was appalled at the civilians and the children. This is why it’s so ironic they all — “Oh, he killled all those children,” as though he got up in the morning to kill the children in the nursery in that building. He says in one of his statements that—he apparently says, “I did it.” And he says, “I did it,” because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a box. He could live 30, 40 more years. And then, as he wrote me, he said, “I’d rather have federally—federally assisted suicide,” which is how he had termed the injection in your arm, “than a lifetime in a box,” because he saw there was no way out. He could have sung, but he didn’t. He could have said who else was involved in this, but he did not. He was a complex character and endlessly interesting, I thought, and should have been kept alive so that we could find out who these other people were.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you put Timothy McVeigh in the same category as Mohamed Atta?

GORE VIDAL: No, no, no. Mohamed Atta, well, we don’t know that story, either. Mohamed Atta was a—obviously a Muslim zealot. Also in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, there’s another question that goes unanswered. The head of the Pakistan secret service was in Washington a week or so before 9/11. While he was there—and it was just a ceremonial visit with the head of the CIA. It was—they worked together. And he sent back word to Islamabad for one of his henchmen to wire $100,000 to Mohamed Atta in the United States, which was duly done. The FBI, I think it was—the Wall Street Journal is where I go the story from—only said American secret services found out about this. They complained to the Pakistani government, “What is the head of your secret service in Washington telling somebody to send $100,000 to a guy that we now know was the lead bomber, the lead hijacker, just a week before 9/11?” Times of India published the whole story. Wall Street Journal did a pretty good version, for them. Now, shouldn’t that be examined? Shouldn’t—wouldn’t Congress be interested in what this guy in Washington, meeting with all of our top secret people, says, “OK, send him $100,000”? Not one more word. Not one more word.

Now, in a country with any curiosity, in a public that was informed of anything, there would be a great deal of outcry. I couldn’t imagine this happening in England. There’d be questions in Parliament. The paper would be full of it, until it was solved. This couldn’t happen in Italy, which dearly loves a conspiracy, or Germany. In the United States, everybody listens to 19th Century Fox TV news, in which a bunch of loons just scream and scream and scream. And with each scream, they tell another lie. How are we ever going to have an informed citizenry, which means then, how can we have an informed election?

AMY GOODMAN: So what’s it like for you, Gore Vidal, to go back and forth between Italy and the United States through this period?

GORE VIDAL: Let’s clear up one thing. The right wing has been desperate to explain to Americans that I live in Italy, I’m an expatriate. “He hates America,” just because I dislike them. I have had a house in California for 30 years. I’ve had a house in southern Italy for 30 years. Sometimes I’m there when I’m working, but I’ve always been involved in American politics and American history. That is a fact, that you can look at a long line of books to attest to that fact.

The idea of geography is very exciting to people, because I think it’s only 7 percent of the American people have passports. Only 7 percent have been abroad, not counting the ones who were sent in the military, of course, but 7 percent have voluntarily gone abroad. It’s a tiny percent of those in Congress who have been abroad. Bush had never set foot in Europe before he became president. He spent 10 minutes in China when his father was ambassador there and obviously never went outside the compound. What I have to do a lot of times in Europe is explain to them, no, Americans are not stupid. They think—when they meet them, they think they’re very stupid because they don’t know anything. I said, they are not stupid at all. As a matter of fact, I think we’re rather brighter than the average. But we’re ignorant, which means not knowing. We have no information, because it isn’t given to us. Our public schools are a scandal. They stopped teaching geography in 1950 in most of the public schools, by which time we were a global empire. We have a global empire; nobody knows where anything is. Nobody knows any languages. So our statesmen go abroad, and people laugh at them, because they are so dumb, or seem to be so dumb.

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal, essayist and historian. You are listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re spending the hour with Gore Vidal. His latest book is Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. It is published by Nation Books. The Nation sponsored a major event with Gore Vidal in the last few weeks at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York. In that event, Gore Vidal, the essayist and historian, began by giving a speech.

