In 1992 GQ placed the Democratic nominees on its November cover, over the headline Huck and Tom: Gore Vidal Punches The Ticket. In the cover story, Vidal, a distant cousin of the candidate for Vice President, rightly predicted that Bill Clinton and Al Gore would defeat George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle. Though he did not grieve for the Republican incumbents (about whom he made less flattering literary comparisons), Vidal was not celebrating the imminent Democratic victory either. Vidal’s cynical assessment of the Clinton presidency before it even began contains a self-consciously comic element, but the humor of Vidal’s burlesquing of cocksure Bill and feckless Al is decidedly lessened for contemporary readers because so much of what seemed to be hyperbole, proved, in retrospect, to be sober truth. Subtly extending his Twainian allegory, Vidal predicts, “We will be seeing many more [Ross] Perots and [David] Dukes and worse, if possible, crawling out from under the flat rocks of the republic as the tremors grow more violent.”
Political commentators like Charles Trueheart of the Washington Post thought Vidal’s analogy was “spottily developed.” They failed to recognize how thoroughly Vidal has absorbed Twain’s characters.
Amplifying the argument of Leslie Fiedler’s famous essay, “Come Back To The Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948), Vidal regarded Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as not only a homoerotic novel, but as a mechanism for interpreting his own gender fluidity, which he insisted defied categorization. Repeatedly, from the mid-70s onward, Vidal compared his transgender alter-egos, Myron and Myra Breckinridge, to Huck and Tom, both duos of characters which, as Fiedler wrote, “fuse finally into a single figure…not so much two aspects of the same man as that man’s sense of what he has become, opposed to what he has escaped becoming.”
The closing line of Vidal’s 1985 introduction to the first collected edition of his Breckinridge novels is, “Let us be grateful that here they are at last – together again for the first time, Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn de nos jours (our soups of the dsay).” The indivisible soup of identity is an attribute of the Finn/Sawyer character which Vidal ascribes to himself. He also attributes it to the Clinton-Gore ticket, thus revealing a fatalistic, but nonetheless intense empathy between the essayist and the subjects of “Huck and Tom.” Vidal never specifies whether Clinton is Huck or Tom. He leaves his readers to unpack the conceit, using only their fuzzy memories of Twain’s characters and their prejudicial impressions of the candidates.
The mythic Mississippi River Valley, infused with Norman Rockwell and Paul Newman, as much as what Twain actually wrote, is an appropriate setting for a campaign of gossip and rumors, those started by Clinton’s team and by his Republican opponents. For six months, Phil Hartman had been impersonating Clinton on Saturday Night Live as somebody, like Tom Sawyer and Gore Vidal, about whom literally anything, no matter how outlandish, might be believed. And about whom Republican operatives might tell the most outrageous lies.
Vidal observed that the Republicans were driven into an irrational frenzy by the Clintons, not because they held radically opposing positions, but rather because they were better political opportunists. Throughout the 1990s, Clinton repeatedly captured popular “center-right” positions before Republicans could mobilize them against him. “No matter what betise the Right comes up with,” Vidal wrote, “Clinton has got there at least a day early and has made their issue his.” Clinton understood, as Vidal did, that the central issues in any given election cycle were more a matter of gamesmanship than deeply-felt moral imperatives. To advocate for one position did not mean he was required to govern according to it, nor that voters would punish him the next time ’round. The purpose of political rhetoric is to expedite the seizure of political power. What else?
Vidal says of Clinton that he is “unprincipled,” but also that this “perfect lack of principle” is his “greatest asset.” Still unwilling to delineate the Sawyer portion of his personality from the Finn portion, Vidal writes in the final paragraph of his essay, “As Huck Finn with Tom’s cunning, [Clinton] may get himself – and us – through…With a bit of luck, he will be capable, out of simple starry-eyed opportunism, to postpone our collapse.” Unfortunately, Vidal fears, it is equally likely that “Clinton’s nervous eagerness to serve his numerous betters” will prove fatal, “because, as he tries to manipulate them, they often, cold-bloodedly, manipulate him.” Vidal concludes, ominously, “We must wish Clinton luck. After all, if he fails, he will be the last president.”
