I spoke with Vidal at his home in the Hollywood Hills on a balmy summer day that year, about subjects primarily related to the state of the nation and the state of California.
His bracing wit, corrosive views on the general haplessness of the political class and bold vision of how America should focus on trade, not war and prepare for environmental crises to come that are now devastatingly arrived, sound sadly prophetic. He also managed to cast Abraham Lincoln in a light not usually used for “The Great Emancipator” and to decry the negative effects of endless hours of TV viewing. And this long before Snooki!
If Vidal were still with us, I’m sure he would have something magnificently eloquent and amusing to say about “prophets without honor,” but here his words of 30 years ago amply make that point for him.
This interview has never been published in any form anywhere until now.
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GORE VIDAL – We received some good news this morning. We have a spy in the camp of one of the Republican Senatorials. They took a poll yesterday, and threw in the Democrats, too, to see what’s happening. I’ve moved from 10% to 17% in the last ten days.
There’s 35% undecided, and Brown is at 42%. The other two guys are at 8% put together. I did this without spending one penny. We’re spending money now on spots and so on, but as of the time I’d filed, the Lion of Fresno, as I call Mr. Whitehurst, had raised $400,000. And he’s never gotten above 3%. It’s astonishing! I don’t know what he’s spent it on. On the day I filed we started to raise money. It’s been very difficult, but now it’s starting to come in. It’s interesting, as the polls start to change more people are on the phone saying “Now I can’t openly support you, but…”
Q – A secret constituency?
Vidal – Yes. Which will get more and more public as I get higher in the polls, and if I win, I will have so many new friends that I won’t know where to stack them.
Q – I read that you’ve received enormous grassroots support that has taken the Democratic party machinery by surprise.
Vidal – They were stunned. The day I announced my candidacy every headquarter’s telephones started to ring. The politicians are out of there minds over me. There was an End World Hunger meeting last Friday and they asked a bunch of us ‘senatorials’ to come out and answer questions. There was Dornan, McCloskey, Carpenter, and a very good guy named Wald from the Peace and Freedom Party, and a Libertarian.
(Robert) Dornan came hopping over to me – he’s very energetic – and said, “I don’t suppose you remember me, but I interviewed you one time on KOR.” I said “Yes, I remember,” which I didn’t. Then he said, “I’ve got my latest Vidal quotes. You know all of us candidates carry around your quotes.”
And he pulled out a clipping from the L.A. Times and underlined in red were some remarks that I’d made. He said, “They quote you at such length, they’ll never quote me on anything!” I said, “You’re in there everyday fighting El Salvador, you’re getting a lot of attention.” He said, “No, they really quote you, I don’t get it!” I said, “Maybe it’s because I’m not bullshitting anybody.” He said, “I think we should have a debate!” And then McCloskey asked for a debate, and Carpenter.
Q – At your L.A. headquarters opening you referred to (Congressman) McCloskey as “The Arab candidate.”
Vidal – Well, yes, he is. I never realized there were so many Arabs in Menlo Park, where he comes from. Obviously, he wishes to serve and you should serve your constituents, wherever they may be. I thought I might debate him just out of curiosity to find out about this anti-Israel stuff he does, which he brought up in the middle of “End World Hunger.” He just dragged it in.
Q – Do you feel we should be helping Israel more?
Vidal – What can we do? First of all we are so inept at anything we do. I mean the idea of Alexander Haig being used to act as a peace counselor, you can see the mushroom clouds on the horizon when that one starts plunging about. It’s crazed. I wish we had a special relationship with Israel as we have with Great Britain. We are the securers of last resort of Israel’s integrity as a nation. Beyond that I just wish the Labor government would come back in in Israel. It’s got to happen. Otherwise this thing isn’t going to budge and one day Iraq will get an atom bomb. Almost anybody can make one. A boy at Princeton made one.
Q – You don’t have very much hope for our diplomatic efforts?
