Playboy, December 1987
If Gore Vidal, author of
the recent best seller "Empire", is correct, and "history is the final
fiction", then it is in entertaining if mischievous hands. For nearly 40
wittiest and most prolific gadfly has been providing a
kind of brash counterhistory of the republic through his novels, essays,
lectures, political campaigns and television appearances. A man of
letters as well as popular culture, Vidal is astonishingly productive,
with an outpouring of carefully researched and well-read novels,
subjects range from the fall of the Roman Empire to the wobbly rise of
the American one.
His revisionist versions of American history
–– his best-selling
''Washington, D.C.", "Bun"", "1876", ''Lincoln'' and this year's
–– are not the history taught in high school. His acerbic sketches
of this country's most revered heroes have hardly endeared him to what
he would call America's ruling class. Vidal, himself to the manor born,
has made a career of thumbing his nose at tradition in scathing terms.
At 62, despite a fatigue-inducing disease known as
syndrome, Vidal is still cooking. The age of Ronald Reagan has been a
fertile one for Vidal's bromd of one-lineers, and he is amused to claim
that it was he, who was initially responsible for getting the
Vidal's litemry fomys outside history
and politics have often erupted
into scandal. He was one of the first novelists to create, in the late
Forties, a sympathetic, all-American
homosexual character (in "The City and the Pillar"); in the Sixties, an
orgy-loving transsexualist was the protagonist of his very successful
His on-the-air sparring with William F.
Jr., while they were
cocommentators during the 1968
Democratic Convention was one of TV's
golden moments. (Vidal called
Buckley a "crypto-Nazi";
back, "Now, listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll
sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered").
There have also been
famous feuds with Norman Mailer (who once took a swing at Vidal),
Truman Capote (who was sued by him) and Bobby Kennedy (who supposedly
banished him from Camelot for laying a hand on the bare shoulder of First
Lady Jackie Kennedy). Vidal, of course, has his own version of all of
West Point, Vidal grew up in
Washington, D.C., where his
grandfather was a U.S. Senator from
father, an aviation
expert, who worked in Franklin D. Roosevelt's Administmtion, and mother
divorced when he was ten. She was remarried to Hugh D.
descendant of Aaron Burr's and, later, the stepfather of
Onassis. Vidal's relatives have been well connected in American politics
for generations; one of the current
Democratic hopefuls, Senator Albert
Gore, is a distant cousin
–– and so, by marriage, is the rock-'n'-rollers' favorite,
lyric watchdog Tipper Gore.
Vidal graduated from
Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943 but never attended
college. He served in the Army and, while a warrant officer on a
transport ship in the
Aleutian Islands, wrote his first published book,
''Williwaw", a war novel,
whose writing was compared to Hemingway's.
[1946 –– Second novel was "In a Yellow Wood"]. "The City and the Pillar", his third novel, was released in 1948. Its
treatment of homosexuality caused a furor and, he claims, his virtual
blackballing in the publishing world.
His subsequent five novels were
largely ignored; he then turned to writing for television (his teleplays
and screenplays included "Visit to a Small Planet" and "Suddenly, Last
Summer"). Vidal found an audience for the essays he had begun to publish
in 1950 (The New York Review of Books has been
his main outlet since 1964) and then, not content to lambaste
politicians and institutions in print, he decided in 1960 to run for
Congress as a
Democratic candidate in
Upstate New York. Although it was
Republican district, Vidal lost the election by only a small
margin –– and has been telling wry stories about it ever since.
The writer became a politician
once again in 1982, when he plunged (some say quixotically) into the
race for the
Democratic nomination for U. S.
Senator in California
–– and finished second to Governor Jerry
Brown out of
a field of 11 candidates. Whether or not it's true, as has been
suggested, that Vidal's real dream was of becoming President, he has now
returned –– permanently, it would seem –– to writing and raising hell from his
abode in beautiful Ravello, high above the
Amalfi coast in southern
This, the final year of the Reagan Presidency, seems an ideal time to
ask Vidal to deliver his State of the Union
address. Our interviewer, Contributing Editor David
Sheff, whose past
"Playboy Interview" subjects have ranged from John Lennon to Ansel
Adams, first met Vidal in Moscow at the peace conference sponsored by
the Soviet Union earlier this year.
Sheff's report: "When I met with
Vidal, shortly after arriving in Moscow for the first time, he was
lunching with Soviet poet Yevgeny
Vidal was in fine form.
"One of the things I like about
he was saying, "is that he improvises a great deal, which is the only
thing you can do, when you have a country as slow––moving and resistant to
change, as this one. People here are clued to something that the
Americans have yet to wake up to –– the growing irrelevance of
countries. Except for nuclear arms, we're both hopeless. That is cause
for union, I say. I view us as the two klutzes of the
Hemisphere. I think we deserve each other".