GORE VIDAL: There are a couple of quotations I’d like to throw out to sort of set a theme to why we are here. There’s a quotation from Benjamin Franklin, and you cannot find it in any of the high school history books—and not even in proper history books, except rarely. And it occurred Franklin has always been depicted as one of the great bores of the Founding Fathers, and he of course was one of the most interesting. In 1789, he was in Philadelphia for the making of the Constitution. He was old, dying. And he finally read the handy work of his fellow conventioneers, and he didn’t like it. But he thought about it, and then he got up and he made a very interesting speech. He said, “I think that this—we should accept this Constitution for all of its errors and omissions.” At that time, the Bill of Rights was not in there. “I think we—because it will give us, for a course of years, good government, which is what we need right now, and then, in due course, as it would give—it may be a blessing to the people if well administered. And I believe that this is likely to be well administered, and then only end, due to the corruption of the people, in despotism, which will be the only form of government suitable for them. This is as dark a statement as anyone has ever made. They got around it in the best of the high school history books I saw. American Pageant, I think it is, said that they were so afraid for Franklin. He kept going to dinner parties, and his conversation was quite brilliant. They were terrified that he would give his true opinion of how this thing would end. So they had a couple of young men going around with him, sitting on either side, so when Benjamin Franklin said, “Well, let me tell you about the Constitution,” they’d say, “Ah, could you pass the salt, Mr. Franklin?”

I thought of that, needless to say, when Franklin’s prophecy came true in December 2000, when the Supreme Court bulldozed its way through the Constitution in order to select as their president the loser in the presidential election of that year. Despotism is now securely in the saddle. Is it due to the corruption of the people? Well, I thought, well, what is corruption? The Founding Fathers were always—many of them—on the verge of it. Others in the congresses were—the blankets didn’t get to Valley Forge because it couldn’t pass Congress that was sitting in Philadelphia. Corruption has always been with us, but when it becomes so total that you allow an election not—and to make no contest—there was no outcry across the country when this terrible manipulation took place. And then, of course, Enron and Andersen—it is taken for granted that these great companies are like this, that CEOs are taking all the money that is not nailed down. And people out of work with no relief to fall back upon.

So, now I think what we might chat about is that despotism is really in the saddle. And the old republic is a shadow of itself, and we now stand in the glare of a nuclear world empire with a government that sees as its true enemy we, the people, deprived of our electoral franchise. War is the usual aim of despots, and serial warfare is what we are going to get, unless with help from well-wisher in new old Europe and from ourselves, awake at last, we can persuade this peculiar administration that they are acting on their own and against all our history.

The other night on CNN I brought the admirable Aaron Brown to a full stop. I do not do 19th Century Fox. I brought him to a full stop with—not with Franklin, but with President John Quincy Adams, who said in the 1820s on the subject of our fighting to liberate Greece from Turkey, “The United States goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. If the United States took up all foreign affairs, she might become the dictatress of the world, but she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit or soul.” Should we be allowed, in 2004, to hold a presidential election here in the homeland, I suspect we shall realize that the only regime change that need concern our regained spirit or soul is in Washington. President Adams is long since dead, and we have now been in the empire business since at least 1900 with the conquest of the Philippines. The local population did not want us there. We promised them independence. We killed 220,000 of them while subduing them.

A few years ago, there was a significant exchange between the then-General Colin Powell and the then-statesperson Madeleine Albright. Like so many civilians, she was eager to use our troops against one of our many, many, many enemies. Everywhere we look, there’s somebody lurking who might one day find a special death ray and turn it on us. One could hardly sleep at night knowing these dangers all around us. When Powell said no, she said, “What’s the point of having all this military and not using it?” He said, “They are not toy soldiers.” But in the interest of fighting communism, we did spend trillions of dollars, until we are now threatening to sink under the weight of so much weaponry. Much of it we have shifted over onto Afghanistan and Iraq.

I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later a new generation would get the bright idea—you read that thing in the Sunday Times today on the neocons and their background intellectually, which turns out to be from a book by my friend Saul Bellow called Ravelstein — is that it?

UNIDENTIFIED: Well, first Leo Strauss.

GORE VIDAL: Yeah, Leo Strauss, who was actually a nice, old-fashioned classicist, but he’s been taken up by Wolfowitz and Cheney and the lot as a kind of guru since he seems to believe empire is very important and empire is based, classically, on force. So why stop fooling around with diplomacy and treaties and coalitions and just use our military power to give orders to the rest of the world? A year or two ago, a pair of neoconservatives put forward this exact notion, Mr. Kagan and the young Mr. Kristol. I responded in print that if we did so, we would have perpetual war for perpetual peace, which is not good for business.

