BIRD'S EYE VIEW
the eyes of characters, both imagined and all-too-real, we
get a bird's eye view of history in the making. Caroline de
Traxler, publisher of the Washington Tribune, ex-movie
star and woman-of-the-world; Blaise Sanford, her co-publisher;
Peter Sanford, his odd, thoughtful somewhat skeptical son:
Senator Burden Day, the Midwestern Senator; Billy Thorne,
the commie-turned-CIA agent, who embodies the neo-conservative
mentality of grasping opportunism and fanatic ideologue
these fictional creations interact with such historical personages
as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wife Eleanor, Herbert Hoover,
Harry Truman, William Randolph Hearst, Wendell Willkie, and
virtually every important political figure of the time: the
result is a panoramic view of American history unfolding,
as it were, from the inside. . . . .
book starts out at a Washington cocktail party, about a year
before the outbreak of World War II, at which it soon becomes
clear that the city is swarming with agents of various foreign
powers, all vying for advantage in the propaganda wars leading
up to Pearl Harbor. Through the device of a character who
is making a film documentary of the "Great Debate" between
the War Party and the so-called isolationists, Vidal manages
to capture both the passion and the politics of the time
and more. For what he really does is go beyond the novelists'
ken, and uncover the hidden history of that time, detailing
in the events of the story the central role of British intelligence
in dragging us into what was essentially a European conflict.
In a column I wrote some time ago, I reviewed the revelations
detailed in Thomas E. Mahl's Desperate
Deception, a pathbreaking scholarly study of British
covert operations in the United States from 1939-44. Mahl
confirmed what was common knowledge in Washington at the time,
and that is that a key Republican Senator, Arthur Vandenberg,
previously an isolationist, had been "converted" to interventionism
by the persuasive powers of a glamorously beautiful British
agent by the name of Mitzi, a woman who was not his wife.
In Vidal's book we meet Mitzi, and Vandenberg, and are shown
how it might have and probably did happen that a sweaty and
red-faced old Senator from Michigan sold out for a sleek leggy
JOYS OF BOOK REVIEWING
an unadulterated joy it is for this old isolationist
to overhear the cocktail party conversation of Senator Robert
plan to call for a Senate investigation of the various British
and French agents here in Washington and, of course, New York
and Hollywood. I have reason to believe that the editorial
policy of the New York Herald Tribune is entirely dictated
by the British secret services, with one aim only to
get us into the war on Britain's side."
only Taft had succeeded in his call for a Senate investigation
of the foreign lobbyists who were so actively involved in
getting us into war. Then we wouldn't have had to wait for
over half a century for the truth to get out and then
only in specialized scholarly studies by dedicated researchers
such as Dr. Mahl. For years, a small but increasingly vocal
school of historians has been revising the received wisdom
of the official mythologists, the "Roosevelt, Soldier of Freedom"
school in which the nobility of the interventionist cause
is never in question. While the catalytic role of British
intelligence in getting us into the war has leaked out, slowly,
over the years, the truth about Pearl Harbor the deus
ex machina that concludes the usual interventionist morality
play was known as early as 1943, when John T. Flynn
first raised the suspicion that the whole thing was a setup.
There was a Congressional investigation effectively
quashed by FDR and the isolationist literature of the
postwar years is full of intimations that the President knew
about the attack in advance and deliberately left the
Harbor defenseless, after provoking the Japanese. Vidal dramatizes
this view of history, and not only shows the look on FDR's
face as he made the decision but also the context in which
such a monstrous decision could occur. And, most interestingly
of all, he makes a detective story out of it, so that the
reader is drawn into the novel out of a sheer desire to know
what lies at the end of the trail of evidence.
reliance on the diligent and shocking researches of Professor
Mahl is practically confirmed by the time we get to page 40,
where we meet none other than Ernest Cuneo, FDR's liaison
with the British government and the little Lenin of the War
Party. Cuneo was an attorney whose clients included Walter
Winchell and Drew Pearson and also Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, the OSS (prewar equivalent of the CIA), the FBI,
and Lord Lothian, the British ambassador. Mahl cites a memo
written by Cuneo that pretty much sums up Vidal's jaunty depiction
of this warmongering Svengali:
far as the British tricking the US into war, FDR was at war
with Hitler long before Chamberlain was forced to declare
it. I was eyewitness and indeed wrote Winchell's stuff on
it (volunteer). Of course the British were trying to push
the US into war. If that be so, we were indeed a pushover.
It reminds me of that Chaucerian line, 'He fell upon her and
would have raped her but for her ready acquiescence!'"
