The Last Hope for The Republic
Gore Vidal, America’s last public intellectual, has recently published a memoir, Point to Point Navigation. NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with the 81-year-old novelist at his home in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, where he has just moved after living on the Amalfi coast of Italy for the last 30 years.
(Editor’s note: To get to Gore Vidal’s house in the Hollywood Hills, I drove up and up along a winding road into the scrubby mountains, the smoggy LA basin to one side, the iconic Hollywood sign spelled across the other ridge. A sharp turn down a fern- and palm-lined canyon leads to Vidal’s 1930’s Spanish-style home, which is still crowded with packing crates, most of them full of books, and cluttered with Roman art. During our talk Vidal remained seated in an easy chair, a large orange cat with eyes clouded by cataracts on his lap, looking up occasionally when the tone of his voice indicated a particularly outrageous comment.)
NPQ | As an historical novelist, you have long been a student of empire. What is the impact of the utter debacle in Iraq on American history?
Gore Vidal | It means the curtain is falling. America wasn’t much of an empire to begin with. An inept empire really, which in my mind was a plus.
We never had any great imperial plans outside our hemisphere. Our empire was built on power and money, but the money has run out. Instead of building a proper army that could do the job well, the crooks selling nuclear weapons, computerized fighter planes and other complicated, expensive weaponry got into the game and drained the treasury. We wasted the money on gadgets instead of a good officer corps. West Point, the Army’s main officer training school, does a great job, but it only suits the size of a small country. As Rumsfeld in his heyday said so poignantly, “You fight a war with the army you’ve got, not the one you want to have.”
So, we’ve had the wrong army for this kind of adventure in Iraq or the other wars we’ve lost, like Vietnam. Much of the trouble began with Woodrow Wilson and his immortal longings to save the world. Can you think of anything more daffy than trying to bring democracy to everyone? One would have thought Vietnam would have ended that silly ambition. One hopes Iraq finally will.
NPQ | Well, at least the Gore clan fought the rise of empire, even an inept one.
Vidal | Yes, three Senators Gore have done so—my grandfather, T.P. Gore, a senator from Oklahoma; Albert Gore Sr.; and Al Gore Jr. And these Gores offer a sharp contrast to the garbage we are being fed about the Bush dynasty. It is not a dynasty, but a dysfunctional family of no distinction, a parasitic family that feeds off of other people’s wealth, including oil and arms, and ideas.
My grandfather lost his seat for one term because he opposed World War I. President Wilson betrayed him, withdrawing support, because my grandfather refused to campaign for Wilson in key states unless the slogan was “he kept us out of foreign wars.” My grandfather was so certain the public didn’t like foreign wars that he proposed that, if a majority in the Congress voted to go to war, a popular referendum must be held across the whole country to decide if this was wise. He was convinced that, if given a direct voice, the country would not go into foreign wars.
Albert Sr. lost his seat in Tennessee because he was against the Vietnam War. Albert Jr. has been pretty good opposing wars, but more the point, he has taken on an issue no one else has—to save the planet—without which all else is idle chat.
Not so subtly, I suppose, my case is that if you want to try a dynasty, try the Gores. You won’t get a war.
NPQ | Because of outrage over the Iraq war, the American public voted a Democratic majority back into the Congress. Does this redeem America a bit in your view?
Vidal | This Democratic Congress is the last hope for the republic, or at least to look like a republic. It might come back, perhaps with a Democratic president to go along with the Democratic Congress, but it was lost the day habeas corpus was quietly erased by the weird little attorney general of Bush’s. Without habeas corpus, there is no Magna Carta. Without the Magna Carta, we have no liberties. With no liberties, we have no republic. Everything is based on habeas corpus and due process of law. Once you don’t have that, you are just another banana republic without the bananas.
When it comes to civil liberties, America is the worst among the advanced, developed countries.
NPQ | A woman, Nancy Pelosi, is now the speaker of the House, the third most powerful post in the US government. Hillary Clinton, as likely as not, will be the next president. Ségolène Royal may be headed to the Elysée. This makes many people hopeful that we’ll all be better off with the nurturing hands of women on the levers of power. What do you think?
