Gore Vidal’s The Last Empire, Essays 1992-2000

For more than 50 years, Gore Vidal was the preeminent gadfly of the American left, operating across disciplines: as a novelist, essayist, playwright, actor, screenwriter and politician. Today he is perhaps most famous as a public intellectual whose various debates with William F. Buckley Jr. – his equally articulate political antithesis – are the stuff of legend. The Last Empire collects almost a decade of his nonfiction writing, from The New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement to Vanity Fair and The Nation and a dozen other sources, covering history, literature and politics, as well as the men and women – often friends of Vidal’s – who shaped the 20th century. These essays demonstrate his famous erudition and wit, as well as the iconoclastic opinions that make him equal parts enlightening and exasperating.

Given that these essays come from the late 20th century and the latter half of Vidal’s career, and given his penchant for grand pronouncements and sweeping conclusions, I could not help but read them with an eye to our peculiar political moment, so unforeseeable to so many, and to his immense credit there is much in these writings that seems, at this late stage, to read like prophecy. He was among the first to sound the alarm about the growing power of multinational corporations, and their (entirely expected) desire to evade paying American taxes while benefiting from American consumers, as well as their increasing involvement in American politics to facilitate said tax evasion:

From time to time it is shyly suggested that taxes be raised – for individuals but never for corporations. To those who maintain that our political life is not controlled by corporations, let me offer a statistical proof of ownership – the smoking gun, in fact. In 1950, 44 percent of federal revenues came from individual taxpayers and 28 percent from a tax on corporate profits. Today, 37 percent comes from individuals and only 8 percent from the corporations. Once Bush’s (George H.W., as this essay was written in 1992) only fiscal notion becomes law and the capital gains tax is eliminated, the work of corporate America will be complete, and the ownership will have ceased to support the United States. Naturally, should a badly run company like Chrysler go bust, the American people will be expected to pay for managerial mistakes.

It would take nearly two decades for his prophecy to come true: Chrysler, and indeed, GM, would both seek and receive government bailouts, to the tune of several billion dollars of taxpayer money. Incidentally, his point about the drop in corporate tax revenue is repeated at least a dozen times throughout this collection (one of the downsides of having all of your essay writing in one place is that, invariably, patterns emerge, and not all of them flattering), but it isn’t quite the smoking gun he’d like it to be, as the relationship between tax rates and tax revenues is not always linear, but his point is well made nonetheless. The next – and perhaps most important – area of his prescience concerns the fate of the nation state in an age of mass migration and increasing automation. He notes, in essay written in 1993, what politicians today are still failing to grapple with, that our industrial jobs are disappearing and this is creating a massive unemployment crisis that demands action:

There is no longer enough work to go around. That is, proper work as opposed to part-time labor with no future, the sort of work that ill-paid foreigners now do. Every day we read how another great industry has let go yet another 30,000 or 40,000 workers. Automation and reduced demand have made them redundant. What will these people do? Is the state to support them? If so, how? This basic question is generally avoided, particularly by professional politicians […]

More remarkable is that this quote comes within the context of an essay on immigration and the shifting demographics of the Western world.

Since we have our countries, the desire to keep them reasonably homogenous is reflexive and hardly extraordinary. Yet minor immigration has been the rule ever since native whites discovered that poorly paid other-tinted people would do work that whites find untouchable. But now major population shifts threaten. Everywhere the tribes are on the move. From south and east they converge on Europe; from south and west on North America.

Vidal is too much of an empiricist and too accomplished an historian to believe such shifts can come without a great deal of resistance: “You cannot, in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor or even the higher capitalism, shove together and try to standardize a number of tribes that do not want to be together.” But, interestingly, the lesson he draws from this is that nationalism – already sclerotic – cannot adapt itself to the impending patchwork of tribes, and the only solution is therefore a kind of federalism, with maximum autonomy given to the independent states. How such a patchwork will cohere, or how long it will last, does not seem to trouble him enough to warrant explanation. Nonetheless, there are entire passages in these essays – on the lack of representation of Beltway Americans, for example, or on the clash between low-wage immigrants and low-wage locals – that read like a warning of the impending Trump election.

There is – for my sensibilities, at least – also something very grating about reading Vidal. He’s at his wittiest when he’s criticizing America or American policy, foreign or domestic, but his glee in doing so is so palpable, and his criticisms so unrestrained, that he might easily be accused – and often was – of a terrible bias. He’s excoriating, for example, of the Truman presidency, first because he charges – with some justification – that Truman’s role in creating the CIA has led America into a perpetual state of war, and second because he believes that the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary, that the Japanese were already prepared to surrender and that the real function of the bombing was as a warning shot, as it were, to Soviet Russia. On the first point, Truman should be given at least some pardon, for he himself expressed regret for the unaccountable, shadowy nature of the CIA, and had even named its creation as one of the greatest regrets of his presidency. And on the subject of the atom bombs, he is more caustic than convincing, and too eager to attack those who disagree with him (Clive James, in this instant) rather than marshal his evidence. Worse is his treatment of World War II and the Soviet Union, particularly when compared to his constant critical tone in regards to the United States. Here, again, is a criticism of Truman’s presidency:

The demonization of the Soviet Union started in 1947, when they were no threat to the American empire and its clients. They were indeed unpleasant masters to their own people and to those buffer states that we allowed them to keep after the war.

It seems to me that “unpleasant masters” is something of a tautology, particularly in the eyes of a Gore Vidal, who would not accept any “master” for himself or for America, but this is patently an inadequate description of the murderous Soviet regime, which more than earned any “demonization” it received, both from America and its own starving, oppressed citizens. On the subject of the Second World War, he is even worse:

There are those who sentimentalize the Second World War. I don’t. There can be no “good war.” We set out to stop Germany and Japan from becoming hemispheric powers. Now, of course, they are economic world powers while we, with our $4 trillion of debt, look to be joining Argentina and Brazil on the outer edge. All in all, the famed good, great war that gave us the empire that we then proceeded to make a mess of was hardly worth the death of one Pvt. James Trimble USMCR, much less the death of millions of others.

This is a paragraph dripping with unbalanced resentment. Without specifying who it is that sentimentalizes World War II, or how they do it, Vidal falls back on a meaningless platitude: “There can be no ‘good war.'” Millions did indeed die during the Second World War, but surely millions were going to die whether or not America opted to involve itself, and if stopping Hitler is not a lofty enough goal for him, Mr. Vidal does not show himself to be morally superior but morally blind. Such instances of unrestrained bias are, in fairness, relatively rare, but they contribute to a general tone of resentment that makes these essays less persuasive than they might be, and that is a genuine shame, because Vidal, despite these failings, is a trenchant and witty critic.