Before one interviews Gore Vidal, one prepares. But last Friday, sitting in the breakfast cafe at the Plaza Hotel, Central Park South, waiting for my noon appointment with Vidal -- as I reviewed the notes I'd made while reading his new novel "The Golden Age" -- I was distracted. At the table to my right sat the star of one of the more successful Hollywood adaptations of a Vidal novel, Raquel Welch, who played the title character in the 1970 film "Myra Breckinridge."
She looked fantastic, though I was several yards away and a waitress relayed that proximity wasn't her friend. Still, I took it as an encouraging bit of serendipity. But when I told Vidal about it, he seemed unimpressed, though pleased to hear that I hadn't accosted her. Regal and erudite, just like the much-ad-libbed character of Sen. Brickley Paiste, D-Penn., from Tim Robbins' satiric 1992 film "Bob Roberts," Vidal, 74, was in the midst of patiently reading passages from his book for Salon's MP3 Lit when I entered his suite.
He seemed not weary so much as just used to it all. A soldier, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, actor, National Book Award winner, 1960 New York candidate for Congress and 1982 California U.S. Senate candidate, Vidal seems rarely shaken, seldom stirred. His first novel, "Williwaw," was published when he was just 19.
"The Golden Age," his 22nd novel, has a fictional cast of characters that intermingles with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie, Harry Hopkins, and other Washingtonian power brokers -- including Vidal's blind grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore, D-Okla. (Vidal says he knew most of these figures to one degree or another.)
This day, Vidal is also preparing for the debut of his play, "The Best Man," on Broadway in just two days. At the Virginia Theater opening, he was to meet Karenna Gore Schiff for the first time -- the daughter of his distant cousin, Vice President Al Gore, whom Vidal says he still hasn't met.
(Reports special correspondent Schiff Monday: "We joked that it was a typical dysfunctional family reunion. He said he could see the family resemblance, but that he looked a bit more youthful. After the play, we discussed my favorite line, 'There are no ends. There are only means.' We also talked about how gripping and addictive campaigns are and lamented that conventions are not as dramatic as they were when he wrote the play." Says Schiff: "Anyway, it is an honor for me to at least claim kinship to one of the great writers of the 20th century.")
There is a closing quality to all of these details. Welch feasting downstairs, once a sexy young thing in an adaptation of a Vidal novel, now an aged diva. Distant cousin Al Gore Jr., maybe the next president of the United States. The release of "The Golden Age," the seventh and final chapter in his series of historical novels. In the first performance of "The Best Man" on Broadway 40 years ago, the first to play the protagonist was actor Melvyn Douglas, who appears as a character in "The Golden Age" -- as does Vidal himself, as a young man.
With the closing of all these chapters in his life, Salon sat down and talked with Vidal about the political themes he sees in both his novel and life.
In your new novel, "The Golden Age," the character Peter Sanford, pondering how FDR had hidden so much about Pearl Harbor from the American public in order to get the nation into war for whatever purposes, says: "The few always knew best. The many must always follow the lead. This was the 'democratic' way in the United States."
Well obviously Peter is being ironic, but he's being accurate; the few do know, and the few do govern. There's a great line by David Hume, the 18th century Scots philosopher. He said, "How is it that the few control the many," because the many are many, and they theoretically would have the power to overthrow the few. And he said the few control the many through opinion. And he meant the churches, the schools, the broadsheets, as they called newspapers then.
When you control opinion, as corporate America controls opinion in the United States, by owning the media, you can make the [many] believe almost anything you want, and you can guide them. Roosevelt had fewer means than people have nowadays, but he was a master of those means. He wanted us virtuously to come to England's aid against Hitler; France had just fallen, this was 1940 where I start the story. France has fallen, England is being blown up by the Nazis. Eighty percent of the American people refuse to go to war on England's side, there's nothing Roosevelt can do, he tried everything, exhortation and threats, and nothing worked ... So he began a series of provocations of the Japanese. So that they would strike at us, and give him a cause for war ... What is still moot is, Did Roosevelt know that they were going to hit Pearl Harbor ...?
So the few run the country their own way and generally they are in agreement. The interesting thing about that period, which is why I set "The Golden Age" in it -- I cover 1940 through 1950, which is the beginning of the global empire of the United States -- is that there was a genuine political debate, the last one we've ever had.
One of your characters in the book, Caroline, says in a conversation about FDR that the nature of power creates presidents who are indifferent to everyone, incapable of personal relationships. She said that specifically about FDR. Do you think it is part of the job? Do you see that with the Harry Truman character and the other characters in the book?
It tends to be. It certainly was true of FDR. I knew a good deal about him because my grandfather, although a Democrat, was opposed to him in the Senate, and my father, on the other hand, was his director of air commerce. So from childhood I knew a good deal about him, and in the last 10 years of Eleanor Roosevelt's life, she was my neighbor on the Hudson, and we talked a lot about him.
She admired him, but I felt she didn't like him much. He was very much involved in being FDR. Full-time job. Presidents now don't wield this sort of power, you're not going to see President Gore, or President Bush, being a great man of power. Power is elsewhere -- it's in the boardrooms. FDR knew how to twist everybody into knots when he felt like it, and he waited; he was very, very shrewd.
Clinton made an interesting, very revealing remark -- inadvertently too, I think, at the time of the Newt Gingrich Contract with America. Congress was going to take over the country, get rid of the New Deal, and so on. He said, "the president is not irrelevant." I can't imagine Roosevelt ever saying a thing like that ... Richard Nixon, no fool in his deranged way. And he said, of course he was always misunderstood, because when he told the truth it was so sharp that nobody could live with it. He said, domestically, the country doesn't need a president. You need one for foreign affairs. But everybody thought, oh, that's because he hates the people, he's a bad man, but what he was saying is it's run by corporate America. The president must never get in their way ...
