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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Monday 25th October 2004

Imperial America by Gore Vidal


Nation Books, .00, pp.181

As a longstanding fan of Gore Vidal's, I opened this book with some excitement. What better match could there be between author and subject than the waspish, leftwing critic of American imperialism and the crisis in Iraq? The dust jacket promised a merciless dissection of the "ever reckless Cheney-Bush junta" in which the "Olympian" author delivers "his most devastating exploration of contemporary America yet."

It starts promisingly enough, with a quick gallop through Vidal's previous reflections on what he likes to call "the American Empire." Admittedly, he does quote himself a little too extensively, but that's forgivable in such a distinguished man of letters. This is an exercise in throat-clearing, after all, and some of his earlier bon mots are worth regurgitating. "I noted that to die-hard conservatives 'law and order' is usually a code phrase meaning 'get the blacks,'" he writes of his 'State of the Union' address on the David Susskind Show in 1972.

After 13 pages, though, this begins to wear a little thin. Unfortunately, when he does get round to discussing the current state of the union he has little in the way of new material to add. Once again, he relies on quotations.

For instance, in the course of indicting the administration for its poor record on the environment he reproduces huge gobbets of text from press releases issued by various lobby groups, including the Sierra Club and Environmental Media Services. Another example: he reprints almost an entire article by R E Blummer from the St Petersburg Times to illustrate just how inadequate the President's response has been to the worldwide AIDS epidemic.

To any seasoned journalist, such wholesale lifting from other sources is a sure sign of an author in trouble. I can see Vidal in my mind's eye, staring at a blank computer screen, totally unable to think of anything to write as his deadline looms. 'I know,' he thinks. 'I'll do an Internet search and see if there's anything I can copy and paste from a website.'

One quotation, from a writer called Dave Lindorff, actually goes on for four pages. Four pages! If I was Lindorff, I'd ask for a slice of Vidal's advance.

After 37 pages, Vidal simply gives up the ghost. The remainder of the book, with the exception of the last four pages, consists of an apparently random selection from previously published essays. Indeed, one of them, a 1987 attack on Ronald Reagan, has appeared twice before, once in The Nation and then again in The Observer. So for die-hard fans like me, this is our third opportunity to read this particular piece of wisdom. I liked it the first time, but puh-lease! At least no one can accuse Vidal of being an environmentally unfriendly journalist. He believes in recycling.

In one of the few original passages in this book--soon to be reprinted in The Nation, no doubt--Gore digs up a little-known piece of legislation called the False Statement Statute and urges the House of Representatives to impeach Bush for misleading the public. Yet surely Vidal is guilty of exactly the same thing for trying to pass off this collection of odds and sods as an original piece of work.

The subtitle of Imperial America is Reflections on the United States of Amnesia. Gore better hope that anyone who buys this book is suffering from "amnesia" because otherwise they'll be demanding their money back.

The New York Post, June, 2004

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