BOY FROM WALL STREET
Vidal has a different take: he shows that the slick operator
Cuneo, while certainly enjoying his work, had to work pretty
hard to earn his keep, and also required some heavyweight
allies, such as Thomas W. Lamont of the Morgan Bank. We meet
Wendell Willkie, the barefoot boy from Wall Street, who, with
the Morgan interests and British intelligence behind him,
stole the Republican nomination from Taft and the antiwar
Republicans and Vidal dramatizes this conspiracy, as
it moves from the drawing rooms and editorial offices of Washington
to the Philadelphia convention, where Cuneo's legions sabotaged
Hoover's anti-interventionist speech by doing something to
the microphone (p.105). Successfully evoking the drama and
color of a national political convention not the rehearsed
Nuremberg-style displays of party "unity" we've grown so used
to and bored with, but the old-time dramas where any outcome
was possible Vidal homes right in on the almost demonic
character of Cuneo, who remarks to Peter Sanford when Hoover
takes the stage:
old thing, he's the only one here who doesn't know that he
hasn't a chance.'
still popular.' Peter indicated the cheering crowd of delegates
now. But watch what happens at the end of his speech.' The
mischievous face of Cuneo had a jack-o'-lantern look to it
so unlike the uncarved full pale pumpkin of Herbert Hoover
who was now on the stage, waving jerkily to the newsreel cameras."
is sitting up front, and can hear Hoover's speech, but it
is clear that the sound system has failed and that he is one
of the few who can.
said Cuneo. "Hoover's last chance to be nominated. And no
one can hear him."
ATLAS SHRUGGED OF HISTORICAL REVISIONISM
of course, is the whole point: no one can hear him, and no
one must hear him that has been the whole aim
of Cuneo (and his successors right up to the present day),
that the "isolationist" (in reality, nationalist) view held
by the majority of Americans right up until Pearl Harbor must
never be allowed to get a hearing. Vidal shows how the two-party
system is really one party, the War Party, the party of Empire
and he does it with verve and his usual sense of style.
Ironic, idealistic, world-weary and, in the end, optimistic,
Gore Vidal has, in The Golden Age, cemented the capstone
of his historical saga with what is truly a crowning achievement.
A novel that works as history, that breaks fresh (if not entirely
new) ground historically: here, at last, is the Atlas
Shrugged of historical revisionism, a fictional but
all-too-true retort to the court historians who peddle the
Disney-ized mythology of the "greatest generation" to a nation
that has lost its memory, and, therefore, its conscience.
AS HISTORY, AND VICE VERSA
is so much to this novel that it would be impossible give
a full accounting of its many characters, both real and imagined,
in a single review including cameo appearances by such
notables as Bette Davis, H. L. Mencken, and the author himself,
who shows up in odd places, like a stage-manager peeking through
the curtain at the audience, sizing up the house; the author
pops in at the end and interacts with his own creations, a
device that shouldn't work, but, somehow, does. The fictional
reality created by the author is not only convincing
this, after all, is what a minimally competent novelistic
is expected to do but achieves a kind of hyper-reality,
as if history were being painted in the luminous style of
Salvador Dali. For the often lonely and beleaguered band of
anti-imperialist "isolationists," however, this is more than
a mere novel: it is a manifesto, as well as a work of art,
and I can only note the highlights. . . .
DECIDES WHAT MUST BE DONE"
little talk about the limits of intervention, and the proper
foreign policy for a constitutional republic (p. 167) is a
gem. Vidal also does a great job of giving us insight into
what FDR and his Brain Trust envisioned as the meaning
of World War II and its likely result. A conversation with
Brain Truster (and, it turns out, KGB agent) Harry Hopkins,
a major character, is entirely imaginary and quite real in
the sense that it might very well have happened: in any case,
it gives us a frightening glimpse of the mentality of the
very powerful. As Hopkins reveals the plan to provoke the
Japanese into bombing, perhaps, Manila, his confidante remarks:
"This is all very daring." Hopkins replies
decides what must be done. I'm convinced of that. Anyway,
there's no going to war unless all your people are united
behind you. Well, they are nowhere near united even though
we keep losing ship after ship to the Nazis and no one blinds
an eye. So we must take one great blow and thenů ' He stopped.
we go for it. All of it. And get it.'
world. What else is there for us to have?'"
OF A FEATHER
is the globalist vision carried into the Truman years, and
Vidal's docudrama captures the spirit of that era. Now, I
know Vidal is supposed to be a "liberal," at least insofar
as its polar opposite is supposed to be Jesse Helms or Jerry
Falwell. But my fellow reactionaries will be delighted with
Vidal's vicious digs at the Roosevelt cult, such as this conversation
between Caroline and a film director whose documentary gives
us entry to the world of that era:
laughed. 'You make Stalin seem almost inhuman.'
is a step towards the human, I guess. I wonder if he was as
cruel as Roosevelt.'
was startled. 'Roosevelt, cruel?'
a different way. Obviously, our Siberia is a lot nicer than
theirs. But Siberia is still Siberia for those you send there.'"
is described as "a great bully," an understatement of sorts,
and Roosevelt "held endless grudges. Deliberately ruined careers."