Vidal | I don’t know of any female American politician who would say anything so stupid. Women in power are just like men. As a senator, my grandfather opposed women’s suffrage on the grounds that, knowing women, they’d be doing nothing but knifing each other. He was absolutely right, at least during their first generation of voting. I don’t put women on a pedestal.
NPQ | It is surprising to open your latest memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, and see that this erudite novelist writes so much about the movies and Hollywood. Why are movies so important to you?
Vidal | Well, Hollywood is the new agora. And I don’t say that approvingly. But movies are the only thing people know in common. My generation was raised on movies. You either went to church or to the movies for spiritual guidance.
We are totally ignorant about everything else—but we do know movies. Is there any American who doesn’t know who Elizabeth Taylor is? Is there any American who has ever heard of Catherine de Medici? At least I didn’t write my memoirs in baseball terms. That would be even more humiliating.
NPQ | This, then, is the Age of Hollywood?
Vidal | Yes. And it’s a lousy age.
NPQ | You’ve been around Hollywood for a long time as a scriptwriter, going back to Ben Hur. What has been the biggest change? Can you compare Mission Impossible III with a great drama like Citizen Kane?
Vidal | Junk was always terribly important to Hollywood. But, in the past, we had a kind of divine register. There were A pictures and B pictures. You didn’t mix them up. Everything had its own level. Now, it’s all a jumble.
And that terrible word celebrity was invented. If actors are well known, they can sell the product for the producers. That’s all that matters, not what the product is.
NPQ | For better and ill, American films and popular culture have always been a kind of propaganda for the American way of life—what Harvard’s Joe Nye has called “soft power.” Pope John Paul II once came to Universal Studios to warn that filmmakers had more power than priests or politicians to both elevate and degrade the human being. Régis Debray, the old pal of Fidel and Che, once said there “is more power in blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll than the entire Red Army.”
Do you agree with this idea of soft power? Has America’s image been damaged along with America’s prestige because of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo?
Vidal | That image itself was damaging. And it’s true that now our prestige has fallen dramatically. You can’t lose as many wars as we have—in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq—and still be admired as a great power.
Look, we are a country of salesmen and mass production. Our power in the world came from that. We thought we had a lock on it. Now we are outsourcing everything. Others are taking our place. So we don’t have much to sell. We buy too much. Our debts are in the trillions. We blew it.
I’m not sure that soft power is that important. Blue jeans as some kind of symbol of the American lifestyle are ubiquitous, but now they’re made in China! There’s nothing special in that to us. The world is more level now than when America was on top. I’m going in a couple of months to open the first international book festival in Shanghai.
NPQ | You have long chided Americans for being quaintly puritanical, particularly in response to your early novels with homosexual themes. But now that the new agora of the globalizing media has tied the whole world together, there is an even more puritanical audience watching—culturally conservative Islam. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whom the US brought to power in Iraq, wants alcohol to be banned and women to cover up. He even advises young people against strumming a guitar for fear of corrupting their soul. How is this global agora going to work?
Vidal | You must be very careful with this line. In the interests of foreign parties, there is a desire for the United States to go to war with Islam. It’s going to be a war of values, they say. Don’t buy this. It’s about nothing but oil.
This is not a line of thought it is respectable to even talk about, that there is going to be war between us and Islam and it’s puritanism and it’s one God and it’s going to kill everybody. This is the same kind of bull---- we’ve been fed for years. We want desperately a huge, dangerous enemy. You’ve got to frighten the American people in order to take their money to buy weapons to make the defense contractors even richer than they are.
Where are the so-called Islamic terrorists under every bed waiting to strike? It’s a chimera. Don’t give me any nonsense about the threat of Islam.
NPQ | Many of your books could not be published in Muslim countries, or, like Rushdie or Theo van Gogh, radicals would threaten you.
Vidal | Who gives a ----? Am I sitting here nervous about the reception of my last book in Iran? It is not our business to worry about censorship in Iran. I’m much more worried about censorship in this country.
