Gore Vidal

Author Gore Vidal on his terrace in Ravello, on Peninsula of Sorrento, Italy, on Aug. 7, 2004. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images / August 7, 2004)

In March 2003, as U.S. forces were pouring into Iraq, I interviewed Gore Vidal at his elegant home in the Hollywood Hills. The conflict's opening days hadn't gone quite as smoothly as some Pentagon planners had anticipated, and Vidal, a self-described "master of the I-told-you-so school," was in his usual calmly excoriating mode as he surveyed the unfolding military campaign.

"We've been in the empire business before, but never so nakedly and never so stupidly," Vidal said, launching into a fierce and professorial discourse that touched on the Monroe Doctrine, the Mexican War of the 1840s and theSpanish-American War.

Gore, the prolific man of letters who died Tuesday at age 86, was a lifelong connoisseur of empires, with a particular interest in their Romanesque antecedents. He was fascinated not simply by the rise and fall of empires but by their intersection with cults of personality, byzantine sexual intrigues and the backroom power grabs of the mendacious and ambitious.

Like Edward Gibbon another historical writer who never let too many facts get in the way of a ripping yarn, Vidal as an artist reveled in the Technicolor spectacle of great-power decline, even as he grieved and fumed at the self-destructive waste of empirical over-reaching.

The ironist in Vidal couldn't help viewing the apocalyptic orgy with bemused detachment. This was a man, after all, who helped write the screenplay for "Caligula," Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's monumentally awful sword, sandals and skin "epic" about the last days of the cruel and corrupt Roman emperor.

Vidal used classical Rome as a template for analyzing modern America. He was fascinated by antiquity, as he demonstrated in historical fictions such as "Julian" (1964), an epistolary novel about the emperor who tried to roll back Christianity in favor of the old pagan gods, and his 1981 novel "Creation," set in the 5th century B.C., when Socrates, Zoroaster, the Buddha and Confucius all walked the earth.

The writer spent much of his adult life in exile, ensconced in a villa poetically onItaly'sAmalfi Coast, like some latter-day Roman philosopher, half Stoic, half Epicurean. He invested a number of his many essays with acidic observations about what he saw as the American march of folly, spurred by the country's adoption of a foreign policy he archly described as "perpetual war for perpetual peace." By becoming an empire, he insisted, the country was betraying its founders' republican principles.

But Citizen Vidal never entirely turned his back on the United States or disengaged from its painful midlife crises. Politics was in Vidal's intellectual DNA, as the grandson of a Democratic U.S. senator from Oklahoma and a step-relative of the future Jacqueline Kennedy. Vidal in 1982 launched an unsuccessful campaign for one of California's U.S. senate seats.

Like writer-pugilist Norman Mailer, a Vidal nemesis who once ran for mayor of New York, and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who made a bid for the Peruvian presidency, Vidal embraced the role of an artist/activist who relished getting up from the typewriter now and then to take part in a round of verbal fisticuffs. He was both consummate insider and consummate outsider, a gay man at a time when being a homosexual could land you in prison, but an extraordinarily privileged gay man who worked and mingled in Hollywood, whose plays were performed on Broadway and whose opinions reverberated inWashington, D.C.

What Vidal implicitly and explicitly challenged in his voluminous output was the idea of American exceptionalism, the notion (much in vogue today in certain circles) that the country is uniquely favored among nations and therefore its actions in the long run can't be anything but noble and beneficial for the human race.

Vidal likewise rejected the idea that any one religion had a monopoly on morality. He was a particularly fierce critic of the three great monotheistic faiths. His 1992 novel "Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal," is an irreverent send-up of the New Testament that infuriated the Vatican. In a Harvard University lecture, Vidal called for America to be one nation united not under God, but under "our common humanity."

Vidal distrusted all forms of political and religious hagiography. He cast the Great Emancipator as something of a neurotic mess in his novel "Lincoln." He depicted Aaron Burr, a villain of sixth-grade textbooks, as an honorable Renaissance man, and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as incompetent schemers. His revisionist outlook struck some critics as brilliant and others as almost gleefully perverse, especially in his twilight years.

History and morality, he insisted, are treacherous, both for those who make them and those who try to interpret them. Nations and individuals who think they're immune from these traps, Vidal believed, do so at their peril.

reed.johnson@latimes.com