"Six months later, I
arrived in Ravello.
Vidal –– Io scrittore [Italian -
writer], as he is known by the locals –– rarely descends from
his cliffside villa, where he is surrounded by vineyards and panoramic
views of the Amalfi coast. That night was an exception. Vidal was
holding court at an outdoor bar on the piazza, sharing
longtime friends and guests. The conversation, as you might expect, was
long on wit and name-dropping.
"Shortly after I joined them, Vidal motioned into the dark-blue night.
Suddenly, magnificent fireworks lit up the sky. Members of an orchestra
began playing on a platform below. The doors of the village church swung
open and a procession began. Vidal remarked,
"We thought we'd do
something a little special for your first night in
"Although the festivities were actually to celebrate the town's patron
saint, Panta Leone, Vidal got as much attention as the golden effigy
being paraded through Ravello's narrow streets, and he smiled like a
Medici prince at the passing crowd. 'This is why I come down rarely,' he
said. 'just like you-know-who, the more miracles you give them, the more
"Vidal, who divides his time between an apartment in Rome and
where he writes in his book-lined studio, insisted on giving me an
introductory tour of the coast before the interview sessions began. As
we cruised the coast line and he pointed out pre-Christian ruins and modem eyesores, I wondered if this man might,
indeed, be one of those lucky men to have had it all –– fame, fortune,
adventure, literary respect, academic acknowledgment, popular
recognition and all the party invitations the world could offer. That
and a sense of having given the world some important things to ponder.
So was it all so perfect? Maybe, maybe not. When I raised the topics of
loneliness and of Vidal's feelings about personal relationships, I felt
I was getting into subjects he hadn't revealed before.
began our conversations, however, squarely in the present tense"
Playboy: You seem to have been all over the place this year, taking
shots at all that is sacred. Since it has been nearly two decades since
you last spoke with Playboy, why don't we begin with Gore Vidal's
current State of the Union?
Vidal: None of our institutions are
of any use at all at this point in our history. Especially the
Playboy: Good, we have
that cleared up. And in this, the year of the Iran-Contra hearings,
what's your verdict on the Reagan Presidency?
Vidal: Reagan's is the most corrupt Administration since Warren
Playboy: You don't think
the hearings showed, as Watergate did, that at least the system
eventually works to curb abuses of Presidential power?
Vidal: Quite the
contrary. Since the Iran-Contra hearings, everybody knows Reagan is' a
criminal. Everybody knows he's broken at least four or five laws of the
land. If we had a nation of law instead of a nation of privilege for the
very few, Reagan would be impeached and imprisoned.
Playboy: How were you able to watch the Iran-Contra hearings in
Vidal: I watched
Ollie North with an Italian voice-over, but there was
enough of him coming through to afford delight. [Laughs] On the
always had that twinkle in his eye, as if he was on his way to get a
great hand job at some
Contra massage parlor. Safe
sex, of course.
would only do safe sex.
I knew, that he would
move into every American heart without actually
lying but without ever telling the truth, either, while diverting attention to the horrifying dangers of communism and how he alone has
helped save the United States. I mean, someone has to do it, doesn't he?
Playboy: Had you been on the
Congressional panel, what would you have
Vidal: I would have explained to him a little bit about the American
Constitution and how his hatred for the Congress was a hatred for the
people. I would have asked. "When,
Colonel North, did you discover that
you hated the American people and their representatives? At what point
did you figure that they were all wimps or stupid, that you knew more?"
If I were President, the only thing I would allow a lieutenant colonel
in the Marines to do is to organize a barbecue on the
South Lawn of the
White House –– but I would first alert the fire department.
Playboy: If Reagan is such a
criminal, why didn't Congress impeach him?
Vidal: Our legislators want him to stay.
Vidal: For the
Democrats, in power nowthey rotate with the
Republicans like crops –– what
could be better than to have a totally incapacitated Chief Executive?
If, on the other hand, there is a move to do justice to Ron and to the
country by removing him, it will come from the other crop –– sorry,
faction –– the
Playboy: His own party? Why?
Vidal: They could follow the Nixon scenario. First, George Bush resigns
and is pardoned for his sins. .
Playboy: Wait a minute. Why Bush? Didn't he manage to steer relatively
clear of the Iran-Contra scandal
–– at least as far as the hearings went?
Vidal: Bush is into the
Contra business up to his eyeballs. Much of it
was conducted out of the Vice-President's office, we have been told.