Vidal – Thanks to our educational system we have no one in government who can speak any languages, who knows any history, any philosophy, or even any geography. I had a friend in the State Department who was assigned to George Bush (Sr.) when he was briefly at the United Nations. No matter what the country was that was mentioned, George Bush would say, hysterically, “Where is it? Where is it?” And he’d immediately have to go out and get an atlas so he would know where the country was. And some of them were quite well known countries. You know Bismarck’s remark that “God looks after little children, alcoholics, and the United States”? But there may be a statute of limitations on Bismarck’s analysis. We just can’t keep sending out these ignorant people. Haig is thought of as the one real moderate in foreign policy and the man who knows about it because he’s in charge of NATO and has met some foreign ministers, all of whom were able to speak English to him and who wonder to themselves “What on earth are we dealing with again?”
Q – You don’t think Haig has any qualifications?
Vidal – He’s been to Europe on more than a trip to Paris to buy gowns without labels for his wife to get through customs.
Q – What about Assistant Secretary of State William Clark?
Vidal – At his confirmation hearings he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know what was happening with the Labor party in England, or who was in Rhodesia. But at least he didn’t pretend and that was refreshing. But here you have total ignorance at the top of the country. Even our bureaucratic class is better than the politicians. And they aren’t terribly knowledgeable. To me the great example is when that Russian soldier tried to defect in Kabul and out of 500 people in our embassy, not one spoke Russian. Yet they’re in a country occupied by the Soviet army. Why on earth are we spending our money on those 500 people?
Q – You give the politicians low marks on intelligence. What about the intelligence of the public?
Vidal – Politics is ideally, as my old friend Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, educative. She said, “People are not stupid. Politicians think they are and have some reason to since the people voted for them.” But people are instinctively intelligent about matters which interest them. Matters of self-interest like taxes and war. But they are kept ignorant by an educational system which deliberately keeps them ignorant, particularly of American and world history. They don’t know anything and they’re not meant to know anything. I went to see “Reds” with two educated intelligent thirty-year-olds and when Roger Baldwin, the old head of the ACLU came on the screen and said, “All of our problems with Russia began when we tried to invade them,” my friends said, “What?” I said “I’ll tell you about it outside.” I didn’t want to be overheard, naturally, there might have been a CIA agent inside there. Afterwards, outside, I said, “Yes, the U.S. invaded the Soviet Union in 1919. We came in with the Allies through Archangel in order to destroy the revolution.” And I said “You’re not supposed to know that. That is why we have an educational system.” The Soviets, however, are taught that in their schools, so they’re paranoid about us.
Q – How do you break through our paranoia?
Vidal – Well, the world is not a menacing place for the United States, except when it throws its weight around in such a way to cause hostility. I think that since 1945 we have been at war with everyone, openly or covertly. Two hot wars, Korea and Vietnam. Covert wars everywhere from Iran to Nicaragua to the Dominican Republic. You name it, we’ve been there stirring things up. We’re not good at it. Imagine, trying to be the master of the world and not knowing anything about the other countries! So I would say the world environment is a lot more peaceful than the people who want defense contracts would tell us. And this is what the game is all about. The world is basically more peaceful now, but there’s a built-in contradiction that since John Foster Dulles, whose policy it was in the ’50s, to launch an arms race against the Soviet Union on the grounds they would go broke first as their system was much more fragile than ours and we would win the holy war against monolithic, atheistic communism, which is forever on the march. But he didn’t take in to consideration that the Soviet Union is after all an authoritarian society and they can control their people.
So in a sense it has wrecked their economy, but they can still control their own state. It’s wrecking our economy and we don’t have the means to control our state. If the Omnibus Crime Bill goes through and we have the draft we will have the means to enslave our own people and keep the arms race going. So as for paranoia, two out of every three Americans now think there’s going to be a war. This has been deliberately invoked by the ruling class in the United States and here I use these dangerous phrases, for simply one purpose, in order to get one-third of the budget to the Defense Department which then goes to the defense industries who then pay off the members of Congress whom they support. This is a circle of corruption. And in order to do this they are ready to risk war and the bankruptcy of the United States.
Q – Aren’t most countries, East and West, operating that way?
