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Gore Vidal And The Mind Of The Terrorist

Ramona Koval, presenter of Radio National’s Books and Writing program, spoke to one of America’s most eminent writers, Gore Vidal, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2001. His latest books are ‘The Golden Age’ published byLittle Brown and ‘The Last Empire’, essays from 1992 to 2000 published by Double Day.

* This is an edited version of a longer interview that was broadcast on Radio National, November 2001. >

Ramona Koval: It’s been Gore Vidal’s fate, and perhaps his function, to give warnings long before politicians and the press are able to absorb them, and nothing could have been more a test of this than his conversation with me before September the 11th at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival 2001.

We talked about what drives the mind of a terrorist, as he was deeply involved in the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma bombing trial. And he was concerned with the state of his beloved United States. He has the largest body of work of any American writer with over 30 volumes of novels, screenplays, teleplays, theatre-works and essays. He has also been called a philosopher and radical reformer of the American republic.

In his last novel, ‘The Golden Age’, Gore Vidal brought to a close the series called ‘Narratives of Empire’.

Gore Vidal has been denounced several times for blasphemy and undermining family values, and there are not too many people who can observe that ‘it’s tricky when a friend becomes the President.’ He’s not only the biographer of the United States, but perhaps it’s physician and its analyst as well. So the first thing I asked him was, now at the beginning of the 21st century how did he see the state of the patient?

Gore Vidal: Well, the pulse is fluttering I would say. I do keep an eye on my native land, one gets worried about it, one gets worried about everything, I’m worried about me, too. We’re both ageing, the United States and I, at different rates I hope. But we are in a difficult period, we have become, I forget which fool said ‘the one indispensable nation’. Now if that is not inviting the Huns to come in! I can just hear the Emperor Tacitus saying ‘We are the one indispensable Roman Empire, admired by . well who’s that knocking at the door?’ I mean . people always say that just before the end you know. But we are a global empire and it ill-becomes us. Henry James thought that the British Empire was the making of the British, it civilised them. He said this in 1899 when we’d picked a war with Spain which we won which made us a great Asiatic power with the Philippine islands — he said “I think that it will only demoralise Americans further to have a world empire. What do we have to offer anybody but Tammany Hall? Or politics?” That was his view and I tend to be a Jamesian.

Ramona Koval: Do you think we are seeing the empire in its death throes? And what are the symptoms of this?

Gore Vidal: Saying things like ‘we’re one indispensable nation’ is a good step toward ruin. The costs are so enormous. People get surprised sometimes in the British Isles, that we have ten military bases here for the last half century. In 1947 the First Secretary of Defence, Forrestal, sent over two squadrons of B29s, which was our very latest bomber with atomic bombs in them to protect the British Isles from Soviet attack. Well the Soviets not only did not have B29 bombers they didn’t have atomic weapons either. And somebody said, “Well what are you doing that for?” He said, “We think the British should get used to an American military presence”. Now we have ten bases of different kinds in these islands and at the end of a book of mine called ‘Virgin Islands’ I printed a map, which I stole from the Defence Department of where all of our bases are, and how much they cost and how many people we hired. And the publishers were so excited they sent this out to every newspaper in the British Isles and not one mentioned it. That’s a great occupation you know – when you’ve occupied a place and they don’t know it. If you (the British) were attacked you wouldn’t know we were here either. We Americans would all be on the shuttle back to Washington.

Ramona Koval: I’ve just read your essay, which was published in the September 2001 edition of Vanity Fair, about the Timothy McVeigh case and it’s quite shocking to read about what is going on inside your country. Can you begin by explaining how you got involved with the Timothy McVeigh case and how it developed?