Then the Cheney-Bush junta seized power. Although primarily interested in oil reserves, they like the idea of playing soldiers, too, and, if you call it a war, wartime powers for the president. Last summer, Congress received from the administration a document called the National Security Strategy of the United States. As the historian Joseph Stromberg observed, it must be read to be believed. The doctrine preaches the desirability of the United States becoming, to use Adams’ word, “dictatress” of the world. It also—it used to be Nicaragua was quite enough. You know, now it’s going to be Korea, China. It also assumes that the president and his lieutenants are morally entitled to govern this planet. It declares that our best defense is a good offense. The doctrine of pre-emption is next declared. As a matter of common sense, they write, and self-defense, America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed. Now, this is a kind of madness. This is not what we started the country for. It’s not what the rest of the world wants. I mean, it is as if I’m sure at this very moment, good General Ashcroft, brave officer of the junta that he is, is probably up in Utah arresting Mormon boys before they grow up and then kidnap eight girls for future wives. They’re going to do it. We know it. We know the danger. If you put them all in prison, in concentration camps, those girls are safe, thank God. Danger, danger, everywhere we look.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says that only Congress can declare war, but Congress surrendered that great power to the president in 1950 and has never taken it back. As ex-Senator Simpson—and he was one of my favorite clowns—said so cheerily on TV the other evening, “The people of the United States don’t declare war; the commander-in-chief does.” So, in great matters, we are not guided by law but by faith in the president, whose powerful Christian beliefs preach real faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

In response to things not seen, the USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through Congress 45 days after 9/11. We are expected to believe that its carefully crafted 342 pages were written in that short time. Actually, it reads like a continuation of Clinton’s post-Oklahoma City anti-terrorist act. The PATRIOT Act makes it possible for government agents to break into anyone’s home when they are away, conduct a search and keep the citizen indefinitely from finding out that a warrant was issued or not. They can oblige librarians to tell them what books anyone has withdrawn. If the librarian refuses, he or she can be criminally charged. They can also collect your credit reports and other sensitive information without judicial approval or the citizen’s consent. Finally, all this unconstitutional activity need not have the slightest connection with terrorism.

Early last month, the Justice Department leaked PATRIOT Act II, known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act. As of January 9, 2003, it has not yet gone to Congress, but it has certainly been leaked, and I saw parts of it. Here’s a provision. If an American citizen, born American citizen, has been accused of supporting an organization labelled as terrorist by the government, he can be deprived of his citizenship, even if he had no idea the organization had any link to terrorism. Provision of act two is also made for more searches and wiretaps without warrant, as well as Section 201, secret arrests. In case a citizen tries to fight back in order to retain the citizenship he or she was born with, those federal agents who conduct illegal surveillance with the blessing of high administration officials are immune from legal action. A native-born American deprived of citizenship would presumably be deported as today a foreigner-born person can be deported. Also according to American citizens—the provision has some wonderful language in it. It says he can be—he’s stripped of his citizenship, deported from the United States. Then they suddenly thought, “Well, what country would want him? You know? And we better rephrase this.” Because he can’t, of course, get a passport as he doesn’t have citizenship. So the thoughtful devisers of our domestic security enhancement authorizes the attorney general to deport him, quote, “to any country or region regardless of whether the country or region has a government.” Well, it sounds like heaven to me. Anyway, that’s how you get rid of the Bill of Rights in one big sweep.

Back in ’39, our greatest historian, Charles A. Beard, wrote, “The destiny of Europe and Asia has not been committed, under God, to the keeping of the United States; and only conceit, dreams of grandeur, vain imaginings, lust for power, or a desire to escape from our domestic perils and obligations could possibly make us suppose that Providence has appointed us his chosen people for the pacification of the earth.

“Those Americans who refuse to plunge blindly into the maelstrom of European and Asiatic politics are not defeatists or neurotic. They are giving evidence of sanity, not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism. They intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not to be Rome or Britain. It is to be America.”

AMY GOODMAN: Gore Vidal, essayist and author, he has written the books Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, as well as Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, his latest two books. And that does it for today’s program. He was speaking at the Society for Ethical Culture, an event sponsored by The Nation magazine in the last few weeks here in New York.

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