Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was a celebrated author and progressive political activist. His first novel, Williwaw, written when he was just 19 years old and serving in the Army, appeared in the spring of 1946. He went on to publish two-dozen novels, five plays, numerous short stories, over 200 essays, and an autobiography.
Vidal was also an accomplished screenwriter, evidenced by his scripts for Ben-Hur, Caligula and Myra Breckenridge. A true Renaissance man, he even found the time to appear in a dozen films, including Gattaca, and found a political party, the U.S. Peace Party, and ran for Congress.
Because this indomitable firebrand was a thorn in the side of the establishment for so long, some might forget that he was a very well-connected blueblood. On one side of his family tree, he is related to former Vice President Al Gore, on the other to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
This interview was conducted in 2006, at a time that Vidal was campaigning for Marcy Winograd, an anti-war, pro universal healthcare candidate for Congress in California’s 36th District.
You have such an illustrious career I don’t know where to begin. Why don’t I start with the present and ask you why you’ve decided to endorse Marcy Winograd for Congress?
Well, it’s a Democratic primary, and I thought it would be nice to endorse a Democrat against the incumbent, Ms. Harman, who is sort of a Republican Bush-ite. That was my first instinct, before I listened to Marcy and watched her campaign. I thought she’s very well-suited for this time and place. So, I’ve gone as all-out as I can.
Do you think she has a decent chance of unseating Harman? The rate of re-election of incumbents is incredibly high.
Well, we all know about the safety for incumbents’ laws that come out of gerrymandering and so on. I think that Harman’s been around a little bit too long, to the extent that her constituents really think about her at all. She’s not been a Democrat in the progressive sense, by which I simply mean she’s not been against the war. Nor has she had much intelligent to say about Intelligence, and she sits on the Intelligence Committee. In other words, she’s pretty hollow while Marcy’s alive! The living candidate usually wins.
What makes Marcy alive?
She’s organized the progressive Democrats across the State of California, as opposed to the ones who pretend to be Democrats and vote Republican, like her opponent. So, it’s not as though she came wandering in on a whim. She came marching in out of a sense of duty, and also with a fire in the belly to get rid of the sort of candidates like the incumbent.
Why are so passionate about a congressional election in the House?
The House, you see, is the closest thing to the people that we have. Every two years they have to go out for an election. To the extent that we have any form of democracy, it’s the House Of Representatives.
My sense of American politics is that most of our politicians are for sale, whether they are out and out crooked, or simply beholden to corporate interests because they’ve taken so much money from their lobbyists. I believe that’s a big part of the problem.
Of course it is. It’s been like that for quite some time. With Marcy, she’s not beholden to anybody, except me and Susan Sarandon. She got a check from me, and I think that’s not quite enough to buy her.
I reviewed your book Dreaming War, in which you predicted that Bush would attack Iraq. At the time, he had already invaded Afghanistan, but people didn’t realize…
… that the target was also Iraq, and American mastery of the entire Middle East which is what seems to be going on now, as we head toward Iran.
How would you describe the State Of The Union?
This is an empire gone berserk. You’ve got a president who had every intention of militarizing the economy and militarizing the society. This had nothing to do with governance. He was mostly smearing people who pointed out his shortcomings. Now we don’t have the money anymore… We don’t have the will… People are disgusted… Katrina has turned off half a nation… And there’s all the nonsense about borders… and so on… This is the worst period that I’ve ever seen for the United States. And Marcy Winograd, at least, is a good candidate who is intelligent.
Given your WASPy, blue-blood background, where did you find the strength to buck the system?
If you study the Gores, and you don’t really have to study Albert who’s a worthy person who does good work, the Gores were the founders of the party of the people at the end of the late 19th century. They represented the people who’d been wrecked by the Civil War and by Reconstruction, people who’d lost their farms. And they made common cause with the city machines, which turned out to be a big mistake. Like in New Jersey, which is how we got Woodrow Wilson as president. But the whole family has been, from the very beginning, totally aligned with the people against “The Interests” as they used to call them back in the 19th century. So, it just comes to me naturally.
I suspected something was funny about the 2000 presidential election when, instead of conceding, Bush confidently responded to all the networks projecting Gore as the winner in Florida with, “That’s not what my brother tells me.”
I think that tells it all. They already knew about the Diebold voting machines, and how an election like that could absolutely be switched around. In other words, you could beat them and beat them and beat them in the popular vote, but it will not be recorded, as long as these machines are out there.
