The Monthly Interview

In his six-plus decades as a novelist, essayist, and dramatist, writing from homes in Italy and the United States, Gore Vidal has returned again and again to the subject of American political history and its uncomfortable similarities to imperial Rome. The Washington Monthly‘s Peter Laufer and Markos Kounalakis recently caught up with the celebrated author, and discussed what lessons America today might learn from Rome, ancient and modern.

WM: What historical comparisons come to mind to shed light on the state of modern American democracy, current events, and our attitudes toward power? Where is the United States as a nation today?

GV: Well, after the good Emperor Tiberius climbed Palatine Hill and was hailed as Caesar, the Roman Senate proposed giving him a blanket advance endorsement of any legislation or commands he might later propose. And Tiberius sent back a note to the Senate that said: “This is insane. What do you think you’re doing? Suppose that one day the emperor has gone mad? Or, suppose the emperor is not really thereand someone has taken his place?” Tiberius thought the worst possible scenario for Rome would be if the entire Senate agreed, in advance, to any policies that might come from the emperor. He vetoed that proposal; he just tore up the message.

GV: The Senate at first sent it right back to him. And Tiberius just groaned. When he was asked, “Have you no message for the Senate?” his response was: “Yes, I do. Tell them how eager they are to be slaves.” My point is, today in the United States, there’s a lot of president worship. We love authority figures.

GV: The New York Times never saw a president they didn’t worshipunless he was doing good, and then they could sandbag him. I wish that other newspapers had more mixed ownership and more independent points of view. The Des Moines Register, whose coverage of the Iowa caucuses I found to be rather creepy, seems to be largely an opinion sheet for the people who own it.

GV: We nearly got William Randolph Hearst for president, back when he owned just about every major American newspaper. As both press lord and aspiring politician, his ambitions were quite startling. At one point, he got into a quarrel with Theodore Roosevelt over who really made history. Needless to say, Hearst was more likely to invent history. That makes it easier to leave your mark.

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