Campus & Community

Still caustic after all these years

6 min read

Writer and public conscience Vidal on Washington, Adams, Nixon, Bush, Dean

‘The only way you can ever make progress in American politics is to go backwards. Go back to the origins and restore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. … Take your stand on the recovery of our liberties.’ (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

Gore Vidal, the outspoken and prolific writer of novels, essays, screenplays, and history, visited the Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum on Nov. 20, ostensibly to promote his new book “Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson.”

Yet his commentary focused as much on the 21st century as the 18th, with discussion of Bush, Bush, Nixon, and Dean competing for space with the men who birthed our nation. The event, co-sponsored by the Harvard Book Store, filled the Askwith Lecture Hall and overflowed into a satellite viewing location in Gutman Library.

Interviewed by radio raconteur Christopher Lydon, the former host of National Public Radio’s “The Connection” who’s currently plying his conversational prowess on the World Wide Web, Vidal treated the audience to the unbridled sarcasm and iconoclastic wit for which he is known. Along the way, he lambasted the current state of American politics as filthy with financial interests and mourned the nation’s abandonment of the liberties on which we were founded.

“The only way you can ever make progress in American politics is to go backwards,” said Vidal, whose six-decade career has bristled with satire and critical political commentary. “Go back to the origins and restore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. … Take your stand on the recovery of our liberties.”

All the good ones are gone

A man whose own family tree has many political branches, Vidal opened his rambling remarks by recalling a discussion with John F. Kennedy. Over a backgammon game in Hyannisport, the then-president (whose accent Vidal mimicked with dead-on accuracy) admitted the “movers and shakers” he had met in his political career seemed second-rate. “Inventing a Nation” responds to Kennedy’s sentiment, which Vidal echoes, that modern politicians can’t hold an ideological candle to men like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Hamilton.

“They had longer times to think about things,” said Vidal of our nation’s founders, adding that these men, unburdened by the need to raise campaign dollars, read books, visited with their constituents, and wrote letters to each other. “It was a generation that genuinely was interested in inventing a nation.”

It was not a perfect process, he noted; John Adams, for instance, advocated a hereditary monarchy, complete with titles. For all his wise leadership, Adams masterminded the Alien and Sedition Acts, which curtailed free speech and dissent. “But of course, they’ve come back as the Patriot Act,” Vidal quipped.

Benjamin Franklin, he said, reluctantly signed onto our nation’s early governing documents, arguing that they would provide good government for a number of years before collapsing “due to the corruptions of the people for whom only despotism is a possible government,” Vidal quoted.

“The predictability about the corruption of the people has come true,” he said, citing corporate scandals. “Wherever you can be crooked, they’re crooked.”

Impressive résumés, unimpressive alternatives

While he was unapologetic and blatant in his distaste for the current Bush administration, Vidal showed little optimism for alternatives. “The men themselves don’t make the slightest bit of difference,” he said of the Democratic contenders for the presidency. “It’s where they get their money from that determines their actions.”

When Lydon proposed that Democratic candidate Howard Dean, who has used the Internet to raise millions of dollars from average donations of $75, might be breaking free of the corporate hijacking of politics Vidal decried, the author was dismissive.

Upcoming Askwith Education Forums:

Today (Dec. 4) at 6 p.m., Gutman Conference Center, GSE Associate Professor Wendy Luttrell discusses her book, ‘Pregnant Bodies, Fertile Minds: Gender, Race, and the Schooling of Pregnant Teens.’

Wednesday (Dec. 10) at 6 p.m., Askwith Forum, Longfellow Hall, University of Oxford Professor Roy Foster speaks about the final volume in his acclaimed biography, ‘W.B. Yeats, A Life, Volume II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939.’ For information, contact Ellie Kusner at (617) 496-1835.

Acknowledging that the Internet may have a democratizing effect on elections, Vidal pushed a more sweeping reform that he’s been advocating for three decades.

“Force the networks to give free time to all the candidates,” he said. “This would immediately remove the vast amounts of money they have to raise.”

Dean, he said, should stand for something other than opposition to the war in Iraq, and Ralph Nader, he responded to a member of the audience, lacked the natural charisma of a born politician. Airbags are “not really the sort of thing that makes the blood tingle,” he said, deflating Nader’s consumer safety gains. “There are other things that would. What about the restoration of the Constitution? What about returning the right to declare war to the House of Representatives?”

Only U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich won Vidal’s praise, albeit cautious. “They won’t take him seriously because he’s the wrong height and his hair is deplorable,” he chided.

In general, however, he discredited modern politicians as men with impressive résumés backed by little substance. “Think of Lincoln’s résumé. One calling card would about do it,” he said. “I don’t like these men of great accomplishment who’ve accomplished nothing.”

Preparing the people with the past

If Vidal’s picture of modern American politics – riddled with the corruptive influences of large corporations and preoccupied with scare tactics that ensure an ongoing military buildup to match our misguided imperialist tendencies – was gloomy, he offered little optimism for the future beyond a closer look at the past.

A better public education system with a firmer footing in American history is our best hope if we are to evolve into “a country that wants to have real politics and real political parties,” he said. High school history appalls him, he added, and it’s no wonder that it’s an unpopular course.

“Academics bear a great weight for this horrible state of affairs. To make our history boring would take genius of a negative sort,” he said. We need to instill “knowledge of history and a sense that you have something to do with the country,” he added. “You have to have a prepared people who feel that they’re living in a real country.”