GORE VIDAL IS OFTEN TOUTED, particularly for this slight collection of four interviews, as the best conversationalist since Oscar Wilde. Let’s begin by explicating terms, or at least with etymologies, like the word “conversation.” Starting with the Latin conversationem, and then looking at Old French, we get “having dealings with others” or “keeping company with.” The specific sense of “talking” dates from the 1570s. “Manner of conducting oneself in the world” is long since archaic, but conversation as a synonym for sexual intercourse dates from 1511. In these interviews, however, Vidal has little to say about sex. He does that elsewhere.
Since the early 1500s, “interview” has meant a face-to-face meeting, coming from the French entrevue, a verbal noun from s’entrevoir, “to see each other,” “visit each other briefly,” or the “expression and exchange of individual ideas through talking with other people.” The journalistic sense of an interview first appears in American English in 1869. So we’re not starting out with Anglo-Saxon words.
Jon Wiener, Professor of History at UC Irvine and contributing editor at The Nation, knew Vidal for more than a quarter century; he interviewed him several times in Los Angeles and once in New York for radio station KPFK in L.A., a familiar framework for the outspoken novelist and essayist. The first occasion, and the longest conversation, occurred in 1988 at Vidal’s home in Ravello, Italy. The most recent took place in 2007 at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, held at U.C.L.A.’s Royce Hall. That was a very large gathering. A 2006 discussion was occasioned by the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities with an audience of 60 intellectuals.
Wiener has provided an introduction to this project, “Gore Vidal as a Talker,” and a postscript, “Remembering Gore Vidal.” The ensemble is like a mélange of meaty hors d’oeuvres with the Ravallo as a kind of entrée. The conversations range widely across many issues, and the first three end with some good questions from the audience.
When asked how he became a political radical, meaning left of Progressive, Vidal doesn’t answer directly. Instead he claims that celebrity is in his genes because his grandfather, T.P. Gore, the first senator from Oklahoma and author of that state’s constitution, was a Populist and a formative influence — perhaps the most formative influence in Gore’s life. In one of many breezy responses, Vidal remarks that the British “always want to know what class you belong to. I was asked that on the BBC. I said ‘I belong to the highest class there is: I’m a third generation celebrity. My grandfather, father, and I have all been on the cover of Time. That’s all there is. You can’t go any higher in America.’”
Like his grandfather, Vidal began, and in many ways remained, an isolationist. T.P. Gore was a very different kind of Southern Democrat from his contemporary, President Woodrow Wilson. The latter, an interventionist, long stood stiffly as Vidal’s arch-villain because he hoodwinked the United States into going to war in Europe in 1917 for specious reasons.
He had spent tw...