Gore Vidal: I had followed the case; we have a newspaper called The New York Times, which is something like Pravda was under the Soviet Union. In other words you can get the news if you know how to read interalia, but it’s hard. And I heard that this lone crazed ‘mentally deficient’ killer, had blown up a building in Oklahoma City, and I just took it for granted. I wasn’t terribly interested in it. Then he was condemned to death after what was a very hasty trial with a terrible defence and he got up, and he didn’t speak during the trial, he had denied having done it, and the judge was about to sentence him to death and said “do you have anything to say to the court?” He said “I would like to quote Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead versus US, the Supreme Court case”, and I always have to paraphrase it, I don’t remember exactly.

Ramona Koval: I’ve written it here.

Gore Vidal: Thank you, you must follow me around more often! This what McVeigh, just before he’s condemned to death said – “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher, for good or ill it teaches the whole people by example.” He didn’t go to the end of the dissent, so it’s a couple of paragraphs, it was at the very end Brandeis said “This was a dissenting opinion, it’s not a majority one . if the government feels that in the pursuit of what it regards as crime that it may itself commit criminal acts retribution will be terrible”. Well what happened at Oklahoma City was retribution done by one man with an exaggerated sense of justice because of what the government had done at Waco. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the orders of Janet Reno (who’s mother was a very famous alligator wrestler, did you know that? A family profession she should have pursued) . Janet Reno ordered the FBI to take out this perfectly harmless bunch of religious nuts, evangelical Christians, Seventh Day Adventists who had withdrawn from the world. They cooked up some charges against them, needless to say all false; the leader of the cult was a paedophile (everybody’s a paedophile today you know) and a Nazi – kept a picture of Hitler under his bed… Just the usual nonsense of demonisation, and she ordered the FBI in to take them out.

They killed 180 people, 27 children were killed to protect them from the paedophile, the government then said the cultists had set the fires themselves and shot each other and so on – total lies. And a former hero of the Gulf War called McVeigh who had won the Bronze Star, which is, the highest medal for infantrymen outside of the Medal of Honour. He was a perfect soldier; a kind of Eagle Scout, a straight-arrow type was so upset by the way the federal government was behaving. He was just out of the army and he went out to Waco and he watched this 52-day siege, and so, he said “any government that does this is going to suffer terrible retribution” and he decided he would be the one to do it. This was astonishing, nobody could believe this because it is thought by every American that nobody does anything at all except out of self-interest.

We started to correspond and in a letter to me he said “my first impression when I saw contrary to all law that the FBI was using military army tanks to attack the building . I thought only the Chinese did that sort of thing to their people, and here is the Federal Bureau of Investigation doing that.” Anyway, after 52 days the FBI went in and killed people and destroyed the building – they called it ‘Showtime’ – they’ve got a giggly sense of humour our secret police – ‘Showtime’! Well he decided he’d give them another Show-time, he’d blow up the Federal building in Oklahoma City which was in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, which the Branch Davidians came under, and the FBI and so on. In the process he killed even more people, including innocent children, therefore he became a national monster.

But no one would say why he had done it – he was a lone crazed killer. I wrote a piece in Vanity Fair in ’98 by which time he was in the federal prison at Denver and I go in to what the feds did at Ruby Ridge where they killed an innocent family called Weaver that wanted to live in the woods and be left alone. They shot the wife, she came out the door of their cabin holding a baby and they shot her through the head, (they missed the baby of course, you can’t get everything right you know). And only now, years later, are they talking about re-opening the case to see what really happened there.

So here is one man who just declares war on the federal government and he started to write me letters after he read my piece on the shredding of our Bill of Rights by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and so on. We have a Bill of Rights and we’ve always advised you loftily to get one for yourselves, you can be as free as we are! When it’s Show-time for you we’ll be right out there applauding.

I was talking about the shredding of the Bill of Rights, and he wrote me a letter, so we conducted a correspondence over three years. He was a marvelous writer and he knew a great deal of American history. In my article in Vanity Fair, I quote several of his letters, which are far better written than anything in the New York Times. He was a very shrewd analyst. He was much closer to the late Walter Lippman than he was to an anarchist.

