What connects the following? A big new air base is opened in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, while more men, warships and military equipment are being sent to the Port Blair naval station. The defence budget nears $50 billion — sixth largest on the planet. A former army chief appears to be looking for an entry to politics. Indian companies buy vast tracts of agricultural land, and Indian PSUs fight for access to oil and gas, in poor parts of Africa. The prime minister is not popularly elected. The national media have very little to say about Tamil Nadu (to pick a state at random) and very much to say about the Olympic Games in London. Major companies, foreign governments and rating agencies are pushing the Indian government to loose its control of the economy.
Where these trends and items of news intersect is not in a pessimistic or a patriotic worldview — or not in that alone. What connects them is Gore Vidal.
This towering personality, the last American author to whom the adjective “great” could justly be applied, died a few days ago at 86. Born in 1925, he lived through most of the 20th- and 21st-century history of the United States and, courtesy his beloved grandfather the Oklahoma senator Thomas Gore, he heard from an honest politician (“the first and, I believe, last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune”, as Vidal said) about a goodly slice of the 19th century. In his reading and his writing — two dozen bestselling novels, three brilliant volumes of memoir, dozens of diamond-bright, ice-cold and amusing essays — in one way or another he painted the 250-year history of his republic.
It is an arresting portrait. Seven novels written from 1967 to 2000 form the Narratives of Empire series, which tells what Vidal said was the real story of his nation (because the professional historians are so bad at their work, he explained). In each book Vidal picks one or a few central characters, generally individuals at the centre of power whose names are to be found in the history books, and describes what they did and what happened around them at crucial points in the nation’s story. Vidal uses their actual words, and presents them working their actual politics, in the midst of real events.
Inevitably, this kind of work involves a good deal of historical revisionism. So: was the 18th-century Aaron Burr the crook among his fellow founding fathers, or was Thomas Jefferson, instead, less than the great republican hero that he is made out to be? Was Abraham Lincoln really the man of the myth? How did Woodrow Wilson cynically exploit the dawning era of TV and the movies? How did the press drive overseas conquest in the time of Teddy Roosevelt? Did Franklin D Roosevelt invite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for his own ends, and was he the first American emperor?
Ah, empire. Once, Vidal believed, America was a republic. Not any more, not, at least, since President McKinley annexed the Philippines. And certainly not in the era of George W Bush, who like every other postwar president went to war without Congress’s authorisation, thus disobeying the same Constitution that Americans supposedly hold in such sacred regard.
Basically, says Vidal, bringing the argument up to date, the people are duped and led, and the politicians controlled, by greed and corporate interests. But the pretence of the republic is kept up. Read some of his vast output of fiction and polemic and you will think before doubting.
And thus to my opening question. Here we are, citizens of the 21st century’s greatest republic. Are we doing any better than the Americans at judging our rulers? Should we spend so much on arms? Why should a retired army chief not go into politics? Ought we to applaud land grabs in poorer countries? How can we condone an unelected PM or let ourselves be distracted by TV? What reforms are the best reforms for us?
Do we doubt the structure entire? And why do we not?