Proof: The Clintons try healthcare. They get handed their head, there is a conspiracy, and it is somewhat right wing, but it's more corporate. Insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, elements of the AMA all got together to destroy this thing. They were so horrified by what the Clintons were up to that they decided to teach political America a lesson it would never forget: This is their country. And no president is of any importance. So they decided to destroy the Clintons. And they did a superb job of smearing them ... (H)is character has been totally blackened, and so has hers, to a degree.
You think unfairly?
Yes. First of all I don't think private life has anything to do with public life. In the days of FDR, all of us who lived in Washington and were in court circles, we knew perfectly well about Lucy Mercer and Eleanor's lady friends and so on -- it never got into the newspapers, it never could have. One reason was it was irrelevant; we were much more interested in [whether we were] going to go into a second World War ... We were interested in real subjects; now we're not allowed to talk about real subjects.
The great scandal today is we're still a militarized economy, 51 percent of the budget goes for the Pentagon for procurement, and there is no enemy; and they're asking for another $60 billion over the next decade. This is the scandal, and this is what they should be talking about. Instead we talk about the debates, and we talk about did one of the candidates ever take cocaine; it's an enormous absurdity, and all of this money is being spent on media to avoid talking about real subjects, because government is nothing more than who collects what money to pay for what for whom. It's as simple as that. We're the only civilized country that does not have national health. We have the worst public educational system of any first world country -- the worst ... What I'm now talking about should be discussed by the two boys, and they're never going to mention any of it.
Well, they're desperate for non-subjects, and this is a non-subject. You don't talk about this when -- again, it's money that you should talk about, federal revenues, federal disbursements, who's getting the money. They can't talk about that so they go to the hot buttons ... like abortion and prayer in the schools.
Al Gore is a distant relative of yours. Do you see the debate going on between him and Texas Gov. George W. Bush?
No, no, there's no debate going on right now. They are essentially the same on the basic issues. They are both candidates of corporate America. They're paid for. How did George W. Bush, a man who has officially [advocated for] education, but has carefully avoided education for himself, end up where he's at? He's about the most ignorant man who has ever run for president. Apart from his dyslexia, which his father also had, it's bad enough when he can't make a speech that isn't filled with garbled words, but he got $70 million from corporate America, and they expect him to pay them off. He got it because he was the son of a president. Nobody forgets that his dad was a total failure. The Persian Gulf War was essentially a victory for Ted Turner and CNN.
You have two candidates. Gore is by far the better trained and more intelligent and is going to win. It's as simple as that. But I worry because he, too, is funded by corporate America. Luckily he's intelligent and will hopefully turn out pretty well. But what I'm concerned about is how the corruption of the system has become totally accepted. This can be changed by an act of Congress, but no one will be propose it.
Will it happen? No burglar who ever reached the second floor ever kicked the ladder away.
Many people complain that the media doesn't cover Ralph Nader, say, or cover campaign finance reform. But I know, and we can tell, that when I write about campaign finance reform, people don't read it.
Well, I have an observation to make about your sad tale. How could a Ralph Nader story be interesting? He has been turned into the national scold, just as I am referred to as a "gadfly." I assume that's because intellectual is too difficult a word to spell. He has been made the bore of all time. Even I, who quite admire him in some ways, find him very boring. But he's not boring; he's presented as a bore, as a nag. Seat belts! I'm here in New York, and every time I get into a taxicab these voices come on that say "buckle up," I think of Ralph Nader. Now this has destroyed him! You have made him the bore of all time.
It's all about getting rid of anybody who wants change, and you create an aura about him. I've been demonized for 50 years, I'm aware of how it's done.
In your book, the character Caroline bemoans the fact that both Churchill and Mussolini are journalists by trade, thus they "thought in headlines." I hate to keep bringing up your distant cousin, but Al Gore of course also was a journalist by trade, initially.
Well he was filling in. He was running for president, I gather, from the family from the very beginning. From the time he was at St. Albans. A school I attended, some time before him. That's what you do when the family trade is politics. Nobody runs to be a member of the House of Representatives. You run to see how far you can go. I don't think of him as ever being a serious journalist.
You said earlier he had been reaching out to you, and trying to get in touch with you and you are seeing Karenna, his daughter, soon ...
She's coming to the opening of the play on Sunday. I suppose in due course I'll see him, but I'm really interested in the crack-up of a political system. Each year it's worse and worse. Each election gets worse -- and that's what we should be talking about, when a society is totally corrupt, in its political life, and practically everything else, too. How do you rectify it?
How do you rectify it then?
Well, as I described, an act of Congress, you can force the networks, cable, to provide free time.
How do you get Congress to do that? One would think, first of all, that Congress might be interested in taking some of the power away from the corporations and putting it back on Capitol Hill or at the White House as it was in the novel you just wrote.
Woodrow Wilson foresaw this, curiously enough. He was a pretty tiresome, self-righteous man, but he did say that he had wanted to be a great domestic president, and of course he ended up as a war president. And he said we are going to end up, the entire country, in the hands of Wall Street. The very people we Democrats are in politics to curb their excesses. And it happened ... So how could anybody in Congress -- unless he comes from a very small state, it's rather expensive to run for office -- there's nothing they can do, the big players are all there, the Finance Committee, the Senate just exists to make sure that great corporations pay practically no tax on their profits.
So Congress will only act when the American people ...
And the American people are insufficiently informed to be able to get their act together.
And they would become informed by the media ...
But the media won't do it, they're all run by the corporations, so it's all locked up. So that just leaves Noam Chomsky and me.