They felt they had to get rid of him, and they did so – the FBI with help from his defence attorneys and 4,000 pages of evidence. There’s a researcher out there – I used him a great deal for this piece and I’m using him some more, he knows at least five of the people who were involved in the making of the bomb and its detonation. And it may well be that McVeigh didn’t do it, which is interesting. When he was condemned to death he had two choices – to spend 50 years or so living in a box or to be executed. He seems to have had no fear of death, he preferred an execution, or as he said in one of the letters to me, ‘state assisted suicide’. He was always one-up on everybody.

At the end when they said, “do you have any last words”, the press was there, and he said, “Yes, I have a poem.” Our press is about as illiterate as everybody else, and they didn’t recognise it, but it was by W.E. Henley – ‘Invictus’ In my day, every school kid knew the poem, that apparently no one knows anymore – “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” He had that distributed but nobody understood what it meant.

So I said “he’s a Henley hero”. The press respond with “Vidal says McVeigh hero for slaughtering Oklahomans” you know – since my grandfather founded the state and was their first senator for 30 years I felt that was a bit much, and the Oklahomans felt that that was a bit much coming from me too. Obviously they don’t know who Henley is, but it was too late to describe it. But what was happening? He was reflective of a government totally out of control, a secret police (which is what the Federal Bureau of Investigation is), which is not accountable to anybody – they don’t tell Congress anything. No country is secure with that sort of thing.

They were involved in the bombing quite rightly, in the sense that they had infiltrated these ‘militia movements’, as they call them, across the country. So four or five of their leads they didn’t follow up because they were FBI men. Well that’s fair enough, that’s part of their job, but simultaneously if they find out that a building is going to be blown up, they ought to give a hint to those who might be blown up with the building and they didn’t do so.

So we have a country now, which really isn’t much of a country, it’s a sort of autocracy, corporate America based with the Presidents, based with the Congress. One per cent owns the place (as cousin Albert liked to tell people). It’s how non-cousin Bush got elected. Twenty per cent are doing very well because they work for the one per cent, they go to Congress, they go to the Supreme Court, and they run the New York Times. 80 per cent are doing very badly, we never hear about them. Now out of that pool of 80 per cent of the country are out-of-work farmers who’ve been driven off the farms out in the mid-west They are the backbone of the militia movement, they feel that they have been robbed of their livelihood by agri-business, which is true. So many of them are absolutely as crazed as you can find anywhere on earth. I mean they have some of the wildest notions. But they number over four million, that’s quite a lot, and about 300-thousand were active in these things. So what we have is a revolutionary situation.

I’m sure he didn’t do it; it’s all circumstantial evidence. But when he found out that he was going to be made the patsy and he was going to have to take the blame for it and he was going to be executed, he did something psychologically very strange, very strange to me. He decided to grab all the credit for it himself – “I bombed the Murray building” – he began a letter which he sent to a number of us and to the press, and gave his reasons: when a government turns against its own people, uses tanks, commits murder against innocent people, a government out of control, a government that answers to no one, a government bought by corporate America. The last election cost three billion dollars between Gore and Bush, and no one wanted either of them.

He saw himself at the end, and this is where I find him fascinating. I said he’s a ‘Henley hero’; well it’s more than just ‘Invictus’. They call them ‘Henley’s young men’, young writers that had admired Henley who was a great figure in his day, one of them was Rudyard Kipling, and I see him more as a Kipling hero: ‘the man who would be King’. What he did was set himself up, I don’t know how many of you know our history, but John Brown of Kansas in 1859 with only 20 men, seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia and set out with them to free the slaves. He was duly caught, arrested, tried and executed. Well McVeigh saw himself as John Brown of Kansas.

Ramona Koval: Why were you going to watch the execution?

