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A Tract for the Times

Burr

by Gore Vidal
(1973)Vintage, 430 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Lincoln

by Gore Vidal
(1984)Vintage,657 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Gore Vidal occupies a unique position among American men of letters. By birth and social position he is an insider, given to invoking his personal relationships with the rich, the well-born, and the famous: the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, Anaïs Nin, Norman Mailer, Anthony Burgess. The afterword to this new book explains how it grew from a long-ago conversation about the Founding Fathers with President Kennedy, whom he addresses as “dear Jack” (Vidal and Jacqueline Kennedy had the same stepfather). Vidal’s insider status gives an edge to his critical assessments when he steps outside the circle to scrutinize what his friends have been up to. His judgment of the Kennedys in 1967 as “the Holy Family” was that they devoted themselves too exclusively to appearances, the President no less than the others:

Not until the second year of his administration did it become plain that Kennedy was not about to do much of anything. Since his concern was so much with the appearance of things, he was at his worst when confronted with those issues where a moral commitment might have informed his political response not only with passion but with shrewdness.

The ability to look critically, even cruelly, at beloved friends and relatives is extended to Vidal’s appraisal of historical figures with whom he has become intimate in the way that historians can. During the years he must have spent with Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries, Vidal came to know and, I would say, love the man. In his novel Lincoln he never speaks with Lincoln’s own voice but with the less enigmatic voices of his close associates, some friendly, some unfriendly. The result is an insider’s recreation of the man that wins both our sympathy and our acceptance. Criticism of Vidal’s depiction of Lincoln by my fellow historians seems to me beside the point. When Vidal’s novel departs from the historical record, it is only in nonessentials. Everything that matters, everything that affected Lincoln’s achievement, is there.

Vidal’s posthumous intimacy with his subject has not affected his personal judgment, reflected only in the last sentence of the novel when he places in the mouth of John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, the chilling conviction “that Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.” The novel has only subliminally prepared us for a Lincoln whose achievement was as terrible as it was great. But this, I think, had already become Vidal’s own view, excluded from any direct statement of it by his novelist’s faithfulness to his characters. He has no hesitation in expressing it in essays. Lincoln, he wrote in these pages in 1993, “preserved the Union by destroying it.”*

Vidal’s intimate understanding of the Founding Fathers of the Republic (whom he has studied with the same care he gave to Lincoln) is evident in his novel Burr. But again his own voice is effectively hidden by his mischievous choice of Aaron Burr, the bad boy among the Founders, as his protagonist and narrator, whom he allows to skewer the national heroes with devastating wit. Jefferson is the fictional Burr’s principal target. Only in an afterword does Vidal confess that “all in all, I think rather more highly of Jefferson than Burr does; on the other hand, Burr’s passion for Jackson is not shared by me.” He does not say why he esteems Jefferson and not Jackson, but probably for the same reason that he thinks Lincoln’s salvation of the Union a terrible thing. Jefferson was an early proponent of the right of a state to nullify acts of the United States Congress, the right that Jackson temporarily defeated and Lincoln destroyed.

Vidal is an unreconstructed son of the South. “I am literally,” he has written,

a grandchild of the American Civil War, and I belonged to the losing side. Had the issue of that war been the abolition of slavery, I could not have faulted our defeat—morally at least. But Mr. Lincoln—the first of the modern tyrants—chose to fight the war not on the issue of slavery but on the holiness and indivisibility of a union that he alone had any understanding of. With his centralizing of all power at Washington this “reborn” (sic) union was ready for a world empire that has done us as little good as it has done the world we have made so many messes in.

In essays and speeches over the past twenty or thirty years Vidal has rung the changes on the little good the despotic government Lincoln made possible has done at home and the messes it has made abroad. His view, reiterated continually, is that our government, however popularly elected, represents only the large corporations that control it, as they control the media, through which they persuade the voters to support only two parties, conservative and reactionary. Wars fill their coffers, so at their behest the government levies heavy taxes for the purpose of waging unprovoked and undeclared wars: Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace lists almost two hundred from 1945 to 2001. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR took the central power Lincoln had created and used it to build a global empire. FDR deliberately instigated the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor so that he could bring an unwilling people into the Second World War. When the Japanese signaled their willingness to surrender, Truman hurried to drop the bomb on them in order to secure our power in Asia. Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, then turned the United States at home into a security state with the National Security Act of 1947 and the Security Council Memorandum number 68 of 1950.

