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.

One question that has been repeatedly asked since the economic recession began is, What exactly got the country out of the Great Depression? Do you think President Roosevelt’s policies were responsible for fixing the economy?

It was mainly luck. By 1939, the Depression was back. Unemployment was huge. Roosevelt didn’t have any quick fix. Remember, the New Deal, Works Progress Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps – all that happened years before. Roosevelt was riding a storm.

So what policies of Roosevelt do you most admire?

I had supper with Mrs. Roosevelt at Hyde Park, and she said (imitating Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice), “My Franklin and I were very impressed with something our son James did when he got back from serving in the war.” Mrs. Roosevelt said (imitating Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice), “You know, it was James who convinced the President to create the G.I. Bill of Rights.” That policy changed the whole class system in the United States. Before it, you had to be a doctor’s son to go to college. After that bill, everybody could go.

In one recent interview, you referred to FDR as a great man.

He was a very great man.

But you opposed his foreign policy.

Well, of course. FDR was damaging the Republic by his imperial ways.

How do you reconcile that with your affection for him?

It’s like saying, “I like you and your wife, but I’m not coming to your house for supper because she’s the worst cook whom I’ve ever submitted to.” Would that be considered misogyny or venom and viciousness? I’m supposedly very vicious, trying to destroy people all the time. I’m simply saying that she may be a wonderful wife, and I adore being with her—but I won’t eat a meal at her house. I have this same problem with Jack Kennedy. He was a good friend—witty, sharp, and very smart. I would rather be with him than practically anybody now alive. But what did he do for us in a thousand days? He invades Cuba, fucks up, and brings the world close to a nuclear collision over the so-called missiles down there in Cuba. Deplorable.

You’re pictured in this book doing an imitation of FDR during World War II.

Yes, I was in Alaska, the ideal place. Roosevelt sent me there.

You and Ronald Reagan have at least one thing in common: he did an excellent imitation of FDR as well.

Mine is better.

In September, director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for leaving the U.S. in 1978 before being sentenced to prison for raping a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house in Hollywood. During the time of the original incident, you were working in the industry, and you and Polanski had a common friend in theater critic and producer Kenneth Tynan. So what’s your take on Polanski, this many years later?

I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?

I’ve certainly never heard that take on the story before.

First, I was in the middle of all that. Back then, we all were. Everybody knew everybody else. There was a totally different story at the time that doesn’t resemble anything that we’re now being told.

What do you mean?

The media can’t get anything straight. Plus, there’s usually an anti-Semitic and anti-fag thing going on with the press – lots of crazy things. The idea that this girl was in her communion dress, a little angel all in white, being raped by this awful Jew, Polacko – that’s what people were calling him – well, the story is totally different now from what it was then.

Hollywood once provided protection for some of its people. For example, Rock Hudson was heterosexual to the public until 1985, when he announced he had AIDS.

Studios protect big moneymakers. The movies with Rock Hudson and Doris Day were profitable. Each star was given the Sheriff’s telephone number to say, “Lay off.” The Sheriff wasn’t going to go fucking around with the talent. They were the income of Hollywood.

During the 1970s, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans were celebrated for lifestyles of sexual extravagance.

Well, they’re all virgins, every last one of them. I can testify to that. And the last one you mentioned, he’s a super virgin.

They’ve certainly never been criticized and condemned for their sexual excesses. But Polanski was condemned even before he pled guilty to raping a girl.

Well, believe it or not, anti-Semitism is very strong out here, even though this is a Jewish business. L.B. Mayer was the worst anti-Semite of all.

But he was Jewish.

Well, Mayer’s view was, “The public will turn on all of us if they know that one of us has done anything.”

You think anti-Semitism is motivating the prosecution of Polanski?

Anti-Semitism got poor Polanski. He was also a foreigner. He did not subscribe to American values in the least. To [his persecutors], that seemed vicious and unnatural.

What are “American values”?

Lying and cheating. There’s nothing better.

So you’re saying that a non-Jewish director wouldn’t have to worry about getting caught up in a sex crime scandal? Such a thing wouldn’t be an issue for Martin Scorsese?

Well, he’s an absolutely sexless director. Can you think of a sex scene that he ever shot?

Errol Flynn stood trial for raping underage girls in 1943, and was acquitted. Was he treated differently than Roman Polanski?

Everybody liked Errol Flynn.

Women threw their underwear at him.

Well, he was clean-limbed. You couldn’t find a single hair on those legs of his. So he’s another golden virgin.

You describe the New York Times as a newspaper “notorious for its dullness and hostility to excellence of any kind, other than thievery.” What do you mean by that?

Ask anyone who was a writer in the 1940s and 50s. If the ghost of Ernest Hemingway were here, he would explain it to you. The paper was a bunch of dull hacks.

During that period, the paper didn’t review any of your books. You’ve said this “blacklisting” was a blessing.

It was. My first book was in 1946. Eighteen years later, when I published the novel Julian, the paper caved in and finally reviewed me. Everybody told me that Julian, a very complex story about the apostate emperor of Rome, wouldn’t sell. But it was number one. The Times’ reviewer, Orville Prescott, came out of retirement to knock me. Now that’s dedication. I complimented him in public.

The Hearst newspapers wouldn’t review your books either. Is that ban what led you into writing for Hollywood?

Yes. You don’t think I wanted to write “Ben-Hur,” do you? I was stuck. One right-wing rumor about me, which I don’t appreciate, is that I came from an enormously rich family. I never inherited 50 cents from my family. They didn’t have it.

In a 1969 interview, you say that you’ve been on your own since you were 17.

Yes. That’s when I went into the Army. It saved me.

So Hollywood was a way to write and make a lot of money?

Well, you didn’t really come to Hollywood to make a lot of money. You could, however, make a living. But I had two hit plays on Broadway back-to-back. That seldom happens.

Did the process of writing a screenplay come naturally to you? Was it difficult?

I’m a writer. I write whatever I choose.

You first started traveling to California in the 1950s; then you moved here. What’s the most dramatic change you’ve seen in this state since those days?

More foreigners. But that’s a very healthy change. At one time, California was the most parochial place on earth. It was kind of gooney. In a sense, Hitler put the United States on the map by murdering as many Jews as he could get his hands on and driving the others away. They came here, to America, and many to California. My first years here, right after I got out of the Army, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Thomas Mann dominated this town. We didn’t even have to develop people as good as this! We inherited them.

Who is the best leader in the Democratic Party right now?

 Do you mean, Who can give the best speech? Who can raise the most money? Look, I’m not a sentimentalist. Nor am I a romantic. I don’t believe in the Great Man theory of history. Great men come along very seldom – and when they do, it’s pretty bloody. But, as Chancellor Bismarck once observed, God looks after alcoholics, little children, and the United States of America.


* Discuss this interview at The Atlantic's Politics Channel. Read Marc Ambinder's take, and post your own comments.

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