Gore Vidal interviewed by Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg talks to one of the great men of American letters about politics, literature and living.
When he lived in Italy, it was a temptation, not to be resisted, to refer to Gore Vidal as the president-in-exile. It was a self-imposed exile, largely prompted by the establishment's violent reaction to his third novel, The City and the Pillar, in 1948, which was unafraid to speak of homosexuality. The New York Times refused to carry advertisements for the book and his novels were shunned by several mainstream publications for half a decade.
After this, Vidal set off on a life of dazzle and debate. He wrote fistfuls of plays, film scripts, novels and essays. He ran for Congress and came close. His contacts ranged from the Kennedys (whom he admired and loathed and said so) to Tennessee Williams and Princess Margaret. And there was a lot in between. He was a great success on television, which is where I met him many years ago and came to look forward to seeing him the next time.
Vidal, who is 85, now lives in the Hollywood Hills, where I spent time with him a year or so ago, but for this interview the encounter was brokered by the telephone.
MB: I want to talk about three things - politics, literature and you. Why do you think Obama is in so much trouble at the moment, Gore?
GV: Well, we've had a bit of a coup d'état here. You see, we have something called the Republican Party. It's not a political party - and this is why Europeans can never figure out what we're doing. When they talk about conservative American politics, they always think of nice old colonels, fox-hunting, you know.
But what we've got is a quasi-fascist batch; people with fascist interests, let us say - I don't want to put it more harshly. They believe in authority, they believe in their own mind and no one else's, and they've set out to get him [Obama].
Now, remember, this is a racist country. It's just like South Africa, I suppose, after the first changes in their great upheavals. And we had a great upheaval with the election of Obama - rather more intelligent, as our presidents go, than what we normally get when we get a white one. This has caused consternation out there: "There's something terribly wrong with what came our way."
How would you describe the coup d'état?
First of all, you have a party: a group of people who call themselves the Republican Party. These are the small-town enemies of everybody. They just dislike everyone. They couldn't come out and say: "We don't want a black president" - we've finally got past that roadblock. So what they did was set out to slaughter the opposition party, the Democrats.
What we're getting over here is propaganda, I suppose - the opinion that he makes great speeches but he isn't really up to the job, this young Obama.
How would totally illiterate people, who are from birth ahistorical, have any knowledge of who we are, where we are or what this country is about? They've set out to wreck him.
I'm interested in the means. How did they do it: through the newspapers, through the radio? By bashing him constantly, one way or another, and taking away his funds?
Repetition. They keep saying he's really a terrorist and they even deny he's black. He's obviously brown in some way - a vicious way - because we know what they are like; those are terrorists. There's some lieutenant colonel in our non-victorious army, the one that's being defeated all the time, in the field; he was supposed to serve in Iraq - I don't blame him for not wanting to do that - and he refused to go because he [Obama] wasn't the legitimate president of the United States, as the constitution requires that a president be born here.
They don't even understand, the dumb-dumbs who are all around, that the reason we have that in the constitution is because the most brilliant man present at the making of the constitution was Alexander Hamilton [the first US treasury secretary], the only one who understood the economy. He was so hated that, to keep him from ever becoming president, they said that the American president must be born in God's country, North America: the home of dreams and so forth.
That's in our constitution and nobody quite understood what that meant. Even then, we were a country of immigrants; everyone was flooding in from Plymouth or wherever, at any given moment.
In the face of all this hostility, what has Obama been able to achieve while in power?
I don't think anything that he's particularly proud of, but he has held the fort. And people still like him - he's held on to that. That doesn't happen very often with any president in a country like yours or ours.
Do you think that his attempts to pass the health-care bill and to challenge Wall Street were brave and in any way successful?
They were successful. I mean, he did get through some final details for health care in America. It has been noted by ill-meaning foreigners that the average American is bright yellow; he's always been yellow in colour. Very unhealthy people. When you see what they eat when they go into those food places, it's a wonder that they survive birth by much. You should see the mothers' milk. That's even deadlier!
This could be thought of as an achievement, though, couldn't it? This was a big fight that Obama took on and won more than lost, just as he tried to take on Wall Street. Two big fights.
