The Salon Interview: Gore Vidal

An interview with Gore Vidal by Chris Haines.

Published January 14, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Gore Vidal puts us at ease with history, probably because he has spent so much time at its elbow. Born at West Point and raised in Washington, D.C., the grandson of the legendary blind Sen. Thomas Gore and kin to Jimmy Carter, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and the current vice president, Vidal has woven his sitting room perspective of American politics into novels like "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876" and "Empire." It is his familial view of great people and events that makes them feel real.

Vidal's contributions to popular culture -- both as an early writer for television and as a Hollywood screenwriter -- expose human folly and frailty, in a more contemporary and occasionally picaresque mode. Compare, for instance, "Visit to a Small Planet" or "The Best Man" to "Suddenly, Last Summer" or "Myra Breckinridge." His forthcoming novel, "The Smithsonian Institution," returns to his favorite political and sexual themes.

In his aptly titled autobiography, "Palimpsest," the personal and the historical rub shoulders again. Jack and Jackie, Tennessee and Anaïs all wander across the playing field, without their political or literary raiments -- drunk, fragile, mendacious -- as if caught in the harsh, incontestable light of a Polaroid snapshot taken by a sober nephew or cousin.

Even better are the essays. Reading through the dozens of reviews, stories and editorials that compose "United States" (accounting for approximately two-thirds of his published articles), it becomes clear that Vidal's reputation as a polemicist is something of a bum rap. He is, at heart, a brilliant pragmatist, with a great sense of humor and irony. But Americans have never cared much for irony. Perhaps it's his extended exposure to the famous that allows Vidal not only to point out that the emperor's new clothes are not there, but that the emperor is actually an emperor and not just the prez (as he recently argued in Vanity Fair). It was Vidal's commentary on American empire and the Internet that inspired the following interview, conducted via fax, with Vidal at his villa in Italy.

Do you own a personal computer?

Yes, but a friend operates it.

How is your perception of American culture and politics influenced by your perspective as a resident of Italy?

I watch CNN, read the Herald Tribune, plus two Italian newspapers, the Guardian weekly roundup of Washington Post stories, Le Monde and the Brit Guardian. The Economist is invaluable. Our corporate owners lie to us about everything except money, which they have to deal honestly with, in reporting, that is. And I get faxed information I need. I'm more in
touch than if I lived, let us say, in Anahaim, Orange County. Sorry, Mickey.

In Vanity Fair, you quoted Dean Acheson's comment about "the average American" spending 10 minutes each day "listening, reading and arguing about the world outside his own country." What impact has the global-village effect of the Internet had on those 10 minutes?

I don't think the Internet has hit the "average American" yet, but when it does, I should think the 10-minute attention span will probably still obtain because back of it is the refusal of the American corporate ruling class to educate the people at large. How can you find out what you don't know -- nearly everything as far as history and foreign countries go -- if you have no idea of what it is you don't know?

How great a threat is the global community created by the Internet to the American empire?

I should like to think terminal, as the empire has wrecked our society -- $5 trillion of debt, no proper public education, no health care -- and done the rest of the world incomparable harm.

But in the next few years, the empire is going to strike back at the Internet in the interest of protecting our children from porn, drugs and terrorism -- all of which the U.S. government will claim is being peddled by the Internet. There is not a trick they won't pull to get control. After all, what better way to control everyone's mind, or at least the input of information?

Does the distribution of pornography over the Internet influence your position on pornography -- or your position on the Internet?

I am for the First Amendment and so pornography is protected along with really damaging stuff like CIA disinformation on public matters or false-claiming commercials. No child was ever raped by a book or a picture. Actually, pedophiles are turned off by explicit sex and adolescents can't think about anything else anyway.

One effect of new technology and new media is an increased demand for speed: instant news, immediate communication between disparate points on the globe. What does this mean for the writer/reader of tomorrow?

Not good in the sense that the more rapidly a story is told, the less well it is told. It is also hardly understood at all if there's another story on its heels. So -- slow down what's important and provide context.

Who are your favorite authors? Are there other historical novelists whose work you continue to enjoy?

I'm obliged to read history, not novels.

Do you find fiction easier or more difficult to write than nonfiction?

Writing is writing for a writer. Others, I'm told, have problems.

Do you keep a journal?


What is your current writing project?

"The Smithsonian Institution," a novel.

What is the novel about?

In 1939, the Smithsonian Institution takes in a 13-year-old genius from St. Albans School to help build an atomic bomb in the basement. But he is more ambitious; manipulates time; stops Hitler. Exhibits come alive at night and he has an affair with a first lady, who is a chicken hawk.

In the United States, the small amount of government funding that is available to artists is about to disappear entirely. Which environment do you think is more conducive to creating great art -- a competitive free market like the U.S. or the European model of government support for the artist?

One can make the case either way. Dictators and oligarchies have usually made the most beautiful cities -- imperial Rome, Medici Florence. But does one want to pay that price politically? I'm a Darwinian in the arts. The artist, if good, will find his way through the dreck of his time.

"The City and the Pillar" was published 21 years before Stonewall. What effect has the contemporary gay movement had on literature?

Writers are freer to write about same-sexuality but, in the long run, all that matters is writing well, no matter what one's sexual preoccupations.