Vidal – I think it’s a form of symbiosis. If the Soviets and the United States go in for making a lot of weapons, then they have these obsolete weapons. Or too many weapons and what can you do with them? You sell them to little dictators who will use them to keep their people down. I think that’s how it started and I think that’s how it can be reversed.
Q – There seems to be a message of hope in some of your statements, and a darker message in others.
Vidal – Well, it’s a mixed message. There’s always been a struggle for territory, for food, survival. One tribe would go after another tribe. But civilization is only 4,000 years old. That’s nothing, even in the history of the human race, much less in the idea of eternity. What we’re stuck with now is the nation state, which is becoming obsolete. Nobody likes it, nobody knows what to do with it. And it’s very dangerous, particularly when nation states have nuclear weapons. And you could put that back to Bonaparte, he really started it in a way. Particularly with the code of Napoleon. After he got his empire the code of Napoleon then codifies everything and really tries to control the lives of the citizens in a way that nobody had ever thought to do before. Super-bureaucratic and super-centralized. There’s a concierge in every building in Paris to this day, because that’s the way Napoleon wanted to keep track of his people. He didn’t want any revolutions. Then the thing takes an ugly turn toward the end of that century. Two people can be responsible for what we have today. Highly centralized nations of blood and steel with central bureaucracies. Total control through taxation of everyone. Huge military expenditures, a lot of macho swaggering. The two founders of this system with which we are now living in the last days of — let us hope that it’s not the last days of us too — are Abraham Lincoln and Bismarck. These are contemporaries.
Lincoln took this loose confederation of American states and shaped it into a highly centralized military and rather predatory power. With the best will in the world. He didn’t set out to be wicked, he was just trying to preserve the Union and in the process denied the right of the states to go, which immediately gets rid of the idea of local autonomy. Everything from then on has been Washington D.C.
Bismarck, his contemporary, was doing precisely the same thing with the German states. A funny conversation took place when General Grant made his world tour after two terms as President. He got to Berlin, and needless to say, Grant was the first person Bismarck wanted to meet. And the first question Bismarck asked him was, “What was that Civil War about? Was it about the abolition of slavery?” Grant said, “Certainly not, it was about the preservation of the Union. And had the South been smart enough to quit a year in advance, they’d still have slavery.” So this shows how high-toned we were, even then. So out of this you get the United States on its way to empire, highly centralized and Germany, highly centralized. Germany manages to polarize and really wreck Europe. And the United States manages to wreck the western hemisphere. And the two come in conflict and we have nothing but world wars, world wars. Now we have a world in which everyone is scared. It’s getting close to fighting time again.
I have a sense that there is a world peace movement going on which could put a stop to it. Certainly in the great powers. I don’t know about some of the minor ones. But in the West it’s strong. I think it’s strong in Eastern Europe as well. I think that’s one thing that’s going to help. And the other came to me the other day. One of the really wicked things in the world today are the multi-national corporations. I think they’re going to save us. I think they are going to get rid of the nation state. They ignore it. If they don’t want to pay taxes, they just move on. They manipulate prices all around the world. They determine the price of oil, energy, the price of anything. And you can’t find them! They are greater than the nation states. Since they are operating out of greed, I can see one day, the Seven Sisters, just telling the United States and the Soviet Union, “No you’re not going to have a war. We’re very sorry, but it’s too messy. We’ve got a new refinery outside Los Angeles that we’ve put a lot of money into, a new office building in Manhattan that we want to keep.” And if the Russians say, “We’re going to go ahead.” Then its “Sorry, we’re going to turn off all of your credit and you won’t be able to buy grain. I think they will bring the nation states to a halt. Here I am now saying that one of the wickedest inventions of capitalism may yet save us. I’ve never presented this before.
Q – And the multinationals’ ultimate plan?
Vidal – Would that they had one! The point is they don’t have one. But they evolve with things. I’m pretty good at picking up certain things. I have a kind of antenna. And if I pick up this one it means a lot of other people are picking it up. There is something developing along those lines. The powers of greed may yet save us.
Q – A capitalist utopia?
