Gore Vidal Redux

By Michael KammenNovember 6, 2012

    I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics. Interviews with Jon Wiener by Jon Wiener. O/R Books. 160 pages.

    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 two seasons in the Lake District of England and had become an Anglophile. If [only] he’d just gone back there to once again read Wordsworth and left the troops at home. Instead he redesigns Europe. He never took geography in kindergarten, he didn’t know where anything was. He broke up the only stable thing in Central Europe, the Austria-Hungarian [sic.] empire. In order to create Yugoslavia?

    There is much to criticize Wilson for when it comes to foreign affairs, but here Vidal is every bit as fatuous as he is funny. As a quondam professor of political science he understood geography and knew perfectly well that Austria-Hungary was anything but stable. As much as he believed in the self-determination of subject states and peoples, he misperceived the wiles of Lloyd George and Clemenceau and misjudged the ways of media management.

    Publishing an openly gay book in 1948 began Vidal’s process of alienation from what has since been labeled the mainstream media. The City and the Pillar was panned if not scorched by the New York Times, which proceeded to blacklist him. Then came the McCarthy era and the writer’s self-aware shift to political pragmatism (a leitmotif in these interviews). His radicalization became complete with the Democratic Party’s convention fiasco at Chicago in 1968 when a police riot occurred in response to protesters Vidal served as co-chair of the People’s Party from 1968 until 1972.

    In 1960, when Vidal’s play The Best Man was first being cast (currently in yet another successful revival on Broadway), he rejected Ronald Reagan for the lead as a putative presidential candidate because he seemed implausible for the part.

    He had fallen on hard times. I think that year was the year he did a nightclub act in Las Vegas, reading jokes off a teleprompter or whatever they had in those days, and introducing showgirls [...] I don’t think he would be convincing as an Adlai Stevenson type of candidate. So I am forever known as rejecting Ronald Reagan as not being a credible President to a theater audience. We cast Melvyn Douglas instead, who went on to greater stardom.

    Wiener quipped in response that if Vidal had given Reagan “a chance, he might have made a career on Broadway, and had a long and happy life in the theater.”

    Vidal is as bipartisan as a vituperationist [sic]. He chastises Franklin Roosevelt for covertly plotting to take the country to war in 1940-41, and then hacks Harry Truman for launching the Cold War in 1947-50. In 1945 Truman “happened to us,” and then he deliberately “damaged” our relationship with the Soviet Union. That’s an incomplete and weirdly partisan analysis. Both of the Bushes are beneath contempt as well. Vidal considered Senior an Andover lightweight (Vidal went to rival Exeter), barely fit to run the CIA (Richard Nixon agreed) and G.W. the worst president in American history. “Forget the Bush family,” Vidal insisted in 2000, “they are the most negligible family in the country. They are unintelligent, they are reasonably decorative, they are obedient to the great economic powers.” That was mild. Vidal’s verdict became vicious thereafter.

    He is ambivalent about JFK and the Kennedys, a family he knew extremely well, eventually as kin. He found Jack an amiable operator, but declares, “that family of that generation, anyway, had all the charm of two tons of condemned veal.” He’s less pungent but equally harsh on Abraham Lincoln for launching the national security state by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, incurring high military budgets and proposing to colonize all the slaves to Africa. “Certainly he left us with a centralized ‘blood and steel’ state. And he had absolutely no right to hold the South in the Union. The South had every moral and constitutional right to leave […] He took his stand on the Constitution and he fell right through the fabric.” Vidal had the curt courage of his occasionally bilious convictions.

    He is well-known for his condemnations of what he called the American Empire (a phrase he began parsing in 1958), and a condition he dates partially to the Spanish-American War of 1898-99 but especially following World War II when, from Vidal’s perspective, Germany, Japan, and others became client-states of the USA. In these conversations he also takes pains to “explicate” his grievances with the “national security state,” a phrase that strums throughout as a Vidalian mantra. Although he clearly believes that the NSS is working all too well, he asserts that little else is. Speaking in 2000, he declared that “four years from now there may not be an election. Everything has just ground to a halt. The second law of thermodynamics is working beautifully, entropy is up ahead. Nothing is working in this country. Representative government has stopped.” Do we hear a clear echo of Henry Adams one century earlier? You bet we do. He hits that hymn hard. In 1988 he insisted that he disliked “Marxist determinism, but I do think that nations just run out of energy.” He wasn’t referring to oil, coal, and natural gas. He meant ideas, adaptation to change, good sense and vitality.

    Vidal could indeed be prescient. Believing in the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, he asserted that they come and go in long-term phases. “Look at what is probably the greatest society the world has ever created — China, the Middle Kingdom, which had a good 1500 years and then a rather lousy 400 years. China will come back, as Confucius himself is coming back there.” That is also from 1988. But given his “hatred” of the nation-state as a political entity, he is strangely soft on the USSR and Soviet intentions after World War II despite the gobbling up of Central and Eastern Europe and escalation of the arms race. Stalin and the Soviets receive repeated passes. Blame everything on Truman and Acheson, he says. Yet their reputations have actually risen while Stalin’s has plummeted.

    Vidal does tilt toward conspiracy theories. He feels certain that FDR and Wendell Wilkie along with Republican operatives conspired in 1940-41 to secretly bring us into the war on the side of England and against Hitler.