Gore Vidal: Not out of morbid love of executions, I generally avoid them. I was going out to Indiana to talk to him, we’d exchanged letters for three years and I was more and more fascinated by him and astonished at how well read he was. And we were going to meet but they made it very difficult for anybody to see him. So I was on my way out when I got a note from his lawyer saying that the Attorney General has forbidden him to see anyone other than the members of his family or his lawyers. So the Attorney General stopped that trip. And the next thing I knew he wrote to me and he said, “Would you like to be one of my witnesses at my execution?” What do you say with an invitation like that? “No” is really rude, “yes” could be worse, you know. So I said well, “if I’m in Indiana at the time I’ll come by.”

At the last minute they had a stay of execution for one month and I was all set to go, and then I was back in Italy and I didn’t go. It was too much of an effort to get there. But he had a sort of a girlfriend who had worked with his lawyers and I said to her “well what was the last day like?” And she said, “well they wouldn’t let me see him either but the lawyers saw him.” They get you up around 5 in the morning to kill you at 7 and he had slept pretty well, the final meal was mint ice cream with chocolate sauce, rather horrid I thought. Then he was awake about 5 o’clock in a little room next to the execution chamber in total control of himself. The Oklahomans wanted to watch him die so they had a camera in the ceiling looking down on him. The first shot put you to sleep, well he refused to go to sleep, he kept his eyes open. The second shot collapses the lungs and he prepared for that, he had enough air, he was rationing his breathing you could see it, and the third one stops the heart. It took all of four minutes I think to really do him in. But he kept his eyes on the Oklahomans all the way through, glared, and died with his eyes open. I think that’s a statement.

Ramona Koval: If the FBI was involved in this bombing, what for? What is the point?

Gore Vidal: One; its part of their job. If you have a group that wants to overthrow the government, as the militiamen do, not the worst idea that has come along, then you keep an eye on them, that’s what the FBI is there for. So that’s legitimate. However, if you find out that they’re going to blow up a federal building and little children are in it, you’re supposed to warn the people and not let it happen, to try and stop it. The FBI doesn’t like to do that. They just let the building blow up anyway. They’ve got a record of this.

So they were doing their job, but they didn’t do it properly because they’re supposed to warn the potential victims. Then immediately after the bombing there was a terrible anti-terrorism bill. We’re so excited about terrorism in America because we’ve done so many awful things to other people that we’re afraid they might retaliate. And it’s amazing how seldom they do. So we have an anti-terrorism act, which literally suspends our Bill of Rights and the constitution. No president would sign it, it had just been sitting there for years – it had emanated from the Department of Justice, which is in charge of the FBI. Within a week of the Oklahoma City bombing Clinton signed it ‘for the protection of the state and of the people’, using the exact language that Adolph Hitler used (I wish he’d consulted me) after the Reichstag fire of 1933 ‘for the protection of the state and the people’. I thought that was an unhappy coincidence.

They want as much legislation as possible so they don’t have to obey the laws that are in place, not that they’re particularly strict about obeying the laws. I have a friend in New York City who’s in the police force and he was saying that he had to go into court to testify about some crime, and I said, “what’s it like?” “Well they ask you questions and in the department we call it test a lie, not testify”. So I said “you will be committing perjury”, “oh yes, yes, yes”.

Ramona Koval: In an interview conducted with the German Internet site Spiegel online after September the 11th 2001, Gore Vidal says that it gave him no pleasure to have been right in his prediction that the role of the USA as world policemen would have terrible consequences. In fact he gave a speech in Washington a year ago where he looked out of the window and predicted that those present may well see the Pentagon reduced to rubble. But he had had no idea that it would happen so fast.

In the last novel that you wrote, ‘The Golden Age’, you brought to a close the series called ‘Narratives of Empire’, the defining moments in the history of the USA from the republic to the empire that you’ve been describing today. In ‘The Golden Age’ you’ve been challenging the perceived wisdom of history. In that book you wanted people to realise that, as one reviewer put it, the Roosevelt years were entirely brazen, powered exclusively by imperial ambition. Your case against Roosevelt centres on his deliberate provocation of the Japanese to bring them to a point where America would go to war against the wishes of most of the American people. How has that idea been received by American historians?