Vidal – Well I’m giving you the optimistic scenario. If you want the pessimistic, we blow ourselves up. Take your choice. We’ve been lucky so far as a race. But we’ve only been in this civilization business four or five thousand years. Which is nothing. I have a sense we’re programmed as a species and we may have a self-destruct in there.
Q – You mentioned the Omnibus bill and the draft earlier as a means to enslaving us. That sounds like a power structure waging war on its citizens?
Vidal – I think the nuclear freeze movement is beginning to show a real split between the people who rule the country and the people who live in it. They don’t want to make peace. There’s always that line in every Reagan, or any of the standard President’s speeches, “Oh yes, we want to cut back on nuclear weapons, but only from a point of equality.” The first law of physics tells you that no two things are equal. So you’re never equal, so you never do it. People are now saying “Stop all that shit and do it.” So there is a split and I can see how there might well be an internal struggle.
Q – Aside from the excesses of these giant institutions, what are the faults of the average citizen?
Vidal – It’s hard to say because there’s no such thing as a natural man. The poor, the middling, the rich, everyone is conditioned by the same society. It is the intent of this society to create docile workers and eager consumers. That’s what the educational system is about. That’s what the media is about. It’s been quite successful. So if I were critical of the common man I would say he’s been turned into this. But he has no alternative. I’ve always liked the metaphor of the lady gorilla – and this is a true story – that had a talent for painting. They gave her crayons and she did a lot of good abstract work, some of it much admired in the art world. And then she became more and more representational. People were fascinated by this, to see how a gorilla’s mind works. And she finally did her first all-representational picture. And it was of the bars of her cage. So if you’re going to talk about the average person’s view of the country, all he can see are the bars of the cage. That’s what has been around him all of his life. He doesn’t know what’s outside. He doesn’t know it’s a cage.
Q – Where could this person get information about what is really happening?
Vidal – If he wants to know about money he can read the Wall Street Journal. Don’t pay any attention to the editorials, it’s very slanted. But anything to do with money they have to tell the truth. That’s the bottom line in the money business. There’s the Economist, equally conservative, equally thorough in handling the news. But most people get their news from television. What can you get from a dancing image on a screen? Just dancing images in your head.
Q – Do you know of any healthy, informed societies?
Vidal – Well, all societies are sick as my friend Saul Bellow once said. But some societies are sicker than others. It’s a practical old saw. I would say that the northern tier of Europe is doing far better than any other part of the world. Switzerland is so near perfection that it has become endlessly boring even to itself. Young people in Zurich riot just because they’ve got to riot or go crazy with all of this perfection. Zurich is the only city in which they have so much money they just keep adding gardens and gardens. You’ve never seen such beauty. You can’t find a pothole in Switzerland. But then as someone pointed out, they are the receivers of stolen goods, so they’re in a special category.
Q – How long have you been living in L.A.?
Vidal – I’ve been in this house six or seven years. And I’ve been here in California off and on since 1952. When I ran for Congress in New York in 1960 I was called a carpetbagger. Nelson Rockefeller came down to denounce me. In Poughkeepsie we had all these Vassar girls jumping up and down with Vidal signs. And Rockefeller said “Send J. Ernest Wharton back to Washington where he belongs, and send Gore Vidal back to Hollywood where he belongs.”
Q – Do you see Hollywood playing a part in the media manipulation of a war hysteria?
Vidal – I think it’s been fairly innocent. The Vietnam pictures have been a bit curious. But they are after the fact.
Q – How can you get your message through to people whose economic survival depends upon defense contracts?
Vidal – It’s not easy. There’s a group now at work that I’ve Just heard about that are going around to defense plants discussing this with workers saying if they quit their jobs they’ll help them get alternative jobs.
Q – But where would these new jobs come from?
Vidal – I asked them the same question. They don’t say “Quit your job and we’ll find you one.” But if you’re working at Rockwell they’ll try to find jobs making trains, or bicycles, or something. For instance, you could take Rockwell and their 14,000 employees, and stop all armaments and build desalinization plants. This is my particular bee in my bonnet. Why on earth shouldn’t there be these plants all up and down this southern coast? Ultimately the water supply is going to have to come from the Pacific. It can’t come from the north because the supply is finite. These plants are high-technology and would be perfect. And there’s plenty of work for everyone to the end of the century. Mass transit is eventually going to come back. We’ll have more and more trains. I notice already the Japanese are trying to give us a few hints. I’ve been on that train from Tokyo to Osaka and it’s something.
