Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal
 

Gore Vidal

Photo by Mart Engelen


 

A conversation with Gore Vidal unfolds at his pace. He answers questions imperiously, occasionally playfully, with a piercing, lethal dryness. He is 84 and in a wheelchair (a result of hypothermia suffered in the war, his left knee is made of titanium). But he can walk (‘Of course I can’) and after a recent performance of Mother Courage at London’s National Theatre he stoodto deliver an anti-war speech to the audience.
 

What’s he writing at the moment? “It’s a little boring to talk about. Most writers seem to do little else but talk about themselves and their work, in majestic terms.”
He means self-glorifying? “You’ve stumbled on the phrase,” he says, regally enough. “Continue to use it.” Vidal is sitting in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, where he has been coming to stay for 60 years. He is wearing a brown suit jacket, brown jumper, tracksuit bottoms; his white hair twirled into a Tintin-esque quiff and with his hooded eyes, delicate yet craggy features and arch expression, he looks like Quentin Crisp, but accessorised with a low, lugubrious growl rather than camp lisp. He points to an apartment opposite the hotel where Churchill stayed during the Second World War, as Downing Street was “getting hammered by the Nazis. The crowds would cheer him from the street, he knew great PR.”

In a flash, this memory reminds you of the swathe of history Vidal has experienced with great intimacy: he was friends with JFK, fought in the war, his father Gene, an Olympic decathlete and aeronautics teacher, founded TWA among other airlines and had a relationship with Amelia Earhart. (Vidal first flew and landed a plane when he was 10.) He was a screen- writer for MGM in the dying days of the studio system, toyed with being a politician, he has written 24 novels and is hailed as one of the world’s greatest essayists.

He has crossed every boundary, I say. “Crashed many barriers,” he corrects me. Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he re- veals, he regrets his change of heart. How’s Obama doing? “Dreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we’ve had in that position for a long time. But he’s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He’s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.”
America should leave Afghanistan, he says. “We’ve failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it.” The “War on Terror” was “made up”, Vidal says. “The whole thing was PR, just like ‘weapons of mass destruction’. It has wrecked the airline business, which my father founded in the 1930s. He’d be cutting his wrists. Now when you fly you’re both scared to death and bored to death, a most disagreeable combination.”

His voice strengthens. “One thing I have hated all my life are LIARS [he says that with bristling anger] and I live in a nation of them. It was not always the case. I don’t demand honour, that can be lies too. I don’t say there was a golden age, but there was an age of general intelligence. We had a watchdog, the media.” The media is too supine? “Would that it was. They’re busy preparing us for an Iranian war.” He retains some optimism about Obama “because he doesn’t lie. We know the fool from Arizona [as he calls John McCain] is a liar. We never got the real story of how McCain crashed his plane [in 1967 near Hanoi, North Vietnam] and was held captive.”

Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists.”
Another notable Obama mis-step has been on healthcare reform. “He f***ed it up. I don’t know how because the country wanted it. We’ll never see it happen.” As for his wider vision: “Maybe he doesn’t have one, not to imply he is a fraud. He loves quoting Lincoln and there’s a great Lincoln quote from a letter he wrote to one of his generals in the South after the Civil War. ‘I am President of the United States. I have full overall power and never forget it, because I will exercise it‘. That’s what Obama needs — a bit of Lincoln’s chill.” Has he met Obama? “No,” he says quietly, “I’ve had my time with presidents.” Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: “Bang bang.” He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. “Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital,” he says in a wry, dreamy way.

Vidal now believes, as he did originally, Clinton would be the better president. “Hillary knows more about the world and what to do with the generals. History has proven when the girls get involved, they’re good at it. Elizabeth I knew Raleigh would be a good man to give a ship to.”The Republicans will win the next election, Vidal believes; though for him there is little difference between the parties. “Remember the coup d’etat of 2000 when the Supreme Court fixed the selection, not election, of the stupidest man in the country, Mr Bush.”

Vidal says forcefully that he wished he’d never moved back to the US to live in Hollywood, from his clifftop home in Ravello, Italy, in 2000. His partner of 53 years, Howard Austen, who died in 2003, collated a lifetime’s-span of pictures of Vidal, for a new book out this autumn, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare (an oddly clunky title). The cover shows what a beautiful young man Vidal was, although his stare is as hawkish as it is today.
He observes presidential office-holders balefully. “The only one I knew well was Kennedy, but he didn’t impress me as a good president. It’s like asking, ‘What do I think of my brother?’ It’s complicated. I’d known him all my life and I liked him to the end, but he wrecked his chances with the Bay of Pigs and Suez crises, and because everyone was so keen to elect Bobby once Jack had gone, lies started to be told about him — that he was the greatest and the King of Camelot.”

Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. “Ask an American what they know about Sweden and they’d say ‘They live well but they’re all alcoholics’. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefited us many times over.” Instead, America has “no intellectual class” and is “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.”

Vidal adds menacingly: “Don’t ever make the mistake with people like me thinking we are looking for heroes. There aren’t any and if there were, they would be killed immediately. I’m never surprised by bad behaviour. I expect it.”

 
—First published by The Times, 2009
 
 

Gore Vidal
 

Ravello, Italy 2009