Decline and Vidal : The Acerbic Critic Returns to U.S. to Find Even More Fault Than Usual
According to Gore Vidal, American society has three ways of handling its critics: “One is to black you out altogether, which they did with Noam Chomsky--he can’t get published anywhere; he’s been made a nonperson. Or they demonize you, which they did with Jesse Jackson. Or they trivialize you, which they do with me.”
Having said that, Vidal screws up his face, pitches his voice into a high, nasal whine and delivers his imitation of an obnoxious prude commenting on the likes of Gore Vidal: “Oh, he’s vicious, he’s venomous. He’s outrageous.”
Outrageous? Or outraged? Sometimes he seems to be both, although more often than not, the outrage comes out as sarcasm. Trivial? Never.
Vidal--essayist, novelist, playwright, sometime politician and lifelong critic--lives in Italy most of the time now. But he returned recently for a brief stay at his grand old Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills, making forays out to a few talk shows and speaking before a few groups on the state of the union.
For starters, he finds the state of the union close to that of a police state. He related one recent outrage to illustrate that point at a gathering of about 300 people who had come to Town Hall’s luncheon meeting at the Century Plaza Tower.
As is usual when he is in Los Angeles, he was a guest on Johnny Carson’s show last month. But this time around, he was asked to bring his passport or other proof of citizenship. He thought it was a joke. It was not. Were he a foreigner, he was told, the law would require him to bring a green card or documents to show that his visa was in order. It all had to do, he was told, with the federal crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants.
“So I said, ‘Oh, yes! It’s well known that as soon as a Mexican crosses the Rio Grande, he is immediately booked onto the Carson show, thereby depriving an American entertainer of his showcase.’ ”
But it was not the Carson show that was bothering Vidal. It was the requirement that he was calling a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, and the acceptance of it.
“Now that’s the beginning, you see,” he said at his home, days after the Town Hall meeting. He recited in sing-song staccato: “Mandatory blood tests, urine tests, lie detector tests, come on the Carson show, bring your passport, show that you’re in order, no traffic violations--this is a police state. . . .”
Americans, he said, now accept all that as the proper role of government and seem ready for laws on abortion, their sex lives and “making you say prayers aloud.” At the same time, they see it as improper to “go to a corporation and say, ‘Clean up a mess,’ because that’s ‘socialism’ and that’s evil. How you get people to vote against their interests and to really think against their interests is very clever. It’s the cleverest ruling class that I have ever come across in history. It’s been 200 years at it. It’s superb.”
That it is happening Vidal attributes to “the cretinizing of my fellow countrymen” by the media and the educational system.
He made that assessment in the privacy of his own living room, but it varied little from his public remarks to the Town Hall gathering or from his essays. He does not tone things down or pretty them up for public consumption.
At Town Hall, chairman James P. Miscoll, executive vice president of the Bank of America, called it an honor and fun to have Vidal, whom he introduced as a “great American and really interesting individual.”
The great American went on to call the country from the start an oligarchy, not a democracy; to hit at patriarchal societies, like he said exists in the United States, that permit a police state to develop; to call political corruption total, thanks to the cost of elections; to predict a depression soon; and to say flatly that America has fallen permanently behind Japan and that it soon would lag behind Western Europe as well.
Vidal, 63, referred to himself at one point as an aging patriot. And what he said about critics, he said about patriots: “Patriots in a patriarchal society are considered dangerous and so are made into nonpersons.”
Clearly to Vidal, the role of a patriot is to be critical. He appealed to his influential audience to do something to change opinion before America slips off the world stage.
A few people looked peeved or sounded irate during the question period. But for the most part, the prosperous-looking group laughed at his wit, listened intently and applauded strongly.
Collection of Essays
Part of the purpose of his visit includes promoting his new book, “At Home” (Random House), a collection of essays that have appeared in periodicals from 1982 until this year.
Vidal also was in Los Angeles to be on hand when the shooting of a two-hour feature film he wrote about Billy the Kid begins this month in Tucson, Ariz.
His main work in recent years remains the group of novels he calls, collectively, the American Chronicle. Although he has not written them sequentially, they amount to a chronicle of America’s history: “Burr,” “Lincoln,” “1876,” “Empire,” and “Washington, D.C.” He is completing the volume that precedes “Washington, D.C.” and covers 1917-1923.
“I’m going to call it ‘Hollywood,’ and Hollywood is in it,” he said. “Woodrow Wilson, the First (World) War, the League of Nations, Warren G. Harding and the Teapot Dome--which I then intercut with the rise of the silent movies. . . . The political history of this was not all that interesting, whereas what was interesting was Hollywood. This is the first world fact. . . . It came right out of here and it was the first great cultural fact that touched every country on Earth.”
While Vidal is finishing “Hollywood,” he said, Walter Clemons, a former Newsweek critic, is completing Vidal’s biography.
Biographer at Work
“He’s been at it a couple of years now. . . . He’s got his work cut out for him, because I never did anything. I wrote and I politically activated, but these stories (biographies) are usually horror stories.
“Of course, who knows, I’m not at the end, touch wood,"--and he did--"but it’s always drugs, divorce, sex changes, disasters and I’ve had nothing of that sort in my life. He (Clemons) gets very interested in my private life and keeps saying, ‘There doesn’t seem to be any,’ and I keep telling him, ‘What you don’t see, you don’t see.’ It’s as simple as that. I was always more public than private.”