    It was an elaborate plot. First he [FDR] made sure the Republicans would nominate somebody who would be an interventionist in case he got defeated. So with Willkie he felt safe. He and Willkie were then plotting, that he would serve out his fourth term — he was elected in ‘44. Roosevelt would have his fourth term, and then, if still alive, he would not run for a fifth term, but he would run Willkie. And they would form a new party — the liberal end of the Democrats, the liberal end of the Republicans, and specifically the interventionists — because now we have created an empire. We were masters of Europe, Western Europe, and we were the masters of Japan. We had everything, and we should have an imperial party to go with it. Which would also be a Wall Street party, with some interest in the people […]

    FDR did indeed want to aid the Allies in 1940-41, but the collusion scheme is a phantom of a fiction.

    Vidal offered that in 2000. Twelve years earlier he insisted that “I’m not a conspiracy-type person, but I do think there’s probably some motive for making our history lethally dull.” I am convinced that Vidal was indeed attracted to conspiratorial angles on the past and that sometimes the novelist’s soul intruded upon his historian self. He made things up to make them more interesting. Vidal was a provocateur who loved history, especially Roman history, perhaps because he viewed it as an ominous harbinger of what was happening to his own bloated nation. Near the end of the Ravallo interview he urged his auditor and friends to make history “the spine of everything you teach.”

    Nonetheless, he had nothing but scorn for academic historians, calling them “scholar-squirrels,” particularly scholars of the Civil War era. Unfortunately Vidal can sound clueless about how things are done in the academy. When Wiener asked him to talk about how he worked, Vidal declared “I’m not very good at notes. Oh yes, I’m indebted to scholar squirrels. Were it not for them I couldn’t do my work [and] don’t do very much primary source stuff, but neither do they unless they’re focusing on some small area.” I can think of hundreds, nay thousands, of major, broad-gauge books by sage and serious nut-collector historians who have plowed through (often having unearthed) countless documents. Vidal resented canards aimed at himself, but he could have been more cautious about casting them. But then he would be less fun.

    He loved gossip and retailed some of the best, even when it’s cruel. While Hillary Clinton was getting ready to run for the U.S. Senate from New York, she found that she was least popular “among white men with some property. She was asking, ‘what have I done to them?’ And she kept on with some of her advisors, I am told — I didn’t get this firsthand. And she was told, ‘It is because you remind them of their first wife.’” When John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960 he kept it a tightly guarded secret that he suffered from Addison’s Disease. Lyndon B. Johnson knew, but couldn’t figure out how to use the information. The family knew, so did Vidal, because his mother had married Hugh Auchincloss, which connected him to Jackie. “I mean, everything is known among a certain group that has to know things. Jack was known as ‘yellow Jack’ in Congress.”

    Some of Vidal’s opinions about the public sphere are bound to be dubious and disputed. Vidal asserts that no one was afraid of the Russians after World War II. Then why did I have to assist with civil defense drills in D.C. during the 1950s? Military bases, he said, were not good for the southern economy. Really? Does The New York Times truly lie or sometimes just get things wrong? Well, perhaps Vidal staked claims in order to be provocative while occasionally arching well ahead of the curve. In 2000 he declared that “One percent owns the country, as we know, and their political operators deliver the government to them each time.” What turned this man on besides history, politics, and playwriting? “I’m excited by stupidity,” he explained.

    I Told You So is worth its weight, but it’s no substitute for Vidal’s Massie Lectures at Harvard, booked as Screening History (1992), which brilliantly interweaves autobiography with the history of film in his lifetime. What’s here in this book and not there, however, is that his ancestor once owned the very land on which the White House is built. Ever the consummate Washingtonian, even as an elegant expat who died in Hollywood. The man was as clever as he was immodest. If indeed the Peace Corps came from a kernel in Vidal’s brain, conveyed to JFK, he deserves kudos. For that, as well as his witty and wondrously outrageous conversation.

    Where does that leave his larger legacy, beyond the spoken word, and for whom? A generation from now his historical novels will be little read, I believe, but his wonderful essays will stand as a distinctive contribution to the place of political literature in American culture. Two collections are going to endure, United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (1992, National Book Award) and The Last Empire: Essays, 1992-2000 (2000). They are fresh fruit from a fertile source. There is a distinctive dessert wine from his native New York (he was born at West Point) called “late harvest Vidal.” It’s a hybrid created by pairing two different grape parents (ugni blanc and Seibel), just as Gore’s mother married twice. The wine has a long, luxurious finish, like Vidal’s volumes, and just enough sweetness to entice the soft fruit flavors.

    One aspect of his gift is that he knew how to entertain, as well as how to animate characters and agitate those he disdained (see Buckley, W., and Mailer, N.) He mistrusted power in general and crony capitalism in particular. He understood and lamented the gap between the rich and everyone else — Vidal wasn’t born with a silver spoon and needed to earn a living writing for television after reviews of The Pillar blackened his name as a novelist.

    Two great concerns animated him on foreign relations and domestic realities. He did not want the United States to overreach (getting out of Afghanistan once Al Qaeda was vanquished there) and he deplored the national security state that had reached octopussia proportions, particularly since the 1990s. Unfortunately, the world we live in is way too complex for Vidal’s brand of isolationism. The ostrich position he advocated in 1917, 1939, and more recently is simply an absurd stretch. As Barack Obama declared in the third debate on October 22, “America is the indispensable nation.” In order to protect others, we must protect ourselves. Just as George Mitchell mediated peace in Ireland, and Richard Holbrooke the Balkans, no other nation can conceivably mediate peace in Israel.

    Despite Vidal’s anti-intervention attitude, however, his passion for humanitarian politics, his populism and his civic activism stand as a tonic for our time.


    LARB Contributor

    Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).

    He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.


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