Gore Vidal: Well I think every historian knows it’s true. They’re paid not to say so; you wouldn’t get tenure if you were going to espouse that view. Everybody involved in the administration, including my father and my grandfather in the senate, knew that it was Roosevelt’s provocations that made the Japanese attack us. Why did he provoke them? I think everybody in these British Islands should be highly grateful to him. I regard Roosevelt as a great hero; he was the Machiavelli of his day. There were three great dictators then: there was Stalin, there was Hitler and there was Roosevelt, only he did it so charmingly and so easily that you didn’t really notice it unless you were closely following what was going on.

As to Pearl Harbour, which was 7th of December ’41, 80 per cent of the American people did not want to go back into a war in Europe. We had been badly burnt, we felt, in 1917 and we didn’t want to go back, isolationists. The Germans were sinking our ships, no reaction from the people, no war with Germany. Roosevelt was desperate to help the British. Roosevelt saw that the whole balance of power in the world would be totally thrown if Germany were in charge of Europe, which for him was civilisation. So we had to get in somehow and we were cousins, as he liked to say, although he was Dutch, and he had a friendship going with Churchill. Well we weren’t going to go to war, and the polls were 80 per cent against joining in the European war.

Meanwhile Japan was making itself an empire in trying to conquer China, and generally misbehaving. So Roosevelt began sanctions against them, giving them lectures. In November of ’41 he gave them an ultimatum, he cut off their oil and they have no oil supply except what they’ve got from us. They didn’t have any metal, he turned that off too. And about eight weeks before Pearl Harbour he gave them the ultimate ultimatum, he said you must get out of China and you must renounce your tripartite pact with Hitler and Italy. That did it. The Japanese had no choice then but to hit us.

So he puts them in an absolute box. Hopkins, his right-hand man said “they’re going to attack some place”. They thought it was going to be Manila- “they will attack, let’s hit them first”. Roosevelt said “I can’t hit them first, they’ll say it is Roosevelt’s war”, and he was not about to be fingered. He said we must wait. Now this is statesmanship beyond anything dreamed of by Machiavelli, and living in a so-called democracy where anything could have got into the papers if they would print it, this was a great dare and he made it. I describe in ‘The Golden Age’ what it was like in the White House Everybody was waiting for the blow to fall, where would it happen? How bad will it be? What will they do? The one thing I don’t think Roosevelt suspected was that they would hit our fleet at Pearl Harbour and sink it, and then they make a rush to get out. They didn’t think they were going to win the war, they didn’t think they were going to defeat it. But they thought we’d be knocked out for at least a year and they could then head to South East Asia, toward Java, to get the oilfields, which was what they were after as well as Singapore, Hong Kong and so on.

It was masterful, and there’s a nice double meaning to it. Roosevelt went to Congress immediately to ask for a declaration of war, and he said “a day that will live in infamy, the empire of Japan has struck and this day of deceit against the United States”. But the joke was the deceit was his, he’d trapped them into it. Now I had an exchange with the formidable Clive James from your part of the world, another antipodean, and Clive was just so over-excited about what I’d written. He said “Vidal seems to think the United States is the centre of the world”, and I said “well it is; we make the weather, well we certainly made the weather in those days. And we had a genius of a politician.” Churchill knew in advance by the way, this keeps leaking out every now and then, late at night when he was not entirely himself.

Ramona Koval: You’ve been writing a very different America from that of John Updike. Can you tell us about your views of the America that Updike lives in?

Gore Vidal: I’ve driven through it but never stopped. I never attack writers; politicians are fair game because they are dangerous. I think that any writer who can attract readers should be honoured and put on a pedestal because we’re rapidly becoming post-literate in the United States. If Updike has fans I don’t want to put them off him. I felt obliged on political grounds as he loved the Vietnam War and hated all of us who objected to the Vietnam War, and he said “you just can’t second guess the president”. I said, “my God if you can’t do that you should go and live in Russia where you don’t have to second guess anybody”.