Do you have any thoughts about "queer studies" in the academy?

I've always thought the academy pretty queer itself, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Since most of what they study is fairly useless, long lists of same-sexers -- particularly champion bowlers -- may make for greater tolerance.

Is the fight for gay marriage a legitimate objective for homosexuals?

I take the position that as "homo/heterosexual" are adjectives describing acts, they can never be nouns. No person can be homosexual or heterosexual and the division of everyone into two teams is part of a stupidity to which Americans and Brits are particularly prone. Everyone is a mixture of desires and who does what with an agreeable partner is of no concern to society. Why have "gay" marriage when so much of our discontents and disorder came from heterosexual marriage?

In "Pornography," you write, "Man plus woman equals baby equals famine," and that "since additional children are no longer needed, it is impossible to say that some acts are 'right' and others 'wrong.'" Given the danger of overpopulation, doesn't this mean that homosexuality is somehow more "right" for a crowded planet than heterosexuality?

If one were sensible -- not possible in monotheistic societies as we know them -- the homosexual act, as it leads to no little stranger, is "safer" than the heterosexual act as far as the planet's future is concerned. I suspect governments will be begging populations in the next century to indulge in same-sex with the same powerful incoherence that they now support family values.

In "The Birds and the Bees," you write, "I regard the pope and ayatollah as the somehow preprogrammed agents of our demise." Which is most likely to destroy mankind: global warming, overpopulation, war or religious fundamentalism?

One could make the case that these are the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they will probably work together, as in the past.

What do you consider the most important political event of the 20th century?

For the United States, the Scopes trial of 1925, when the line was drawn between those who believed in science and those who believed in the Garden of Eden. Superstition won that time around, but the battle lines are ever clearer and the war goes on. On the world scene, the Soviets'
decision to liquidate their empire, something which we should now emulate.

What will be the most important event of the next century?

I've not yet paid it a visit. I suspect a world plague like the 1918 flu epidemic.

Of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein -- praising the reduction in crime in New York during the mayor's tenure -- said: "The price you pay for a dictatorship is freedom but everything works better." Comments?

I worship the ground Al walks on, but he is, alas, full of shit. Get the William Appleman Williams Reader -- our greatest historian -- and read him on "community."

Who was the most dangerous American president of the 20th century?

H.S. Truman, who started the Cold War, followed by J.F. Kennedy, macho man with a bad back and no adrenal function, with far too much cortisone being pumped into him. The missile crisis nearly killed everyone on earth. To his credit, he chickened out, but, to Khruschev's credit, he saw the whole apocalyptic mess and backed off as well.

Who was the best American president of the 20th century?

The FDR of 1933-37. He saved corporate capitalism. I can't say, in retrospect, this was such a good thing, but I was a kid when the Bonus Army marched on my hometown of Washington during Hoover and revolution was in the air. The next year FDR was in office.

Following up on your New Yorker review of Seymour Hirsch's JFK biography, how meaningful is a president's personal life in evaluating his performance as a leader? Regarding Paula Jones, for instance, why do Americans focus on their leaders' sex lives rather than their political accomplishments?

Sex lives are of no consequence in civilized countries; unfortunately ... reader, finish the sentence yourself. The conglomerates that own the U.S. and pay for both political parties also own the media. Politics -- who collects what tax money in order to benefit whom -- is the one subject no politician is allowed to address. That's why we get nothing but Paula Joneses while the fact that corporations pay little or no tax on profits is a non-subject, as is the citizen's income tax (large), for which he gets no health service.

Speaking to the Hollywood Radio and Television Society recently, Vice President Al Gore stated the following: "When the character of Ellen came out, millions of Americans were forced to look at sexual orientation in a more open light." And of Hollywood: "Few communities in this nation care as deeply about social and ethical issues." Care to comment?

As a longtime member of the Hollywood community (I have a house in the Hollywood Hills and still do the odd picture), I applaud Al. But then Hollywood supports the Democratic Party. On same-sex matters, Hollywood never dares get more than an inch or two ahead of the New York Times.

As someone who has run for public office, which aspects of the artist's personality do you think would benefit the electorate?

Empathy, without which we don't do good work; without which demagogues flourish.

What are your thoughts on the possibility of a Gore in the White House?

I would accept, of course. Unfortunately, my cousin Al is the wrong Gore. And though I'm the right one, time's winged wastebasket is scurrying near.

If you were president, what would be your first executive decision?

I would cut Pentagon procurement (around $250 billion) by two-thirds. Taxes for the middle class need never be raised again in the next 50 years. Then I would tax corporate profits, something hardly done nowadays. Then we could have national health and even an intelligent, accessible school system.

Are you proud to be an American?

As long as those truths we hold to be inalienable are not entirely alienated from us. You might, for the customers, quote from the Declaration of Independence.

Why is America obsessed with Jackie O.?

We saw her picture for decades and she never talked.

Why is America obsessed with Princess Diana?

We saw her picture for close to 20 years and she never stopped talking.

Reading your essays, I sometimes get the feeling that you are an optimist and at other times that you are a pessimist. Which word (if either one) would you use to describe yourself?


By Chris Haines

Chris Haines, the editor of Tony Awards Online, enjoys a free lunch as much as complimentary ice cream, but would prefer both.

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