This line struck several commentators at the time as exemplary of its author’s short-sighted rhetorical excess, but Vidal stuck by it, despite the fact that he lived twenty more years. In 2000, he reiterated, saying “it looks as if Clinton was the last president.” He compared Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, to the lead character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, a puppet dictator and useful idiot who blindly serves wiser and more powerful masters for the gratification of pretending to be in charge. Mikado’s total obliviousness to the deterioration of his empire looks sometimes like gross incompetence and other times like conscious cruelty.
It is, most importantly, theater.
Mikado had become, since its first staging in 1885, a template via which the racial archetypes and nationalist doctrines could be repeatedly and reductively disseminated. This was also, Vidal argued, to be the fate of presidential elections. “Despite such lofty titles ‘visible’ titles as ‘president,'” Vidal wrote, in his 1996 sequel to “Huck and Tom,” the men who held the office had become “mere employees” of the “invisible government.” He accurately prophesized another Clinton victory, but no longer felt any kinship with the man who “spoke nobly of reforming the way that the few can buy elections” until he became “a beneficiary of the ownership’s largess.”
In “Not Even God Can Save Dole,” Vidal extends his Twainian conceit, but makes it darker and more burlesque. He imagines an “unelectably fat” President Clinton tossing “exquisitely formed George Stephanopoulos” around the oval office with sado-masochistic glee before being called to “some seminar, at which they will eat lots of fried things together.” He directly borrows upon one of Twain’s repeated comic tropes when he imagines Hillary Clinton murdering her husband and having him buried in the Rose Garden, utterly unafraid of the consequences and, indeed, remarking, “We never thought you people would notice.”
By 1996, and for the remainder of his life, Vidal concluded that both major political parties were firmly in the hands of a corporate shogunate. Every few years they were invited by the “invisible government” who funded their campaigns to nominate candidates and revive the scripted acts of their big electoral musical in the venues which the invisible government also owned: stadiums and amphitheaters, tabloids and the “Sunday electronic zoo,” cable news networks, broadcast programs like 60 Minutes and SNL, and the New York Times, which Vidal calls “the invisible government’s chief media spokesman.”
The GOP and the DNC were encouraged to manufacture “Important Moral Issues” about which they could debate. Examples Vidal gives are familiar more than two decades later: abortion, the status of homosexuals, prayer in school, terrorism, Israel, the criminalization of narcotics, the surveillance of citizens, the prison industrial complex, the radicalization of schoolteachers and youths, the sex lives of public figures. There was plenty of red meat out of which to make reliably enthralling political theater for decades. What was not to be debated, under any conditions, was the erosion of wages and public services, escalating inequality, economic exploitation, corporate welfare, and anything else that potentially drew attention to, much less disrupted, the stranglehold the shogunate had over the U.S. economy.
Bill Clinton had learned during his first term, Vidal wrote, “that economic power is kept forever out of the reach of the corporate ownership’s chosen officeholders.” It was a testament to his political skill that the invisible government had let him survive, plying him with graft and, whenever he wavered, humiliating him with scandals. This charismatic Tom-Huck was, after all, destined to be the corporate shogunate’s greatest showman, the ringmaster of their global circus, the P.T. Barnum of neoliberalism. During his second term he was promised the debut of a new show-stopper, as Vidal summarized, “Leave the economy alone and they’ll leave the president alone to have the most fun a president can ever have, which is to fight a big war.”
Vidal had no doubt that the Mikado cycle of Important Moral Issues interrupted by patriotic imperial wars would distract American citizens from the evaporation of their democracy for many decades to come. Those who did peek behind the curtain would shun politics altogether, or they’d jump at any chance to be cast in the next shogunate-funded production.
But Vidal also remained aware of those Twainian figures, the King and the Duke, for whom the masquerade was itself a masquerade. It only takes one President for whom the pleasure of making big war exceeds the gratification of staging the big electoral musical to turn a sham democracy overseen by a corporate shogunate into an authoritarian kleptocracy in which the visible government seizes the economic power and denies the need for any future elections, performative or otherwise.
What will crawl out from under the flat rocks of the republic as our tremors grow more violent?