They were huge fights. Let us begin with a simple fact. We have the world's worst educational system for the people at large. And it's meant to be bad. The idea that they should know things that are useful to them, like the history of the United States - that's my line, I preach it as best I can, but it's a lonely task.
The people in the schools have falsified everything; some sort of Wizard of Oz is still in charge of our affairs, if you listen to them. They have no knowledge of history. They have a loathing of everybody else on earth; they hate foreigners. And they whine about everything.
What do you make of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement?
California's loss is Alaska's gain and I won't be visiting either.
Do you think that there's some sort of fear in America now? A new sort of fear - that the economy might not be so strong after all, that the American can-do idea is losing ground and that places such as China and India are growing in strength?
Of course there is. I mean, they don't know anything but they can certainly read a map. They can read an income and an outgoing, they see that. They know that they are way down at the bottom of almost everything, particularly education. And I think that seriously bothers some of them - and thrills others, particularly those who call themselves Republicans.
If they get in an economic slump and there is fear around and the Republicans are as strong as you say they are, that's pretty combustible, isn't it?
I should not in the least be surprised if there were a kind of dictatorship at the end of the road, which seems to be coming more and more quickly as we lose more and more wars.
That's a big word, Gore, and I know you mean it. But can you tell us why you feel inclined to use that word, "dictatorship"?
Because there's a lot of authority that is not traditional, if you want to use such a heavily loaded word as "tradition". Americans were rather lively, living for the moment. Not necessarily a bad gang in all - not necessarily a good one, either. I think that not being a good one
gets on their nerves.
Do you think that this combination might well point to an authoritarian government, at least, and maybe a dictatorship?
How can it not? Let's talk about authority. The people with the most authority in America are the people with guns. Who has the most guns? The police. Are the police there to protect property and lives and make the state work well? No. They are there to get pensions; they are there to whine - you have never heard such whiners. Just for going out and covering a beat, the complaints go to high heaven. And when Obama came in and that dumb policeman in Cambridge, Massachusetts . . .
You mean the case of Henry Louis Gates, the black academic who was wrongly arrested?
Yes, the professor at Harvard. This policeman, he was a nasty piece of work. He was trying to arrest him inside his own house. I don't think that England in its worst days - for the sake of something equal, King John, let's say - I don't think King John or his ministers ever tried anything like that.
I'll tell you one thing that is going all wrong for us. We've never admitted that we're a class-ridden society: it's father to son, you know. Even our politicians. I just read now about Mr [Richard J] Daley, who was the mayor of Chicago for life. Now, his son [Richard M Daley] is there for life but he has decided he's bored with it and is going to quit. Well, Chicago is in a dividend. The person who should have taken that seat when it was up for grabs was the girl from Chicago Hillary Clinton. She's a typical Chicago citizen, a typical Midwesterner. Instead, she wants to be a senator from New York, a city that she has come to hate for many reasons. Or, at least, I'm told she's come to hate it. Because all the press that she doesn't like lives there: it's like living on Fleet Street.
To return to Obama for a second, while he's done a very good job of "holding the fort" at home, is it a failure of his that he has continued elements of Bush's foreign policy abroad, particularly in Afghanistan and expanding the war into Pakistan?
Our entire foreign policy for many years, which many would think the greatest years, was [based on] the time of Asquith [British prime minister from 1908-16] and the First World War, when England really mattered in the world. And it was in England's interests that we join them, that we take their place. We had a bad beginning. We had a bad tutelage, I think. And there they were, India and all those rather glamorous sites of empire . . .
So we set a bad example, Gore?
For a long time you've been vehemently against America getting involved in overseas adventures. Do you think that America is losing the taste for it now?
It never had the taste for it. You can't hate foreigners as much as Americans do and really want to go to war for our British cousins. I mean, many Americans break out into a rash when they hear "our British cousins" - they really think you're cheating when you say that. Nineteen forty-five was a great moment of revelation and change. The winning of western Europe and the Japanese empire and the Pacific. We were greatness in power. We wanted it, we got it and here we are.
Do you think that America is able to take the lead it wants to take these days, or have its confidence and economic power been dented so much that it can't do that any more?