revisionist project is given yet another dimension on page
262, when he engages in some much needed Harry Truman revisionism
and the truth about "Give 'em Hell Harry" is finally
revealed to the Doris Kearns Goodwins of this world. Little
touches like this make this novel a treasure-trove; and the
supply of gems seems almost endless.
author's own credo is neatly summed up in a memorandum written
by the fictional Senator Burden Day detailing a meeting of
the President with his high council of state. Day is the last
of the Midwestern populist Democrats, perhaps modeled after
Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, generously endowed with
a Senatorial handsomeness, and clearly meant to represent
a noble figure, the last of the old school. My own favorite
isolationist, Senator William Borah, the Lion of Idaho, also
makes a few key appearances, and of this tradition Senator
Day is very much a part. In this memo, Vidal, speaking through
rich boys daydream about vast armies and navies conquering
all the seas and lands while we humble folk think of boys
that we know sons even dying in a process that
benefits no one but the international banks and their lawyer-lobbyists,
like Mr. Acheson himself. The real political struggle in the
United States, since the Civil War, has been between the peaceful
inhabitants of the nation and their generally representative
Congresses and a small professional elite totally split off
from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent
and justify and resonate for others to win."
OF A NEOCON
is fiction that rings achingly true, and not only that but
it is the product of some very hard thinking. There is not
much space left to give the author full credit for the startling
originality of his conclusions. Here I can give only an inkling,
as motivation to get you to go out and buy this book
and buy copies for your friends. See page 307 for an insightful
analysis of how our elite-run "democracy" fuels our interventionist
foreign policy. A particularly interesting (and funny) exchange
on page 365 takes place between Peter Sanford and Billy Thornton.
Thornton is a commie-turned-rightwinger who has gone to work
for the Wall Street Journal, another one of Vidal's
all-too-real fictional creations. Peter marvels at how "you
have actually come full circle from communism to capitalism."
Vidal then gives the archetypal neoconservative the floor:
scales have fallen from your eyes at last.' Billy blew smoke
across the table. 'Taken to their logical conclusion, the
two are nearly identical. Where the ideal communist socialist
state would use the national wealth for the good of the citizen,
strictly regulated, of course, by a centralized money power,
we are now, in the interest of defending ourselves against
an enemy both Satanic and godless very important point,
'godless,' in selling high taxes to simple Americans of deep
religious faith we are creating a totally militarized
socialist state by ignoring such frills as the welfare of
the people themselves. After all, the true American likes
to stand on his own two ruggedly independent feet, which our
nuclear state will encourage him to do. He is also free to
go to the church of his choice, unlike the communist Russian
slaves. I must say the accidental brilliance of our leadership
still astonishes me. Haberdasher Truman and Lawyer Acheson
and Soldier Marshall are creating a militarized economy and
state that leaves those two bumblers Stalin and Mao far behind
in the dust, staring skyward at our B-29s, soon to start darkening
their red skies. Peter, you have made me poetic."
RIGHT LINE ON McCARTHY
West was winning, the neocons sensed, and they jumped on the
bandwagon when Popular Front-style "Communism is 20th
Century Americanism" was no longer a tenable, or fashionable,
line to take. But Vidal is no leftie-style peacenik (albeit
he is no libertarian, either, except, perhaps, in a non-political
sense). Check out pages 377-78, wherein he analyzes, through
one of his characters Peter, my favorite, and also
the alter-ego of the author as a young man, I believe
the subversive anti-government roots of the McCarthyite impulse.
Although "Peter knew the [liberal anti-McCarthy] litany" and
"he too recited it in different voices, different places,"
dismissing the flamboyant Senator's charges as "babbling,"
nevertheless, "what I'm now hearing is something else," says
Peter, "something really serious. The people's fear of the
government because they are starting to see that it's no longer
by them or for them." Very perceptive, and very true, an admission
which no self-respecting liberal would dare make today.
Vidal is a national treasure. As the chronicler of the real
history of the United States, which at this point can only
be presented in fictional form, he has written the story of
a nation set on a course for Empire and launched, at
the end of The
Golden Age, into a sleek new world where the author
and his chief protagonist meet, and merge, as they converse
about the meaning of mortality. While the mandarins at the
New York Times, and other bastions of establishment
liberalism, have already pronounced their anathemas and dismissed
this book in both political and literary terms, Vidal's achievement
towers over them all. Gore Vidal is a member of what seems
to be a nearly extinct fraternity: the American novelists
of ideas. When he goes, who is left and what hope is
there that someone will breach the walls of political correctness
meant to keep his kind out forever? This novel, which brings
Vidal's series of historical novels right up to the present
day, has about it the air of a valedictory, and in the end
the reader is left with a feeling of elegaic bittersweetness
sadness that the book has ended, and that, perhaps,
we shall not see the likes of Vidal again in our lifetime.
Vidal's vision of a decadent empire, ruled by a ruthlessly
manipulative and grossly powerful elite, is a powerful weapon
aimed at all the right targets his book is a bull's-eye.
Go out and buy it for your own pleasure as well as
for the cause.