Dispatch October 2009

A Conversation With Gore Vidal

The American literary and cultural icon speaks out on the Polanski scandal, the Obama Presidency, the sexual exploits of Bill Clinton, and more.
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At age 83, Gore Vidal remains a sharp provocateur, as irascible and irreverent as ever.

Snapshots in History’s Glare, a new memoir by Vidal released this month, renews interest in this American literary and cultural icon—offering readers a pictorial look at his singular life, from his youth in the political and social circles of Washington, to his service in World War II, his expat years in Guatemala and Europe, his emergence as a major novelist, his decades writing scripts in Hollywood, his forays into politics, his infamous feud with William F. Buckley Jr., and his friendships with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, and Tennessee Williams, among others. The book concludes with photos of his future burial plot beside his longtime companion, Howard Auster, at D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery.

Eager for his thoughts on Obama’s presidency and a range of other topics, I caught up with Vidal twice this month at his home in Hollywood. (The first time, he sported a varsity-football-style jacket, bearing patches of the characters from The Simpsons, on which he once made a guest appearance.)

Our conversation ranged widely, covering everything from Ted Kennedy, to the Polanski scandal, to the sexual exploits of Bill Clinton, and the relative merits of Obama vs. Hillary. Throughout, Vidal’s devastating trademark wit was much in evidence, as was an impressive ability to perform dead-on imitations of JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

—John Meroney


You  said earlier this month that you now wish you had supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries instead of Barack Obama. You said that she would make a better president.

Well, I was in a thoughtful mood.

Do you really wish you had supported Mrs. Clinton?

She would have been a wonderful president. As for my support for Obama, remember that I was brought up in Washington. It was an all-black city when I was a kid. And I’ve always been very pro-African-American – or whatever phrase we now use. I was curious to see what would happen when their time came. I was delighted when Obama appeared on the scene. But now it seems as though our original objection to him – that experience mattered – was well-founded.

Barack Obama’s books seemed to persuade many people to support him. Have you read them?

No. Does one ever read a politician’s books?

Well, Obama actually wrote them himself.

I’m sure he did. He’s highly educated – and rather better than a country like this deserves. Put that in red letters.

The President is having some difficulty getting his health care program through.

Well, if I were he, I would just give up. He should say to the country, “The Republicans will not allow these things to come to a vote without a filibuster. We can’t get anything through. So, good luck. Take two aspirin – and you’ll all die of the next epidemic.”

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy prompted a flood of coverage about him and his career. In 1969, you said in an interview, “By 1972, Kennedy will be just another politician whom we have seen too much of, no doubt useful in the Senate but nothing more. By 1976, Camelot will not only be forgot but unrestorable, if for no other reason than that Arthur’s heir will by then be – cruelest fate of all – unmistakably fat.”

I should think that’s rather well observed.

What is Ted Kennedy’s real legacy?

It’s nothing. But I predicted that at the beginning, when Jack started backing him for his U.S. Senate seat. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who was a loyal Kennedy courtier, agreed. But Jack was funny about it. He never took Arthur seriously. He always called him “the movie critic.” (Imitating JFK’s accent) “What does ‘the movie critic’ have to say about this issue?” He liked to tease Arthur.

What did Schlesinger say about Ted Kennedy?

On his own, he went to Jack and said, “It’s in the papers that you’re working behind the scenes to support Teddy. You can’t do that. You’re making an awful lot of trouble for yourself. You’re going to be accused of nepotism and worse for backing a boy who isn’t considered first-rate.” Teddy had been caught cheating at Harvard – and all the things that Republicans like to write about. I asked Arthur, “What did Jack say to that?” And he answered, (imitating JFK’s accent) “Teddy’s not running against George Washington.”

In your latest book, you claim that Mrs. Roosevelt was suspicious of John F. Kennedy because she thought he was supportive of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was. Jack had a nice relationship with McCarthy that I always thought was slightly improper.

So where is President Kennedy’s place in the pantheon of liberalism?

Jack was not a liberal. Why does anyone want to pretend that he was? When it came to matters of race, he behaved pretty well. But he wasn’t terribly interested in it. When he famously rang up Mrs. Martin Luther King after Rev. King had been jailed – well, Harris Wofford thought that one up. It was all the work of others who were liberals.

They were his closest advisors.

I remember when he was putting together his cabinet, he said (imitating JFK’s accent), “Do you know anybody who’s suitable for Secretary of Agriculture?” I said, “No, I don’t. And I don’t want to know anybody who’s suitable for Secretary of Agriculture.” Jack said (imitating JFK’s accent), “Well, that’s my problem. I don’t know any people.”He came up with Dean Rusk. He said (imitating JFK accent), “Who the hell is Dean Rusk?” I said, “Well, he’s your Secretary of State, I’m told.” Jack said (imitating JFK’s accent), “Oh, yeah, that’s right. He is.” When Jack got bored, he would tap his front teeth with his index finger.

Shouldn’t this be a golden age for the Democrats? They finally control both houses of Congress and elected a president.

But they don’t have a reason.

Do you blame Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi? Isn’t she a good leader?

Well, I’m not in the House, so I can’t tell you. If one wants to know about running the United States House of Representatives, look at Henry Clay. He ran it. But he’s totally unknown now, of course. I think, “Dear God, if only Henry Clay were speaker.”

Does Mrs. Clinton know how to use power the way Henry Clay did?

Yes. She has that gift. Bill Clinton does, too.

Have you met President Clinton?

Yes – and I like Bill. My family is Southern. I’m used to Bill Clintons. The country apparently wasn’t, though. At the time of his impeachment trial, I wrote a defense of him. When he claimed, “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” he was totally accurate.

You believe him?

He was talking Southern. In the South, sex is when you put it in and pump away and there’s a danger of a baby. That’s “sexual relations.” Anything else is what we called in school “messing around.” And all Southern boys messed around.

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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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