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Gore Vidal's Unfinished American Revolution

The recently deceased author loved America in the way the best of the founders did.

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But, as delicious as his prose might have been, and as delicious as the filleting of Tricky Dick might have been, I loved Gore most for his possession of American history—and for his ability to use that history to fight contemporary battles.

“Property is power, as those Massachusetts veterans of the revolution discovered when they joined Captain Daniel Shays in his resistance to the landed gentry’s replacement of a loose confederation of states with a tax-levying central government,” Gore wrote in 1972. “The veterans thought that they had been fighting a war for true independence. They did not want London to be replaced by New York. They did want an abolition of debts and a division of property. Their rebellion was promptly put down. But so shaken was the elite by the experience that their most important (and wealthiest) figure grimly emerged from private life with a letter to Harry Lee. ‘You talk of employing influence,’ wrote George Washington, ‘to appease the present tumults in Massachusetts. I know not where that influence is to be found, or if attainable, that it would be a proper remedy for the disorders. Influence is no government. Let us have one by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured or let us know the worst at once.’ So was born the Property Party and with it the Constitution of the United States. We have known the ‘best’ for nearly 200 years. What would the ‘worst’ have been like?”

Ah, now there was the question.

And a few paragraphs later came the answer: “here now exists a potential American majority willing to see its best interests served not through the restrictive Constitution of the elite but through the egalitarian vision of Daniel Shays and his road not taken—yet.”

Gore was a founder displaced. He believed that America was not made, but rather that it was in the making.

There was a righteousness to his faith, as is always the case with genuine radicals. He identified with the most righteous reformers, the populists and the progressives of the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early days of the twentieth. He loved their determination to use electoral democracy to forge economic democracy. And he delighted in the prospect that, as one of his heroes, Robert M. La Follette,  proposed, “the people shall rule.”

Gore found a venue for his political advocacy in the pages of  The Nation, and a publisher in  Nation Books. Gore and I came to know one another as enthusiastic members of the  Nation caucus that sought to renew an anti-imperialist ethic that ran deep for the first century of the American experiment. We recognized that a nation that sought to be democratic in any sense could not engage in the imperialism of King George III or President George II.

Gore wrote the introduction to my book  The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism(New Press; 2006),opening with his announcement that, “Of course George Bush and Dick Cheney have committed acts that would merit impeachment. In a proper country, they would be tried as traitors. You don’t lie to a country, get it into a war, waste a trillion dollars, kill a lot of people all because of your vanity and lust for oil and admiration for your corporate partners. If that isn’t treason, I don’t know what is.”

Note that line about “a proper country.”

Gore spent much of his adult life in  Ravello, an Italian redoubt to which he retreated with his beloved Howard during the Nixon years. It part, he went to Italy because he did not believe America to be a proper country. But when we would sit overlooking the sea in Ravello, the conversations would be, always, of the task of perfecting America.

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