The same thing happened in Ohio in 2004.
Congressman John Conyers, as you know, went up there and did a very thorough analysis with a lot of first-rate detectives to determine who had stolen that election, starting with Mr. Blackwell [J. Kenneth Blackwell], Ohio’s Secretary Of State, who was also in charge of the Bush campaign. The whole thing was shocking beyond belief. To have two presidential elections stolen in a row means that you have no republic.
I’ve called it a post-democracy.
To use the word “democracy” is nonsense. And here we go again. This coming November, we’re going to have the same machines with no paper trail.
And besides manipulating machines, they’ve used a variety of other tactics to disenfranchise black voters.
Oh yeah, it was well thought out. After 2000, I said, “Watch out for 2004. They’ll have four years to perfect that one.” After 2004, you know I wrote the preface to Congressman Conyers’ book [What Went Wrong In Ohio: The Conyers Report On The 2004 Presidential Election], thinking that might help get it off the ground. But it wasn’t reviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, or any daily paper in the United States, after this highly-respected Congressman and ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee had taken the time and gone to all the personal expense to do the book. When nobody would even mention it, that sounded to me like the end of the republic.
What do you think was Bush’s agenda for this presidency he wanted by any means necessary?
To give his corporate friends jobs and tax cuts, from the oil people to General Electric. To make sure Halliburton wouldn’t have to bid on its contracts to rebuild a country we first knocked-down with our tax dollars.
By deliberately ruining Iraq so war profiteers could rebuild its infrastructure, he ended up ruining this country in the process, given the record federal deficit, which is why so much of the Gulf Region looks the same as the day after Hurricane Katrina hit. I wonder whether Bush has a sense of the irony about that.
He has no sense at all. That’s the problem. I don’t think he deliberately set out to wreck the United States, but he has. It’ll take two generations to get this country back, if we can ever get it back.
Why aren’t the people up in arms?
Acquiescence. What used to be called citizens are now just a bunch of consumers waiting to be told what to do next, and automatically voting, even though they know the machinery is going to reverse their vote. We’ve lost too much in the way of the Bill Of Rights.
How do you think Bush feels about his disastrous presidency?
I don’t think he cares. There are so many different kinds of stupidity. In American politics, you get to meet every kind. But he’s a little exceptional. Very few politicians who got to be president are as ignorant as he is. Usually, they knew something about economics, something about how the world works. I would say even some of them have a bit of conscience, not much, not much, and talk about impossible dreams. Aside from ambition, they do have an idea that they’re going to serve a certain group.
How has this played out with Bush?
So, if there’s a really difficult job, like running FEMA, you pick the dumbest person you know, because he’s a really good guy. To watch Bush do this time and time again, I sit there and my jaw drops. Each time he does it he’s in deeper trouble. He learns nothing.
What will be the Bush legacy?
If you remember, in one of my other books, I prophesied at the time of his election in 2000, “He will leave office the most hated president in our history.”
How’d you know?
I put it together just from things he was saying along the way and from what I knew of his career in Texas.
What do you think of his War On Terrorism?
First of all, it’s a metaphor. Secondly, “terrorism” is an abstract noun. It’s like having a war on dandruff. It’s something from advertising, it’s meaningless. You have to have a country for a war. Congress also has to declare it. So, he has no declaration, and no countries to fight, except the ones he chooses to attack. This is against all the rules of the United Nations which we’ve sworn to uphold since we started the damn thing back in 1945.
Do you think he deserves to be impeached?
He’s totally illegal on every level, which is impeachable. And that’s not partisan talk. That’s patriotic talk, Constitutional talk. He’s got to go. He’s got to be punished for what he’s done.
Your cousin, Al Gore, has a new movie out about global warming entitled An Inconvenient Truth. Do you think he’s going to run for the presidency again?
I have no idea at all. I assume so, as he’s very much on the scene. Politicians do that when they’re getting ready to run. But I know nothing from the family about what he’s up to. I know he’s had trouble raising money, which I think is going to be a great barrier for him, if he does decide to run.
How did you feel watching what unfolded in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina?
That was wanton cruelty shown toward the native inhabitants who were left there to die. But you might say that someone was really very eager for the city to go. Putting Brownie in charge had to be a slap in the face of the people. I used to live there. Have you ever lived there?
No, and I had a friend there, Randy, who urged me come visit every year until he left town.