He expects to finish “Hollywood” next year. By then Clemons’ book should also be out, he said, and Vidal plans to make use of his own biography, debating Clemons on its merits, in completing the Chronicle.
“If I’m spared, there will be a seventh, a summing-up volume, which will be written, as of today, by me looking back over my own life, looking back over the life of the Republic, mixing some of the fictional characters with real people along the way. . . .”
Looking back over his own life and the life of the Republic are integrated activities for Vidal. Something he values most about his life seems to be that he has lived it in what he calls “a lot of worlds” and has drawn on them all in his chronicle.
Childhood in Washington
Thanks to his beloved grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, he spent much of his childhood in Washington, knew the capital before the days of its solid Romanesque landmarks and was beneficiary to his grandfather’s reminiscences, including stories of his friendship with Abe Lincoln’s son Robert. Through his father, Eugene, who was FDR’s appointee to the new Bureau of Air Commerce, there were pioneering days and flights, and acquaintance with Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.
Vidal knew Hollywood and the studio system, having arrived as the last contract writer at MGM in 1954, and was on hand for the early days of television.
One world Vidal has left behind was New York. He lived outside the city and ran for Congress in 1960 in a Republican stronghold, losing but finishing well for a Democrat. He took up Los Angeles, instead. He calls New York a Third World city because of its poverty juxtaposed with “arrogant wealth that in a less docile society would be pre-revolutionary” and in the degree of its violence.
“You see the way the rich live (in New York). I could live rich there if I wanted to. But I don’t want to live behind guards; I don’t want to have TV cameras in every hall; I don’t want to live in a state of siege. L.A. to me is, you have a house you know and you can withdraw into the house--this is the good part of Los Angeles--you can have any kind of life you want. Then the air went bad here. My sinuses cannot cope.”
So Vidal spends much of his time at his flat in Rome or villa in Ravello. In 1981, the patriot in semi-exile registered to vote, ran for the Senate in California and came in second in the Democratic primary. The vote he cast for himself was the first he cast since 1964; he has not voted since.
He Doesn’t Vote
“I wouldn’t dream of voting,” he said. “I think it’s 51% who did not vote in the last election, which thrills me. We can say only 49% voted for these two jokers and therefore I don’t regard this as a legitimate government, certainly not a democratic or representative one.”
He has no plans to vote or run for a political office again. That is consistent with his view of patriotism, he said: “It’s pointless. Partly, I’m too old; partly, there’s nothing anyone can now do. This thing is going right over the cliff and there is nothing you can do. I’ve done everything that a good citizen should do in the course of my life,” he said, citing his runs for office, and work against the Vietnam War with Dr. Benjamin Spock and the People’s Party.
“I never wanted it to be said (the whine again): ‘Oh you, just criticized. You didn’t do anything.’ Well, I did. . . . So my work is done. Now, let it come down!” he said dramatically, then added as a stage aside, chuckling: “That’s Macbeth’s first scene.”
He is not the only one predicting “it will all come down,” economically at least. He’s been called a racist, invoking the “yellow peril” for his predictions about the future power of Japan and China. But he said it is the bad deeds and folly of the “white peril” he has warned about, adding the results are now coming in.
“You can only sell the country once,” he said of Japanese investments in America. He predicted the next American election’s campaign slogans will be “Free America from the foreigners,” and “Let’s get our country back.”
Called an Anti-Semite
He has also been called an anti-Semite for his remarks about Israel and his statements about dual loyalties of some Jewish Americans. On that issue, he had a row with Jewish conservative intellectuals such as Norman Podhoretz; Podhoretz’s wife, Midge Dectar; and Leon Wieseltier, an editor with New Republic magazine whom Vidal calls a “weasel.”
“Now I’m called a nativist,” he said, dismissing charges of anti-Semitism. “I’m supposed to hate the Arabs as much as I do the Jews because I’m a very superior WASP who looks down on the lower breeds. That’s the latest New Republic line on me. . . .”
Spy magazine, in an irreverent, November cover story on feuds, laid out many of Vidal’s famous spats. They include his alleged stormy relations with the Kennedys, and public battles with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Bob Guccione. Vidal said Spy got much of it wrong and just mailed off a detailed, scathing letter to the editor.
Contrary to what Spy said, Vidal never has sued anyone except Capote for libel, a case that he said he won. William F. Buckley sued him for calling him a Nazi; Buckley’s retort was to call Vidal a “faggot.” This happened during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago while police were beating anti-war demonstrators in the streets. Vidal said he did not settle out of court, as Spy said, but that Buckley dropped the suit shortly before they were to go to court.
The Spy article, in general, exemplifies the trivializing Vidal has experienced. The magazine described his feuds as personal, whereas Vidal said that, with the exception of Capote, they are political. And, he said, they gave no background.
A more important consequence of the Buckley feud, he said, and one that demonstrates what happens to critics like him, is that since 1968 he has never been invited back on prime-time television to comment on the elections. Buckley has never not been asked to comment.
Does that bother him? “I take it for granted,” he shrugged. “I understand this country.”