GORE VIDAL WAS A GREAT TALKER as well as a great writer. Dick Cavett called him “the best talker since Oscar Wilde.” He talked a lot; if you Google “Gore Vidal interview,” you get 40,000 results. But what remains of those interviews is mostly one-liners, quips and zingers, about Truman Capote, William F. Buckley and George Bush.
In this more sustained conversation, Vidal develops arguments, traces connections between past and present, and cites evidence. Of course, he provides plenty of one-liners and zingers along the way.
This conversation took place Dec. 15, 2006, in front of a live audience at the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, a group of 100 or so that brings together academics with independent writers, artists and critics. Modeled on the better-known New York Institute of the Humanities, it meets monthly during the academic year at USC, although faculty members come also from UCLA and other area campuses. Vidal’s audience that day included theater director Gordon Davidson, Getty Museum Director John Walsh, Getty Research Institute director Thomas Crow, Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, novelist Marianne Wiggins, and UCLA historians Joyce Appleby and Eugen Weber.
Jon Wiener: There is a fascinating passage in Point to Point Navigation, where you write that Paul Bowles, who was preparing to teach at Cal State Northridge — this must have been sometime in the late 1940s — Paul Bowles asked you the night before his first class how you teach writing. What was all this about?
Gore Vidal: I don’t think his students ever found out. Paul himself was very vague. He said, “what is a class?” He had this extraordinary literal mind that he learned from Gertrude Stein, who was his first mentor when he was just out of, or on the lam from, the University of Virginia. She told him “you’re not a poet, you better be a musician, it’s easier.” So he went to study with Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copeland, and became a very distinguished musician, and then went back to writing, and wrote rather better than Ms. Stein. But that was all in the future.
JW: One of the things they do at community colleges is teach writing. I think there are programs everywhere now. At my school, U.C. Irvine, we have an undergraduate major called “Literary Journalism.” It started only a couple of years ago, but it already has over 200 majors, and if there are 200 at Irvine, there is a similar number at a hundred other schools. This means hundreds of thousands of students are studying to be writers. What do you make of this?
GV: We have Truman Capote to thank for that. As bad writers go, he took the cake. So bad was he, you know, he created a whole new art form: the nonfiction novel. He had never heard of a tautology, he had never heard of a contradiction. His social life was busy. To have classes in fiction — that really is hopeful, isn’t it. People can go to school and bring in physics. The genius of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow: he had to take all of his first year courses at, what was it, Cornell? One of his teachers was Nabokov. And everything he had in his first year’s physics went in to Gravity’s Rainbow. Whether it fit in or not, it just went in there. That’s one way of doing it.
JW: You wrote a series of novels about American history. You call the series “Narratives of Empire.” They start with the revolutionary era and Burr and conclude seven novels later with The Golden Age, which is about the forties and fifties. It is hard to think about another writer who has written the entire history of his country in this way.
GV: And it’s also hard to think of a reader in the United States, including those who pass as critics, who would read it. This is just off the map. Literature is supposed to be about merit, and there is nothing else that matters on earth. If you have values. Now, it’s always about somebody trying to get tenure in Ann Arbor, and his wife leaves him because of that au pair from England, and the child is autistic, and we have a lot of hospital scenes that are heartbreaking. And this goes on, and on, and on. I once had to judge the National Book Awards. There was no fiction in it — there was nothing. There was certainly no literature in it. It was just “write about what you know.” And what they knew wasn’t very much. At least with me you’ll find out who was Buchanan’s Vice President. [laughter]
Okay, I’m tooting my own horn.
JW: On the subject of writing about what you know, you introduced the term “The American Empire” I think, into polite society, and polite society wasn’t too happy about it initially.
GV: I was born in the lair of Romulus and Remus, Washington D.C. I was right there at the beginning, at the heart of it. My grandfather was blind from the age of ten, and I lived with him until I was 17 when I went into the army. I would take him down to the Senate and act as his page, and it was the engine room of the Republic. We were a Republic turning military. The Second World War was beginning, and the town was flooded with Brits. There were something like 11,000 of them, I’ve been told. Some of the brightest people in England, starting with Isaiah Berlin, they were all there, to try and get us in the war to save England from Hitler. France had just fallen, I’m speaking now of the spring of 1940. And, I understood perfectly well what an empire was. I had also been reading a lot of Roman History. I was fascinated. The first grown-up book I read was Stories From Livy, a 19th century edition, which got me into the Republic, and then later the Empire surrounded us all.