I don't think it can do it. What are you going to do with people who aren't educated? I'm not talking about your gorgeous universities and so on. I'm talking about the basic facts of life, which are not taught. Then there was that sickly wave of religion that swept over the country after the Second World War. Don't think that we were not horrified by it, those of us who are natives of the USA. Any kind of idiot could appear on television - television was our ruin - and Congress, which was always very good for the superstitious, said: "Religion is such a good thing that we are not going to tax it." This was the gateway to great wealth for some very God-awful people. "God-awful" is carefully selected there.
Did you see the Blair-Bush alliance as a sort of apotheosis of that?
I come to England quite enough to know everything that that strange cry - "Blaaaair" - means to the Brits. I can take it like a Brit, as an honorary one. You know, it's rather suitable. To think of him, the best actor that you've had since Disraeli, over there wearing cowboy boots in the ugliest state of the Union, Texas.
Do you think that Blair let himself down with that alliance?
He let the nation down. There was nothing there to ally with, except foolishness and greed. Now, Obama's great fault is that he has not brought the vice-president of those years, Mr Cheney, to trial. Halliburton and these companies - he had money in them and he was making Congress pass laws featuring torture, which is one of the things that some of these other companies do very well. They are the envy of Outer Mongolia or whoever else is imitating them this year.
Do you think that America has the appetite or the clout for any sort of grand vision and effectiveness, say, in the Middle East? What do you think it will do in the Middle East? Is it a feasible enabler at all?
No. It's an enabler, though; it's just not very feasible. We have no gift for politics in that region. We have interested parties here in positions of great power, at least in the world of opinion. We can't mention that because anyone who denounces it is, of course, an anti-Semite. They have been using that number for a long, long time. I don't think it's true because anti-Semitism takes more thought than that – I was brought up on Walter Scott [this is a reference to Scott's 1819 novel "Ivanhoe", written during the struggle for emancipation of the Jews in England].
So you don't think that President Obama welcoming the two leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, and so on is much more than a pageant?
It's a lousy pageant. It's nothing at all. It is a means of keeping a group of people who are valuable to any politician, both for their own sake and for their own many gifts. We didn't get to be number one in the sciences and so on until Hitler. He sent them all over to us and, suddenly, the United States began to take off in science.
Do you have anything at all positive to say about the state of the Union? It's a huge jeremiad you've delivered, very splendidly, but is there anything in your country as you look around - any little buds coming through this quagmire - promising a better future?
No, but it's a good name for a capital city, "Quaggymire". I'll give you credit. "I'm speaking to you today from Quaggymire. You may think I'm lonely here but all the fun kids are in Downing Street . . ."
Have you any opinion on our new Downing Street tenant, Mr Cameron?
You do like to adjust to types. You've got all the right types you should have for government in this adorable Tory. He's everything
we thought Bertie Wooster was - and God knows we worship Bertie Wooster, in the form of Hugh Laurie.
I'm not in the cringe position of wanting to be flattered like some English people are when they speak to foreigners. Do you think we've still "lost an empire and are searching for a role" [as the American lawyer and statesman Dean Acheson said in 1962], or do you think we're hanging on to your coat-tails?
Anybody who tries to hang on to America's coat-tails is going to find himself up to his eyeballs in, well, deceit and corruption. This is the crookedest place on earth - and I never thought I would go that far, having been to many other countries at least south of our borders.
More crooked than Russia, say?
Russia's giving us a run for our money. They always gave us a run for our money. You see them all over Florida in our warmer spots; they're still trying to warm up after many years of tsars and tsareviches. Russia is fitting in very nicely.
What would the great Senator Gore [see biographical panel] say about what you've been saying? How keen would be his disappointment?
I can hear his thundering voice going, "God damn you!" to the games going on. He loathed them. He would loathe them even more. He also loathed the idea of America going beyond its own boundaries, trying to correct the whole world or thinking that it could correct the world. Only a fool would have thought that possible. He and the old boys, they were the second founders of the republic and they were not fools. And they were modest about America.
I sometimes quote - I will do my best to make it lively - a very short quotation from one of our great unsung presidents, John Quincy Adams. He served only one term: he was not a great success as president. When he was secretary of state, in the 1820s, a delegation from Greece arrived in Washington and, knowing that he was a cultivated man, said: "Mr Adams, could you come to join us in Europe to fight for Greek independence, for which Lord Byron nobly gave his life? Because you and men like you, civilised men all over the world, owe so much to us." Adams said: "Look, the United States is not a paladin that goes to war for the sake of other countries, no matter how worthy the cause. We are not that. We fight under no banner but our own. And we wish the world well and no more." Had we been otherwise minded at that time, we would have been the mistress of the world.