Q – You’re known for being anti-military, but I suspect very few people are familiar with your military experience.
Vidal – I started out in the infantry. I took an exam and my eyes were too bad for officer candidates school and I ended up as a first mate on an Army boat in the Aleutians, going between Chernovsky Bay and Dutch Harbor. While sitting there on the boring watches I wrote my first novel, “Williwaw.” Then I got frozen and ended up in Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys. I could have had a disability from the Army, but they were very sly. They knew we all wanted to get the hell out and they said, “You can get a pension, but you have to stay in another year.” I said, “Take your pension, you know what to do with it.”
Q – Did those experiences have a significant effect in making you today’s self-proclaimed peace candidate?
Vidal – Well, I wasn’t exactly pleased to see so many of my contemporaries being killed at 18 and 19. Particularly the ones that had gone into the Marine Corps. I had the wisdom, or the instinct, or simply because I didn’t enjoy being a private, to end up as first mate. I had worked with boats. Those who didn’t were then sent, half of them, into the Battle of the Bulge, where they were just cannon fodder. My class at Exeter had the largest number of casualties of any class. And the ones who went into the Marines were Just butchered. And to see all of your contemporaries vanish is startling. It’s always the fat sissies like Kissinger who are so eager for war, those who’ve never been in danger.
Q – Lately the papers have been filled with the Britain-Argentina conflict.
Vidal – It’s a time warp.
Q – What should the U.S. role be?
Vidal – My friend the British ambassador was on television and the interviewer was giving him a hard time. “What on earth are you doing owning islands off the coast of Argentina? And now they want them back …” And he said, “We acquired the Falkland Islands from Argentina in exactly the same way you acquired California from Mexico. Only we’ve owned the Falkland Islands much longer.” That was the end of that interview. Obviously the Falkland Islands must one day belong to the continent next door. But the continent next door has a government that I don’t see us approving of. I don’t think we have any role in this at all. Just let them battle it out amongst themselves. I don’t think either side can afford it. I study the Wall St. Journal like the entrails of a bullock as if I were a Roman augur. The state of the pound is such that I don’t think they can afford war. They can’t afford the bombs. They’re too poor. Argentina, being a dictatorship, probably can do a little more. But I think we should just stay out of it.
Q – The Reagan Administration, before this, was pro-Argentina.
Vidal – They’re certainly in favor of Argentina’s dictator. Do you remember Haig’s remark about Argentina about six months ago? Somebody asked him how we could support a government that is “anti-Semitic and locking up people, and murdering?” And he admitted that they probably were not the nicest guys on earth. But he said “We must support them, as we will support any nation that believes in one God.” Nothing about freedom or democracy, we want to keep the world safe for monotheism. At last Reagan has found a foreign policy.
Q – Do you think the deployment of the Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe in 1983 is going to cause us more problems in Europe?
Vidal – They won’t allow it. It’s not going to happen. That is absolutely firm, right, left, and center. They are agreed there are not to be nuclear weapons there. I think we’ll be invited to leave. And if I were in the senate I would invoke the Mansfield Resolution and try to bring home the troops. Then I would allow Western Europe, which is more populous and more wealthy than we are, to take over NATO and defend themselves. They’ve got the money. It could save us $83 billion dollars.
Q – Do you see a scramble for scarce resources behind a lot of this war activity?
Vidal – Logically, it should be, but nothing is logical in a society like this. You would think that the U.S., with the famous statistic of 6% of the world’s population using 30% of the world’s energy and without the means to seize it all militarily – though we sort of have that in the back of our heads, but we can’t – that we’d be conciliatory toward other countries. We’re a very small nation; 6% of four billion is nothing. Our majority race is the white race, a rather unpopular race, to put it tactfully, around the world. We had better cool it, because we’re building up all sorts of enemies. And nuclear weapons are proliferating all over the place. There’s no reason why a crazed Khadafi might not decide to take out Manhattan one night.