There's story after story about Bush,
his son down in
Miami working for
the Contras, Bush himself being the White House point man, just as Nixon
was on Cuba. Bush's little specialty has been
Nicaragua. Someone's bound
to notice this, if only to provide work for lawyers, the principal task
So: Bush resigns and gets pardoned.
Reagan then appoints, let us say, Howard
Baker as Vice-President, as
Nixon appointed Gerald
Ford. Then Reagan takes the Walter
feeling too good, the White House announces. Then we have President
Baker, who will then be elected in his own right, and the
Republican faction will stay in power and keep the dark limos and clattering
Playboy: Do you think
Republicans are really sitting around planning these scenarios?
Well, we're sitting here in
Ravello discussing it. Don't think
Georgetown is not awash with the sound of similar Muzak. I would think
that at some moment, the
Republicans –– Robert
Dole, let's say,
to be a clever manwould say, "My God, we're not only going to lose the
White House but we're going to lose Congress and we might lose for the
next eight years and miss the fun of overseeing a
depression!" So then
Dole, with Howard
Baker, will say, "Mr. President, you've got to leave.
You're going to destroy the party and we'll never make it again".
Playboy: So, by your
Democrats are rooting for Reagan to hang
Vidal: Sure. The
Democrats are saying, "This is wonderful!
Whoever we nominate will be
Playboy: Except Gary Hart,
who removed himself from the race this year.
Did we miss something with his fall from grace?
Vidal: Hart would have
been a perfectly conventional President, just like the other 1001
dwarfs. The Presidency of Gary Hart would have been no different from
that of Dole, no different from that of Bush, no different from that of
cousin Al Gore.
Vidal: He's about a sixth or seventh cousin, or so his
father once told
me. Although the relationship will get more and more remote the more I
hear about that wife of his, who wants to censor the lyrics of rock
songs. I admired his
Playboy: If you had been Hart when the scandal broke, what would you
Vidal: If I had been
Gary Hart, I would have gone up to those reporters from
The Miami Herald
and said, "You know, you guys are sick. All you can think about is
Don't you realize there are other relationships in this world? As it
happens, Miss Rice is one of the greatest economists in the United States, and I now have a deep understanding of supply-side economics".
And I would have walked away. Instead, he gets hysterical and, of
course, blows it. Hart ought to have known better. Everybody feels he
could have been caught, but a little charm and a bit of
wit would have
got him through.
Playboy: What do you think about reporting on the candidates' private
Vidal: In America, if you want a successful career in politics, there is
one subject you must never mention, and that is politics. If you talk
about standing tall, and it's morning in America, and you press the
good-news buttons, you're fine. If you talk about budgets, tax reform,
bigotry, and so on, you are in trouble. So if we aren't going to talk
issues, what can we talk about? Well, the sex lives of the candidates,
because that is about the most meaningless thing that you can talk
Now there is a lot of tension building up in our society. We're going
broke, we're losing our place in the world, the quality of life goes
down and the public educational system is gone. So what shall we talk
about? Anything that can distract the folks from taking revenge on the
country's owners, who have ripped us off. Let's talk
Playboy: Yet your friend
Jack Kennedy was famous for his
womanizing and it was ignored. What was
Vidal: There was a gentleman's agreement in those days. It was clearly
understood that one's sex life and one's political life were two
Playboy: How discreet was he?
Vidal: The higher echelons of the press certainly knew about Jack's
activities, and, of course, those of us, who knew him, knew what he was up
to a lot of the time. I don't
think anybody much cared. I mean, what has sex to do with
–– let's say –– the
missile gap, which he helped invent? Now, that's important. That started
the arms race. And our current bankruptcy stems from that.
I once wrote an essay about the 12
Caesars in which I said that II of
them practiced bisexuality or
homosexuality. The 12
Caesars were far
more interesting than most American Presidents. The point I am making is
this: In order for the state to control people, it is useful to create
sexual taboos. Then enforce them. Human nature is far more complex, than
the enemies of humanity care to admit. They want power. So they exploit
various crank religions, such as
Christianity. The Roman emperors were
simpler. They ruled through the army. They had no interest in regulating
the sexual lives of their subjects –– or their own, for that matter.
Playboy: But if sexual behavior determines character
–– for either the
Caesars or the President –– is it relevant?
Vidal: Sexual behavior determines sexual behavior, not character. As for
sex and politicians, my
who had a sort of Cabinet post under
Franklin D. Roosevelt, thought that power itself was very satisfying to
most of the political people he dealt with. Their
sex was politics. On
the other hand, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Alexander and Julius
it seems as if the two drives often intertwine. Who knows? Who
Playboy: Was that true for Kennedy?