But you have great scholars, writers and scientists there. There's still a huge concentration of intelligence in America.
They're all dull.
Every one of them?
Every last one.
How about these academies?
I'm told they are all very good. I refused to go to college because I wanted an education. I knew from my grandfather that this was done by reading, so I read everything I could for years. Still do.
Do you think the academies are not producing any intellectual leadership at all?
We don't have any. This is one thing that I always mean to talk about and never do. Europeans still think that there is an intellectual class here. I have been alive now in this glorious republic for 85 years. I have never found an intellectual class. I haven't found many intellectuals, either.
I persist in thinking that if you go to places such as Harvard, there are very clever people and there are quite a lot of them.
You've got the key word: "clever". Clever is not the phrase in my book and I don't think it is in yours. But it's nice to have cleverness around, of course.
You've written about a lot of writers who influenced the tone and the taste of the times. Who has that improving or resonating influence now? Is it novelists, is it journalists, or is it academics?
I hope you're sitting down - it's supposed to be me.
Haven't certain things happened that you approve of? You lived under times of great censorship and intolerance. It's a much more tolerant, much less censored society now, isn't it?
Well, yes, I think some of us made a difference by pounding at the gates.
So that's a plus?
Only a self-serving plus, not a general one.
You're a novelist. Do you think that novelists have any sort of influence or impact on society now in America?
No, I don't think they do. More interestingly, they don't try. There's a magazine called Vanity Fair, which is not very good, and which ran a story at the height of the Iraq war as we were empire-building in that sandy part of the world. The journalist said it's curious that the only voices of a literary nature that are raised against America's imperial adventures come from three octogenarian authors. All three of them - Mailer, Vonnegut and Vidal - are veterans of the Second World War. So he was throwing a rock at the stay-at-homes.
Are television newscasters the opinion-formers now?
I hope so; I don't think these opinions would come from anywhere else. Totally deaf and blind people. They're pretty awful.
Why have you come to favour the essay form so much recently, Gore?
It's the only place where you speak in your own voice. If you do it as a novelist, you're going to be suspect; a lot of people may not like your disguises. Or they may be too literal and say: "Oh, he's not like that character, you know . . ."
You find what you're looking for particularly in Montaigne, don't you?
I certainly found it in Montaigne. I read and re-read him. I recommend him every time I'm at a university in this country. It's kind of a joke. They always say: "Why do you like Montaigne?" And I say: "Because he's French." "Oh, you like the French?" "Oh, yes." You have to start the wheel with these people. I say that what I like about him is that he devoted one of his greatest essays to lying, which is the American malady. If we go down crashing one day, it's because everybody lies about everything.
Why are they all lying?
Greed! Even Lincoln, as usual, put his finger on it. "What is going to hurt this country is that so many people want to make a nice living without work. I myself suffer from this, or did in my early days." Can you imagine a current president saying anything like that? That was the great Abraham.
What are you most pleased about in terms of what you've done, Gore, over the years?
I've never killed anybody. Despite enormous temptation.
What part of your work? You've done films, plays, reviews, essays, journalism, novels. Right across all that, what do you look at and think: "That is the best of me?"
I've said no. Time and again. And I think the negatives will outweigh the positives, any day.
And what are you working on now?
The telephone essay.
You've delivered a tremendous jeremiad in this interview - very witty, very informed. But is there a way through that you see?
We might send some of our heartiest young men and women to the South Seas, to the Polynesians, and let them make their way and start over again. I see that as our salvation.
Otherwise, America is going to collapse into authoritarianism?
No, no, no. It'll ease into it, for one thing, and it'll love it.
What are you enjoying about being in America at the moment?
Oh, don't, don't - that's too sad. You were enjoying it quite a bit when I saw you last time. You enjoyed a drink and a talk. You enjoyed reading and talking about reading.
Reading is always a good subject because nobody does it over here. I like to remind them of all the wonderful things they are missing. Americans don't like to be left out of anything - we worship fashion.