He’s so obedient, he believes everything that is handed out. I mean it’s a real dupe, and it may well be his popularity to keep people like himself, who believe everything that comes out of Washington by way of the New York Times.

Ramona Koval: I think he said “50 years ago we were still a nation of builders and dreamers, now whittlers and belittlers set the tone” You thought that he was talking about you?

Gore Vidal: I’m not that personal, I don’t take general remarks as referring to me . yes he was and I got him.

Ramona Koval: Last year Norman Mailer was a guest on this very podium and he said he had enormous feelings about his country, which is of course your country too. That the USA was like a wife you wanted to throw out of the window and rescue at the same time. Is that how you see America?

Gore Vidal: I haven’t been married so uxorious metaphors don’t quite get to me. Yes, I see his point. Yes, the place is maddening. I feel more responsible for it than Norman does. For Norman America is a kind of a spectacle, and he’s a player in the spectacle. Sometimes putting himself at the very centre of it. I see it as a family affair, that’s why I chose to write seven novels through the eyes of one family from the revolution to the present. And my family were among the inventors of the country and most of them have been in public life one way or another, so I want the damn thing to behave! I want it to work. The real disaster begins with Harry Truman in 1950 who militarised the economy and turned us into a working empire and global. That meant that there was no money left for education, we had no national health, we had nothing. We were one of the most highly taxed places in the world, except for the very rich. And corporate America, which pays no tax at all (usually the tax is on the profits of great companies like General Motors who pay for the government. They paid for the Congress, Congress exempts them from taxation.)

So we’re the only people who get nothing back for our tax money except armaments. We’re now going to have this missile shield. This will be billions, trillions of dollars, and meanwhile there is no money for education. Naturally as a writer, I deplore it for obviously selfish reasons; that it’s a post-literate world, it’s an ignorant world. So here I am for 30 years trying to tell the story of my country because I know that it isn’t being taught in the schools, or if it is, it’s simply propaganda, it’s disinformation. Very little of what they are told about the country is true. Well when things get so unreal or surreal, kids quite rightly switch off.

History was voted the least tolerated subject, out of 50 subjects when they polled high school kids across the country. It was the most unpopular. History is about the most interesting subject anybody can read. It’s us and our ancestors, and if you don’t know where you were, you don’t know where you are, and you certainly have no idea where you’re going! And we’re just kept in a blank. Why is there terrorism? Don’t you dare ask that one on question, because there are bad people out there who hate us? Yeah well what did we do to make them hate? They envy us. Why? Because we’re so fat? Fattest people in the world you know. I can understand a certain annoyance at that but is that why they want to blow us up? Yes, that’s why they want to blow us up. What were we doing in Vietnam? Communists. Well they’re not here at home; they were living unhappily around the world. Yeah, but they’re coming our way, they’re in the schools, they’re trying to teach history, ha ha ha. We know a communist when we see one.

Ramona Koval: You’ve said that if satire is to work for a mass audience, they’ve got to be aware of the thing being satirised. Tell me how does this affect you? Is there enough general shared knowledge to make a satire work anymore?

Gore Vidal: Well you have to do, if you have a satirical impulse, as I do. You do what I call ‘inventing the wheel’: you have to explain what it is you’re satirising. The President is the chief magistrate of an official republic founded in 1789, he lives in the White House. You have to give them little clues as to what a president is, you know. Then you make your joke. If you haven’t worn them out, you’ve explained it. It’s a country ripe for satire and it’s bliss for a satirist.

Question from audience member to Gore Vidal: In your article in Vanity Fair, you mentioned Opus Dei. Could you tell us just a little bit about them?