The memorandum, kept secret until 1975, outlined the strategy for the cold war, initiated by the United States, not by the Soviet Union. The cold war required the suppression of dissent at home with a propaganda war against the Communist menace and a progressive shredding of the Bill of Rights. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the process has continued with domestic and international terrorism taking the place of communism, even while the United States has become “the greatest terrorist of all.” Our terrorism abroad provoked Osama bin Laden or some other victim of our deceit to make a preemptive strike against us on 9/11. Our military and intelligence campaign to capture Osama was a showpiece: “It is unlikely that the Junta [Bush and Co.] was ever going to capture Osama alive: he has tales to tell.” Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was the domestic counterpart of 9/11: “Osama provoked, struck at us from afar. McVeigh, provoked, struck at us from within on April 19, 1995. Each was enraged by our government’s reckless assaults upon other societies.” (That is, the government treated the Branch Davidians as another society at Waco.) Vidal carried on a sympathetic correspondence with McVeigh before his execution.

By replaying these views Vidal has effectively forfeited his insider’s status. Though he advances none of them without evidence, he delivers them with the certitude we too easily associate with the paranoid; and they are so relentlessly one-sided and accusatory, so far outside of what he calls RO, the “received opinion” of insiders, that he may seem not only anti-government but anti-American, a charge that he rightly rejects. “I am a patriot of the old Republic,” he insists, whose study of American history has given him “an up-close view of the death struggle between the American republic, whose defender I am, and the American Global Empire, our old republic’s enemy.”

What, then, is the old Republic? If Lincoln destroyed its soul, what was left worth defending? Vidal’s Republic presumably began in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution or perhaps in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, or even with the Articles of Confederation in 1783—he has good words to say for the “group of loosely confederated states rather than a United States” which the Articles provided. When he thinks the Global Empire supplanted the Republic is not clear, but something of it lasted long enough for Vidal to declare it to have “quite vanished in 1950 when the National Security State took its place.” Despite this and other premature epitaphs, Vidal knows that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, however subverted, have not been repealed and that no politician in his right mind would suggest that they should be. While they stand, the Republic is not quite dead, but it surely needs defenders. Vidal has been the boy crying wolf, more loudly than ever during the last three years, as the wolf has shown its fangs in unashamed aggression abroad and repression at home. It should be remembered that the boy’s final call in the fable was real. Seemingly paranoid fears and conspiracy theories sometimes prove to be justified. Perhaps because Vidal’s shouts of alarm have had little effect, he has now lowered his voice to offer his countrymen a patient, avuncular talk about how they got their republic, punctuated only by parenthetical strictures against the latest attacks on it.

Inventing a Nation is a rambling, deceptively simple talk—there is no better word for it. One can almost hear Vidal speaking, going on at length about some things, skipping by free association to others, occasionally picking up a volume of the published papers of the Founders to make his points about them in their own words. He cannot bear to write or speak a dull sentence and prefers vivid images to abstruse analysis: Washington’s hands shaking and voice trembling at his inaugural, an inaugural dinner consumed in silence because of “the principals’ absence of teeth for the task,” which also accounts for Vice President Adams’s “pronounced lisp of the dentally challenged, to use a twenty-first-century locution.” Such locutions decorate the talk throughout. In the XYZ affair the French minister Talleyrand tried to extract a bribe from the American envoys: “$250,000 up front, rather like a twenty-first-century Afghan warlord”; Washington “had a Rube Goldberg side to him”; Thomas Paine told Americans “it was time to get their act together.”

It is as though Vidal had us with him in easy chairs by the fireside, as he chats about familiar friends and the things they have done. At the end he tells us that the book originated in a casual conversation about why the backwoods United States of the 1780s produced leaders of a caliber not evident among their successors. The book continues that conversation. Although it never answers the question raised then of why we cannot produce the likes of the Founders today, it sharpens the contrast. For anyone puzzled by our continuing attachment to what some dead white males did two centuries ago, Vidal’s talk is an engaging answer, an unblinking view of our national heroes by one who cherishes them, warts and all.

The book follows a rough chronology from the adoption of the Constitution to Jefferson’s election as president, giving brief accounts of such familiar events as the deal that located the capital at Washington, the Jay Treaty with England, the so-called XYZ affair, the Alien and Sedition Acts. But the events are only a lens for viewing the men behind them and the relations and rivalries among them. Vidal is unwilling to bore himself or others with details but quite happy to interrupt himself with irreverent quips, as when he praises Jefferson as a writer, architect, and farmer, then adds, “in a corrupt moment, he allowed his cook to give birth to that unique dessert later known as Baked Alaska.” One must beware of treating such Vidalisms as signs of a larger frivolity. Though he seldom restrains the sallies of wit that the subject of the moment may suggest, he is never less than serious in his purpose.

Here he is offering a benign, almost affectionate view of the creators of his old Republic. They are good friends with whom he became intimate thirty-odd years ago, but as usual he is not uncritical of friends. He thinks they made a big mistake in creating the Electoral College, but they can be excused because they were making a republic, not a democracy, and were therefore as wary of the tyranny of a majority as they were of a monarchy. They all had their faults. Washington was never much of a field general, but his “steady presence and regal confidence” sustained his army, and he was up against British generals “every bit as striking in their mediocrity as he.” Moreover, he was “a highly competent, even awesome, chief executive.” In settling the contests that arose during his presidency he was “always so far above the battle that he often saw everything more clearly than others.”