It was a wonderful city, but everybody who lived there knew we were all living with danger. It is below sea level, and those levees just looked like humped sand castles on the beach. We all knew that they were extremely fallible and probably couldn’t withstand a major hurricane. But they hadn’t had a major hurricane in quite some time. Then, Albert’s [Al Gore] predictions all came true. The climate has changed and gave us Katrina.
Yet Bush arrogantly lied after the fact, praising Brownie and saying we had no idea such a disaster was possible, when now we see videotapes of the National Weather Service warning him.
He’d been warned. It was like 9/11, for God’s sake. They’d been warned by President Putin of Russia. They’d been warned by President Mubarak of Egypt. They’d been warned by elements of Mossad. They’d been warned by our own FBI out in the Midwest. There was a hell of a lot of evidence that we were going to have unfriendly visitors to our serene skies. Bush pretends he knew nothing about it. Well, he probably didn’t read the reports. But you’d think that at least somebody in the government would be on top of it and say, “You’ve got to pull yourself together, Mr. President. Otherwise, something terrible might happen to us.” He did nothing.
How about his behavior on the morning of 9/11?
That famous shot of him reading the children’s book about a goat to the school kids in Florida tells it all. After the Secret Service agent whispers in his ear, his eyes just go out of focus. You can see that he’s so stunned he doesn’t know what to do, because there’s nobody to tell him. Can you imagine the leader of any country on Earth who would just sit there staring straight ahead? We’d been hit. The Twin Towers were hit. The Pentagon was hit. But he just sat there.
And he actually continued reading the picture book to the kids for a while.
He just wanted to prove that he could read. Finally, somebody decided to race him across the country to find bunker to put him in, so he wouldn’t get hurt, as if that would’ve made any difference.
Former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, in his book, Against All Enemies, made it clear that when he warned the then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about bin Laden, her response was to cut his staff. And even before 9/11, Bush was already more interested in attacking Iraq than in tracking down Osama.
He should’ve at least pretended to be interested in getting Osama bin Laden. But they wanted that war and that oil. They want control. They want to knock things down and to frighten the world. But Bush isn’t the first. It goes straight back to Harry Truman who started The Cold War because he wanted to frighten Stalin, because he believed that the Russians were coming. The Russians had just lost 20 million people in World War II. They weren’t going anywhere.
What do you think of Truman ushering in the atomic age by dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Did you know that every single major military officer tried to get Truman not to drop the two atomic bombs? Contrary to what our history books try to tells us, Japan was already defeated. They had been defeated and the Emperor was trying surrender, but Truman would not respond, because he wanted to drop the bomb.
I never knew that.
These are all things American people ought to know, but history was the first subject to be jettisoned when they decided all they wanted was docile workers and loyal consumers. Why educate them? You don’t want to tell them anything.
I remember reading something scathing you wrote about Harry Truman and Zionists.
Yeah, getting the bribe.
Did he really take $2 million in return for his support of Israel?
I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’ll tell you who told me. It was Jack Kennedy. They did not like each other, Truman and Jack.
Why would Kennedy divulge such a damning secret?
When Jack was running the first time, and Truman said he wasn’t going to support him, Jack started telling this story about how a suitcase with $2 million was delivered to Harry.
Do you believe it?
It sounds in character.
In the ‘50s, you wrote a trio of murder mysteries under the pseudonym Edgar Box. I used to be a big fan of that genre until I read those three novels. They were the best, nothing else ever measured up to them, not Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Raymond Chandler, anybody. I’ve said that in print before, so don’t think I’m just buttering you up.
Thank you. Well, I certainly enjoyed writing them. They were a lot of fun.
What made you decide to adopt the sobriquet?
I did it because I was then being blacklisted by The New York Times. So, in order to make a living I wrote as Edgar Box, and got wonderful reviews from The Times. Eight of my books did not get reviewed.
And what got you blacklisted in the first place?
Homophobia over my novel The City And The Pillar. They were deeply into homophobia. The Times was really the center of it in American culture, and didn’t give it up until they were threatened in other directions. It’s a very bad newspaper.
I agree. Even though I’m published regularly in over 100 publications around the U.S., Canada, England and the Caribbean, and I email their editors every op-ed I write, The Times has never seen fit to publish even one of my pieces.
You don’t need The Times. Just keep getting them out there in any form you can.
Thanks so much for such an informative and forthcoming tete-a-tete. I didn’t mean to monopolize your time, but there was just so much to talk about.
That’s okay. It was good to talk to you, too, though I need to finish writing a preface I was working on.