Love him or hate him, Vidal is one of the smartest, most provocative and productive writers in the country. Author of five plays, six collections of essays and 22 novels, he has also worked on numerous screenplays. His collection of historical novels includes "Burr," "Lincoln" and a sort of trilogy that takes a group of political characters from "1876" to the 1920s. In these books he has written the equivalent of a history of the United States, and in conversation is on a first-name basis with such American icons as George Washington, "our first millionaire," and Thomas Jefferson, "not politically correct."
Now 66, Vidal shows no sign of slowing down. Last week was typical: a rousing and irreverent speech to the National Press Club, which produced an avalanche of requests for reprints when broadcast on C-SPAN and National Public Radio. Then off to Pennsylvania to play a cameo role of a liberal senator in a film about what Vidal calls "apple pie fascism." Finally, he checked in at the Plaza Hotel in New York, for meetings with his editors about a collection of his essays due out in the spring and the publication of his newest novel.
At the end of a long discussion, it was more than an hour past midnight, but Vidal was still going strong. "Too bad you can't send me a copy," he said, "so I can add some more jokes." On a more sober note, before leaving for Italy, where he lives half the year when he's not at his Hollywood home, he said, "I'm just trying to be a good citizen."
As his role models in this effort, he invoked the memory of Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, the grandfather who raised him, and Eleanor Roosevelt. "We were brought up to take part," Gore said, noting that he and George Bush come from the same background. "I find Bush interesting, because when I was at Exeter, he was at Andover. He's a year older than I. And I enlisted in the Army at 17, he enlisted in the Navy at 18. He was brought up by his father, who was a senator. I was brought up by grandfather, who was a senator. We had quite similar backgrounds--and look at the routes we took, which I don't say pejoratively in either case. It's just interesting." Vive la difference .
Question: How would you sum up the state of the Bill of Rights on this, its 200th anniversary?
Answer: I would say that each year we lose more and more of the inalienable "rights." The First Amendment is always being besieged--currently by the President. . . . When a doctor cannot tell a patient "go to your friendly abortion parlor" . . . that is an abridgment of the Bill of Rights. If we had a Supreme Court that was separate and took itself seriously, (the so-called gag order) would be struck down. The court now is a nine-member legal counsel to the executive branch, in place to validate executive imperial decrees. This is not what the founders had in mind.
Q: What did they have in mind?
A: Well, I'll tell you one thing they had in mind was that their handiwork was pretty makeshift. They did not worship their own creation. We worship the Constitution but do not observe it. Particularly the Bill of Rights. They knew it was kind of thrown together. And Thomas Jefferson went on record as saying that there should be a constitutional convention at least every generation . . . every 30 years . . . on the ground that you cannot expect a man to wear a boy's jacket.
Q: And the relevance of that today?
A: Well, we've gone 200 years now without a constitutional convention. Our entire system now is dedicated to making sure that nothing is altered, that the status quo continues. And the dumb liberals start shrieking, "Oh, if you have a convention, they'll take the Bill of Rights away." To which my answer is: Well, they're doing it anyway behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court.
Q: Why are you so sanguine about the majority in this country turning out a good constitution. Are we more able than the founders' generation?
A: We are not only a less homogenous population than we were when we were3 million ex-colonists, but we're less educated. On top of that, we have constant misinformation and manipulation by media. Between having no education on the one hand, and listening to all this nonsense on the other, you do not have Jefferson's enlightened electorate. But I have a sense that there's a basic common sense . . . . That's called majority rule--write that down before you forget it. And that's why you need a Bill of Rights--to protect the minority.
Q: But wasn't it also to protect the economic interests of an elite?
A: It all begins with Shay's Rebellion, when George Washington was terrified that at risk were his western lands--Shays was in western Massachusetts. Washington, our "first millionaire," as he's billed, had great territories along the Ohio and was ever westward-moving. And he felt endangered by this mob.
What happened was that, after the Revolution, all the common soldiers, the common people, thought that they wouldn't have to pay tax any more to England. Well, they didn't have to pay to England. But the property tax was doubled in Massachusetts. So they're in rebellion against taxation yet again. . . .
Anyway, Washington panicked. There's a famous letter from him to Hamilton saying: If we are to preserve our property, we'd better organize some sort of a federal structure, because we're faced with anarchy, and so on. It's quite a hysterical letter. So Hamilton, quite happily, started the machinery and ended up with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Q: Were there no debates among the Founding Fathers about the intent of the Constitution?
A: The only politics the United States has really is between Jefferson and Hamilton. And it's like two tectonic plates, meeting in the cellar of the national divided house. You're either Jeffersonian or you're Hamiltonian, whether you like it or not. Hamilton is obviously our present world, which is energy, industry, trade, greed . . . . But Hamilton was very shrewd. He was no fool. He said: Why not use self-interest as a motor to the state? Why not employ people's self-interest instead of trying to deny it exists?--which Jefferson tended to do. Or sounded like he was doing.