It was a great time to be an observant kid in the position on the wall. My mother was a leading isolationist and hostess in the town — Mrs. Auchincloss, she was called — and Senator Gore was anti-Roosevelt, anti-going-to-war. He had opposed World War I, and was one of 80 percent of people that did not want to go to war in Europe again. These were fierce years, this was a fierce debate.
I was head of the America First group at Exeter. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. always thought he could rile me by saying, “oh, you know about Gore, he’s an isolationist.” Of course I was, you idiot! And so was every right-thinking young man on the left. Everybody from Norman Thomas to Senator Burton Wheeler, all the progressives in the United States were anti-war. This is something left out by many historians. We have always been a nation devoted to the principles of George Washington. Nations do not have particular friends or enemies, only interests — a nice mercantile piece of advice that most intellectuals accepted; Charles Beard as well, master of your discipline, was also on that side. It was highly respectable. Then “isolationist” became a word for anyone who, well, who had been abducted by aliens in the backyard, had seen a world elsewhere and didn’t like it much.
JW: As an America Firster in 1940, you weren’t on the left. How did you go from being an Exeter America Firster to being a critic of the empire?
GV: Just lucky. [laughter]
No, I knew it was a bad notion. I took Washington’s farewell address seriously. I took seriously John Quincy Adams’ Fourth of July address of 1824: America is not a nation that goes forth to foreign lands to kill dragons. We fight under no banner other than that of our own, even though it be compatible with liberty, freedom, justice, and all that. Yes, we could do this, we could become dictator of the world. And we would lose our own soul. I was much moved by that, and stuck with it.
JW: Your grandfather, Senator Thomas P. Gore, was from Oklahoma, a Populist state. Did you visit Oklahoma? You were a Washington D.C. boy.
GV: I didn’t like the empire, but I liked being in Rome. [laughter]
I never set foot in Oklahoma until I was grown. I had to go to the army, then I went south of the border, and went on writing in Guatemala, in time to be there during the preparations by Ambassador Peurifoy to overthrowing the government of Arbenz, democratically elected, because he wanted to put a small tax on United Fruit. And Mario Monteforte Toledo, President of their Assembly, and Vice President of the country, had an Indian girlfriend in Antigua, and he would come up on weekends, and we would always argue politics. He would talk about “yanqui imperalismo,” and I would always say, “the United States is not like that.” I didn’t know what we were talking about. He would say, “no, your government is prepared to overthrow us. I shall end up in exile.” I said, “well, look, we’ve just conquered — we’ve just appropriated Japan and Germany. What do we want Guatemala for?” But he just knew instinctively that we were piggish, and needed a little fruit for our diet. That was to be the big banana for us.
And so it came to pass. Arévalo was replaced democratically by a great believer in our constitution, and in Franklin Roosevelt — Jacobo Arbenz, who became President. And that’s when we called in the C.I.A to overthrow the government, and replace him with a fellow called Armas, who began a bloodbath that continues till this day. If that is not an empire, I don’t know what is.
JW: We’ve lasted a half hour without mentioning George Bush, which I think it quite an achievement. But we need to mention George Bush. The Washington Post had a symposium where they rounded up a bunch of historians and asked them who was the worst President. It usually comes down to a contest between Nixon and Bush, although there was one essay that was titled “He’s Only the Fifth Worst” — you know the argument: Nixon did some good things and Bush did nothing good. I’m wondering if you would be interested in joining the “who is the worst President” debate.
GV: I’d probably start, if you really want to be serious, with Woodrow Wilson. Imagine taking us to a war in Europe for nothing. We had no interests there, got no advantages out of it, tens of thousands of Americans were killed. We got Prohibition out of it, and that was about it. And guess what his slogan was: “to make the world safe for democracy.” It’s like making the world safe for good temper. It’s as idiotic as that.
He had spent two seasons in the lake country of England and had become an Anglophile. If he’d just gone back up 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 empire. In order to create Yugoslavia?
Sigmund Freud was, is such a rage. We like to think of him as a great genius of serene and august temperament. But Freud was so furious he did the most unprofessional thing ever done by any psychiatrist, much less a founder. He wrote a psychoanalysis of Woodrow Wilson without ever having met him. And he got all the details, mostly slanderous, from Bill Bullitt, a fifth-rate ambassador that President Roosevelt was sending around Europe. Oh, you should read it, it’s just fantasy gone mad. The great doctor was crazy with anger; he saw that the only stability in Europe, particularly the Europe of the Jews, was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its capital, Vienna. From there to Prague, that was a safety zone for Jews. At the end it was in shambles. So I think we must give Wilson a private place for number one.
— Excerpted from I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics – Interviews with Jon Wiener. Forthcoming in November from O/R Books, www.ORbooks.com.