My Q&A with Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Gore Vidal, one of the great American essayists, and one of the great traitors of the wealthy classes, died today from pneumonia. He was 86.
I met him once. In November 1999, on the heels of the publication of “The Smithsonian Institution,” a novel that in many ways oddly prefigures the Ben Stiller movie “Night at the Museum,” he visited Town Hall in Seattle to discuss his life and work. I talked with him briefly at the reception beforehand. I remember being surprised at how tall he was.
As the Vidal expert at The Seattle Times (freelance division), I got to interview him ... but on his terms. We did it by fax, me at my apartment in Seattle and he in his home on the Almafi coast in Italy. This set-up, unfortunately, precluded follow-ups. As a result, I tried to pack as much as I could into each question. Sometimes I obviously packed too much. Sometimes he misinterpreted what I'd packed. The last question, for example, was meant to be a compliment but I can see how it doesn't read as one. My favorite answer was to question No. 9.
We ran a profile rather than a straight Q&A but I like the straight Q&A better.
Vidal now joins his contemporaries: Capote, Baldwin, Updike, Mailer, Salinger. Doctorow and Roth live.
Here's the Q&A.
1. How often have you visited the Smithsonian Institute? Any memorable moments there?
As a schoolboy I--we--were often taken to the Smithsonian and I used to daydream that the life-like exhibits would come alive at night. My most memorable visit was a few years ago when The Discovery Channel was doing a piece on the early days of aviation which included newsreel footage of me at ten flying a Rammond “Flivver” plane. We found the plane in a line-up of old aircraft and I discussed my flight to the TV camera.
2) What made you begin The Smithsonian Institution? How did the novel--and your ideas for the novel--change during the course of the writing?
When I work on what I think of as my inventions (as opposed to meditations on history like Lincoln) I never know what is going to happen next in my invented universe whose laws must be carefully kept or the whole structure collapses. I also gave myself a crash course in quantum physics.
3) Was this a fun novel to write? It seems so. You get to turn Douglas MacArthur into a traitor, obliterate the entire Woodrow Wilson presidency, and send Henry Luce to jail. Did you laugh to yourself while writing such scenes? What other historical characters were you thinking about playing with? Do you think the world would have been a better place without the Wilson presidency?
The US would never have gone into WWI had it not been for Wilson. He was a compulsive interventionist; prior to the world war, he sent troops to Mexico, Haiti, Dominican republic. An unreconstructed southerner, he made Jim Crow law in Washington.
4) Is this version of Lincoln, bullet-stunned, Sandburg-quoting, who winds up as a waxwork in Disneyland (cf. “First Note on Abraham Lincoln”), your final thumb-nose at your Lincoln detractors in Academia?
Academe is always far from my thoughts. But I suppose, unconsciously, I was trying to be as inventive as they are but when it comes to fiction, history teachers are always in the vanguard.
5) Why does Grover Cleveland come out so well here? He seems down-to-earth and likeable compared to the pomposity of the other Presidents.
Cleveland was a wise and serious man. Unfortunately, he came during the lull between Lincoln and T. Roosevelt and so was lost.
6) How relevant is the gossip of history (McKinley as morphine-addict)? Does it help humanize those we’ve mythologized?
It is the essence of biography as everyone from Suetonius and Plutarch on has known. History can do without it--see Braudel and the annalistes.
7) Why “T.”?
T is the symbol for Time. The boy is a time traveller.
8) In Palimpsest you talk briefly about the themes of doubleness and duplicity in your work, and they obviously return in The Smithsonian Institution. Is T. some combination of yourself and Jimmie Trimble?
Perhaps. There is a possibility that the two are one. One resconstructs the one after death, which is a function of art if not yet of science.
9) You were part of the “America First” movement back in 1939-40 and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent the European half of WW II from occurring. You saw your other half in Jimmie Trimble and in The Smithsonian Institution you prevent his death on Iwo Jima (which allowed him to marry happily and become a professional baseball player). Question: for all its knowledge of history, how much of The Smithsonian Institution is your ultimate adolescent wish?
Surely the wish is adult not adolescent.
10) How does it feel to have some of your views (the dangers of foreign adventures--in particular WW II) parroted back by Pat Buchanan in his book “A Republic, Not an Empire”?
Very peculiar. The same thing happened 8 years ago when Jerry Brown started giving my We the People speeches. Since I approved of Brown, I gave him more speeches to give. If B hadn't taken his stand for the foetus and the flag and against the Jew and the fag, he might be a useful formidable populist candidate. Our people are always anti-war unlike the bankers. Also, we have not had a major presidential candidate since Bryan. There is not one to represent the majority.
11) Is Squaw based on anyone?
12) Over the years you’ve proven yourself to be a not poor prognosticator. Any predictions for the 2000 presidential race? You going to vote for your cousin? Are you close to Vice-President Gore?
Albert and I have carefully avoided one another. I did like his father personally. Since all the candidates now on offer represent the 1% that owns most of the country's wealth I wouldn't dream of voting for any of them. The system has broken down. I suspect a Pentagon committee in the offing.
13) You’ve implied that you’ve spent your life trying to escape the American aristocracy. So why do you always write about them?
Very few of the presidents that I write about are aristocrats. Our rulers, until recently, bought presidents and Congresses but did not themselves go into politics. Nelson Rockefeller broke the mould. Possibly because he was dyslexic.
Finally, you write about what you know.
14) I’ve often joked that I wish I could be as sure about one thing in life as Gore Vidal is about everything. Here’s your chance: what are you unsure of?
That is an old line always applied by right wingers to anyone who would like to change the system that they do well by. I am definitely unsure of our weird economy and how much longer over-priced equities can continue before someone wakes up to the fact that the Dow Jones is the latest avatar of the Wizard of Oz. Look up the word “avatar”. Good word that everyone misuses.
Gore Vidal: 1925-2012