Vidal’s view of Jefferson echoes his fictional Burr’s censures only faintly in the statement that he “seemed oddly unaware of the inconsistencies in his nature.” But, he writes, Jefferson was importantly consistent in advocating resistance to tyranny, whether through revolution in 1776 or through his proposed nullification of the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. John Adams made a mistake in supporting those acts, and he was blindsided by the wily Hamilton’s control of his cabinet (Hamilton gets fewer good marks than the others), but Adams was blessed with a “trusting if not noble temperament.”

Vidal is enlisting himself on the side of the Founding Fathers, identifying himself with the popular esteem of them. He intends, I think, nothing controversial in his account, either of men or of events. But the recital of the Founders’ views and achievements offers him the opportunity to invite his readers to recognize the present violation of everything they stood for. And that indeed is the apparent purpose of the book. It is a sly tract for the times. It poses as history, and Vidal poses as the historian that he assuredly was in Burr and Lincoln. But historians struggle to see and recreate the past for its own sake, as Vidal the novelist strove to imagine episodes in the past for their own sake, denying himself the opportunity to express his own views in favor of the differing views of his characters, whom he nevertheless required to stick within the facts that could be established by historical research. Inventing a Nation also stays within the well-known facts of the early Republic. Vidal narrates them, lovingly to be sure and with his usual verve, but instrumentally, to give backing to his “close-up view” of what has been happening in his own lifetime. His account does not offer new research or new insights. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that he has delivered his charming talk not because he has anything new to say about the Old Republic, but for the sake of the brief asides that highlight the narrative.

If that is his purpose, it has to be said that the strategy works. His strictures against the Global Empire, reduced to a few matter-of-fact sentences, take on new force when placed in contrast to the record of what the Founders did and said. Vidal is bringing his outsider’s view back inside. Take the sentences that close his account of Washington’s ceremonial departure from office after Adams’s inauguration as the second president:

Then, slowly, majestically, Washington, having won his last victory in the Mount Rushmore sweepstakes, walked gravely out of the Federal Building and into the wildly cheering crowd, not to mention into the hearts of his countrymen forever. Or until they pretty much forgot him when a later president (and former president of Princeton) decided to conduct a world war in order to make the unsuspecting world “safe for democracy,” a word that appears nowhere in the American Constitution, or, indeed in our lives except as an occasional rhetorical flourish when we are up to mischief in foreign lands.

Or take his account of the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, when a passage that Washington preferred over one suggested by Hamilton warns against “hostile projects which originate in ambition and other sinister motives.” The warning, Vidal can point out, is all too “applicable to our Union today,” when “the great combine of military, media, religious mania, and lust for oil has overthrown those safeguards that the first three presidents, for all their disagreements, were as one in wishing to preserve, protect, and defend.”

The irony of our loss of inherited liberties is that one, at least, of the Founders predicted it, and thereby presented Vidal with his most effective opportunity for contrast with the present. Benjamin Franklin, who does not otherwise figure largely in Vidal’s story, sets the theme for it in his closing speech at the Constitutional Convention, read aloud for him by another member because, at eighty-one, he was already too frail to do it himself:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a blessing to the People if well-administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.

Vidal comments,

Now, two centuries and sixteen years later, Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true: popular corruption has indeed given birth to that Despotic Government which he foresaw as inevitable at our birth.

By muting his criticism and forgiving the Founders their faults, Vidal heightens his challenge to the deeper despotism of the present government, grounded now “upon the anticonstitutional USA Patriot Act of 2001,” which carries the National Security Act of 1947 a step farther. At the same time he challenges the people themselves for their submission to the new measures directed against them. Franklin predicted their submission as inevitable when they should become too corrupted to govern themselves. Is that what has happened? Was it “always implicit in our origins”? Vidal does not say so here in this appeal to the people in the name of the Founding Fathers, but his long career of crying wolf has left him with little hope in a people who refused to listen.

In the novel Washington, D.C. (1967), set in the 1930s, he gave to a conscientious senator the statement that “Americans had always believed that their representatives were corrupt since, given the same opportunity, they would be too.” This may not then have been intended as his own view, but in Dreaming War (2002) he does give his present opinion, somewhat convolutedly, that

what has happened to our never-virtuous but always evolving toward (the Founders had hoped) true republican virtue, has been implicit from the beginning, and the current evils of Corporate America and the National Security State are hardly recent.

Hardly recent but reaching now to a depth that should alarm us more than it apparently does. Inventing a Nation is a cri de coeur from one who has seen the wolf and cried in vain.

  1. *

    A Nineteenth-Century Man,” The New York Review, November 4, 1993.

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