You never know what might happen. So I would say a policy of conciliation makes more sense.
Q – Do you see religious ideologies leading the world into a major war?
Vidal – No, I think it’s too late for that to come to much of anything. I think what you’re more apt to have is a new world religion come about. Because the people are hungry for certitudes about the afterlife. And most people in the educated world are pretty skeptical. Somebody referred to the Pope’s visit to England that is coming up, as his first visit to a post-Christian nation.
Q – Hearing this and knowing you’re in favor of taxing the churches, one might get the idea you’re not a very spiritual person.
Vidal – Oh, I’m deeply spiritual. There’s not a day that I don’t talk to my demon, as Socrates would say. No, I would treat churches as I would corporations, a flat corporate tax. As a matter of fact I think religion is a marvelous instrument. It’s one of the few cohesive things in a society, particularly one like this, based on consumerism. It’s the only thing that strikes a note that you can have people adhere to one another, or to a notion of divinity, which is then tied in with ethics. Which I think all in all is useful. I wouldn’t get rid of it. I just want them to pay tax on their downtown buildings. There are a lot of cities that are broke because the church owns so much property.
Q – In your position paper you mention the anti-humanist backlash. Do you see the Moral Majority and anti-humanism as a danger?
Vidal – They use that as a codeword for people who are not fundamentalist Christians. It’s largely anti-Semitic. But I think the Moral Majority is dwindling. They’re having a hard time raising money. You se the constituency for (Jerry) Falwell are nice simple, rather ignorant people, who think it’s in their best interest to have prayer in schools. They don’t understand the Constitution or our society. And they arouse these people and they get their money, but these are poor people, they can only take so many mailings. There’s an old political law that in good times people vote their prejudices, in bad times they vote their interests. These are definitely bad times. People are not going to be brooding about abortion and prayer in the schools, they’re going to be thinking about jobs and taxes and war. So I see the thing as dying out.
Q – You mentioned a new religion evolving. Organized religion, or a new consciousness?
Vidal – I don’t see any “Godding of America.” But I think something might evolve. I think people are drawn to that. Christianity has proved to be enormously adaptable to almost anything. Whatever you want it to be it checks right in, so it could come out of that.
Q – In some eyes the space program has a potential to inspire.
Vidal – Not in my eyes. I’d like to see it turned over to the commerce department. I’m much more interested in trade than I am in war. I see the United States as essentially a great trading power, a great source of invention, which is what we used to be, before we decided to be a military empire.
Q – Are there any institutions, any professions to look toward for leadership?
Vidal – I wouldn’t suggest writers. Only one I can think of, of course. No, I think it will have to come out of individuals getting interested, regardless of their occupation or class.
Q – You’re very cynical, yet very hopeful. Do you see yourself as a paradox?
Vidal – I don’t see it at all. I mean I’m all for peace, you can go back 30 years reading me, I am monotonously the same. Why it is what it is, well, I’m not an autobiographical writer. Cynical is not quite the right word, I always call it realistic. I am a master of the obvious and hardly anybody can deal with the obvious because they’re so busy trying to con others.
Q – Well your “realism,” paradoxically, seems to be giving a lot of people hope.
Vidal – And I keep saying to the politicians who keep wondering how I get all the media attention, “Look, I’m not bullshitting. Just try it.” But the point is they themselves are sort of cliches. It’s not that they can’t play it straight. They don’t know what straight is. They just know you say certain things to get elected, or serve whatever interests happen to be paying you.
Q — How do you view your own candidacy?
Vidal – Sometimes I’m amused at the thought, how can a writer be a serious senator. That strikes me as wildly funny, but I have to be careful with that one. But if there’s any single group that ought not ever to be put in positions of responsibility, it’s lawyers. Because they are whores. They are paid to give pleasure. To argue a case either way. Henry II Plantagenet said “For bad lawyers to sit in Parliament on the grounds that they were perpetrators of quarrels.” Henry II had a lot of good ideas.