[…] At 5:23 am the fire alarm goes off in the Charles Hotel. I spring out of bed; grab my pants, shoes and T-shirt; sprint down the corridor toward the red exit sign; push open the fire door; bolt down ten flights of stairs; and emerge into a dark and chill December morning. Cambridge still sleeps.
I make my way to the hotel’s front entrance and into the lobby. Behind the reception desk a beleaguered woman is picking up the phone every five seconds to say “It was a false alarm… it was a false alarm… it was a false alarm.” […]
But our talk of Tenet and of the state of things–the WMDs, the war in Iraq, the groundless assumptions made by politicians and press alike–had kindled in Vidal a mix of contempt and anguish. He appeared brokenhearted, as if he had been betrayed by the love of his life. “The United States has been a great disappointment,” he said. “I often wish I had been assigned to a different country.”
“I never thought the Republic would die so quickly–and without a squawk,” he lamented.
We spoke for close to an hour. All the while he was waiting for his attendant to come for him. It is hard not to see in this patrician figure something of liberalism itself, unbowed, even defiant, but immobilized and still waiting to be delivered.
That is where I left him, sitting in the corner of the lobby, waiting. Later that morning I bumped into a man named Paul–I know his name because it was embroidered on his shirt along with the fact he was the hotel engineer. I asked him about the fire alarm. He told me it was a faulty smoke detector on the third floor. It had mistaken simple dust for smoke.
It’s often that way with intelligence, confusing dust with smoke, and for the rest of us, not knowing when to heed the alarm and when to ignore it, a question that resonates well beyond the Charles Hotel. After so many false alarms, the system itself becomes suspect, and even after the “all clear,” there really is no going back.
Gore Vidal: “I never thought the Republic would die so quickly–and without a squawk.” That just sums up this nation so well. I sincerely hope it is not the epitaph of the United States.