NPQ | You once said there have been three eruptions of paganism—the Renaissance, Romanticism and now Hollywood. After the first two eruptions, “religious awakenings” occurred in reaction. Do you see a new backlash in the works on the global stage?
Vidal | The US, like most of Western Europe, is a post-Christian country. True, there are maleducated people in the South who have only the church to hold their communities together. They go to church on Sunday and sustain each other. More power to them.
Their interference in politics is not some awakening, though. It has been due to the mischief of George Bush and Karl Rove, who have mobilized them as fodder for their own pursuit of power, frightening them with the specter of gay marriage, as if 99 percent of the country even cares, and Muslims arriving at their shores to take away their freedom.
Let’s don’t confuse these Adolf Hitler tactics of creating hateful minorities with some kind of awakening. It looks for now that they can’t sustain their nonsense. If the next election is not also stolen, then there might be a reasonable Democratic president to put a halt to it all.
NPQ | You mention in passing in your new memoir that when Howard, your companion for so long, was on his deathbed, you kissed him on the lips for the first time in decades.
Vidal | For the first time ever.
NPQ | Why?
Vidal | You’ve just gone crashing into the American trap in which every relationship is supposed to be sexual. A lot of them are not sexual. I’ve been lecturing the British on this for years. They get very angry, especially when I get on to Bloomsbury, where everyone was screwing everyone else’s husband or wife or child. Incest was not unknown, in fact, it was regarded rather highly on the scale.
I couldn’t care less. If that’s what people want to do, it’s none of my business. In our literary world here in the US, we don’t go to bed with friends. I can’t think of two friends in the literary world who’ve ever had sex.
I’m not talking about heterosexuals. A girl writer and boy writer will get together. And then they’ll get divorced because there are many more girl writers than boy writers.
For me, it is very difficult if you are going to live with someone for life to have sex with them. It’s madness. Sex is all around. No one needs to go hunting for that. A relationship is something different.
When I say this, it is not much admired in gay circles. They want to be a whole new sex, something never dreamed of before. Well, homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is just part of the ordinary mammal behavior. It is of no importance in a lifelong relationship. In any case, who can swear to monogamy for 70 years?
NPQ | You’ve been in Los Angeles now for six months after living in Italy for decades. You haven’t lived here since you ran for Senate in the early 1980s. Why did you move back?
Vidal | You know, I’m not very interested in geography. I don’t really care where I am as long as I have my books, which I need for research. I don’t want big houses, but they keep getting bigger because I have to have someplace to put my 10,000 books. Once I have my books, that’s home. I could be in Guatemala for all I care.
Practically, though, I’ve owned and used this house off and on for 40 years. And, as I wrote in my memoirs, I’ve entered my “Cedars-Sinai years”—that’s the hospital down the hill. Howard got through that first. I’m next.
NPQ | How do you find LA?
Vidal | I’ve never looked for it. I don’t get around LA much, except politically in California, where I’ve been raising money for the Democratic Party.
NPQ | What theme interests you now in terms of writing?
Vidal | I’ve felt guilty about the gap in my American historical novels. I skipped what was probably the most essential volume, which was 1846 and the Mexican War. Ulysses S. Grant said something about that which is little known: He said we should not go out and seize territory like some European empire.
NPQ | One person you have reportedly seen in LA is Nancy Reagan, who also sees another big Hollywood liberal, Warren Beatty. Are you old friends?
Vidal | You can’t have been around Hollywood and politics as long as I have and not know the Reagans. Also, though we didn’t know each other then, we both went to the same school growing up in Washington, D.C.
I recently spoke with Gorbachev about Nancy and what happened in Reykjavik. Reagan said to Gorbachev: Let’s disarm our nuclear weapons. Suddenly, American neo-cons crawled out of the woodwork all over on tiny Iceland, rushing in to break up the meeting. Essentially, they said, “The president is ga-ga, don’t pay any attention to him.”
Nancy got wind of that, and boy was she angry. With her enormous influence over Ronnie, she began to work for ending the Cold War. She became a major player. She and Gorbachev still correspond.