Gore Vidal: I wish I could tell you a lot about Opus Dei but I don’t know that much about it. Opus Dei is a right-wing Catholic organization, started in the 1930s in Spain by a Spanish priest who was just beatified by our current pope, and the godfather of it was Francisco Franco, a bona fide fascist leader. It’s a right-wing group with about forty or fifty thousand members around the world. They infiltrate in governments, the clergy, the corporate world. They believe in helping each other, a bit like the Masonic Lodge. They go in for self-flagellation. There’s a group up at Columbia University in Manhattan, and I know some students who had to move out of their building due to the screams of the Opus Dei people next door who were beating themselves to pieces morning noon and night. So we can say they have a certain nuisance value.

Where they entered my piece on McVeigh, well the villain of the piece is pretty much the FBI out of control. For eight years the director of the FBI has been a man called Lewis Freeh, and it has been revealed in the last year or so that he’s a member of Opus Dei. Now we are essentially a protestant Jewish country. So when I found out about Freeh being Opus Dei I thought “now there’s something that’s odd here, how did he get into our secret police, who are the most powerful thing in the country?”

Coincidentally, they caught a man, an FBI agent called Hanson, who’d been spying for the Soviet Union for something like 22 years. This is how they make money at the FBI; a Soviet was always there to pay. Then we learned that Mr Hanson the FBI agent who’d been a double agent for the Soviet was also Opus Dei. Now wait a minute, Opus Dei is Soviet Union? I mean, if nothing makes any sense you know you’re in America. So there they are – Director Freeh and Hanson attend the same Catholic Church in nearby Virginia and according to Newsweek they belong to the same lodge in Washington DC of Opus Dei. Well I don’t want to go back to the know-nothing days of ‘send the pope back to Rome’, but you get suspicious.

You may have noticed we had a difficult election last November. Although Al Gore won the election, the popular vote, due to the Supreme Court’s intervention and denying the Florida court’s prominence, they gave the election to the actual loser, George Bush (for which we are all grateful). Now in addition to Freeh and Mr Hanson of the FBI we now discover that Justice Scallia is Opus Dei. His son is a priest who converted Clarence Thomas, the black Justice to Catholicism about five years ago, and is probably Opus Dei too. Now two members of the court are Opus Dei, I mean this is enough to remind me of my protestant roots you know, Suddenly there I am – I’m ready to post something on the door of the church! We’re all conspiratorial minded in America because there are so many conspiracies. We saw the Supreme Court conspiring to deny the presidency to the popular winner, it pulled every trick in the book and in full view of the world. We have big tobacco lying about the effects of nicotine, that’s also a conspiracy. What is a political party but a conspiracy?

Question from an audience member to Gore Vidal: Given the passive acceptance of Bush’s presidency, do you think your country needs Paul Revere to revive again? To wake it up from its slumbers?

Gore Vidal: His name was Timothy McVeigh, he said “the feds are coming, the feds are coming”, that’s what he was doing it for. And a lot of his correspondence with me was about how upset he was that nobody ever asked why he did it. It was just assumed that he was a cretin, a redneck, that he was stupid failure, like the writers of the New York Times. They always project themselves on their demons, but he wasn’t a failure. He was a very successful and much decorated soldier.

We have had lots of Paul Reveres out there. This is one of the reasons I spent so much time writing this very long piece and examining what was going on out there in the mid-west, that it is time to wake up because otherwise we’re going to have a police, (well we have a police state) but we’re going to have one that we can’t undo. And people don’t care much about it because they don’t know any American history, they have no interest in anything except themselves, their private life. Well that’s true of just about everybody most of the time almost everywhere. We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic. The founding fathers hated two things, one was monarchy and the other was democracy, they gave us a constitution that saw to it we will have neither. I don’t know how wise they were. So there are wheels within wheels.

Gore Vidal spoke to Ramona Koval at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2001, recorded before the 11th of September events. His latest books are ‘The Golden Age’ published by Little Brown (and distributed by Penguin), and ‘The Last Empire, essays from 1992 to 2000’ published by Double Day.

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