Vidal: Jack was sick, both
physically and a bit in the head. First of all, he was on
which makes you quite horny but not very good at performing. He would
rewed up all the time. And he was also in competition with
who collected movie stars like stamps.
opinions about the current crop of
Simon wrote a very good book on Abraham Lincoln. On the
other hand, in the last election, he got the most money from the Israel
lobby. Wouldn't he be crippled in dealing with the one billion irritable
Moslems, who share the small planet with us? Mario
Cuomo could be
nominated and he could probably be elected, but he is smart enough to
see what's coming. A major
depression. So why not sit it out? Of course,
he may well convince himself that something will turn up. But, of
course, it won't. And who wants to preside over a major
wants to be Herbert Hoover?
As to the others, it's too soon to tell. But how much hope can you have
for a line-up of politicians called the seven dwarfs? Anyway, it doesn't
much matter. I am for abolishing the Presidency entirely, except perhaps
as a ceremonial post.
Philadelphia 200 years ago, there were a great many people who were
quite wary of the notion of a powerful executive who would also be
Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy. Thomas
Jefferson anticipated trouble. He thought that it was a serious error to concentrate
so much power in one man's hand. We were making it quite possible for
the man who would be king to seize power. Well, in effect, this has been
happening over the years.
Vidal: From Nixon to Reagan's private group of thugs working out of the
White House, it is apparent that the President feels himself above and
beyond the law, that Congress is just an echoing chamber.
what would you propose?
Vidal: Starting all over. We need a new
Constitution in which the power of the Government branches is redefined.
Playboy: And how likely do you think, that
is to happen?
Vidal: It has to. However, it's very unlikely that a new
would solve the problems, because the authors would inevitably be a part
of the problem, threatened by any radical reform. In the Thirties, Lady
Astor asked Stalin, "When are you going to stop killing people?"
said, "The undesirable classes do not liquidate themselves, Lady
Well, no political system is going to be abolished by those,
from it. They are the ones in the White House and the Congress and on
the bench, who are employed by the one percent,
who own the country, whose
power is increasing, not decreasing. When Reagan became President, one
percent of the population owned 19 percent of the wealth. Seven years
later, the one percent owns 29 percent. This is a country for that one
percent, the ruling class.
Playboy: That's stock left-wing rhetoric. Wouldn't you admit that
America is far less class-defined than many other Western countries?
Vidal: That's the genius of our ruling class. They're so brilliant, that
no one knows they even exist. The political-science professors,
perfectly sane men, look at me with wonder when I talk about the ruling
class in America. They say, "You are one of those conspiracy theorists.
You think there's a headquarters and they get together at the
Grove and run the United States".
Well, they do get together at the
Bohemian Grove and do a lot of picking of
Secretaries of State, anyway.
But they don't have to conspire. They all think alike. It goes back to
the way we're raised, the schools we went to –– after all, I'm a reluctant
member of this group. You don't have to give orders to the editor of
New York Times. He is in place, because he will respond to a crisis the
way, you want him to, as will the President, as will the head of the
Chase Manhattan Bank.
Playboy: What happened to you?
Vidal: Every now and then, you get a maverick
who opts out. A sense of
justice probably would be the simplest way of putting it. But people are
very shy and tend to accept the world view that they grew up with. And
if they do well at it and if their class is doing very well, why rock
the boat? Even if someone can't help but see how unjust the system is,
the truth is that not many people want to be unpopular. To go against
the status quo is dangerous. You're discredited, you're censored
But now our rulers are getting a bit hysterical. They have had only one
thing going for them for 40 years, one way to hold their power over the
people aside from money:
The Commies are coming. Now it's pretty plain,
that not only are the Commies not coming, they never were, particularly
back when Truman and friends invented the ongoing Cold War and rearmed
Germany, and established universal military conscription at a time, when
we alone had atomic weapons, world bases, the number-one economy, while
Russians were a second-class power sitting on their collective ass.
Playboy: Aren't you jumping the gun? No one high in this Government has
conceded that the Commies aren't coming.
Vidal: Well, they're desperate. They'll reach out for anything. Watch
out! Nicaraguan imperialism may yet destroy us! They will cross over at
San Antonio in their
Greyhound buses and rape and loot and pillage
unless Gold Star mothers unite and the
National Rifle Association
members get their guns out and we shoot their cojones off at the border.
[Laughs] We like to make an occasional little word picture for our
Playboy: Seriously, if the Soviets aren't a threat, what happens to the
world order built around the Cold War?
Vidal: One alternative is that we redirect billions of dollars from
defense to education ––
and save the country. Otherwise, the clearest
scenario is a total economic collapse. Which is more likely than not. As
it is, we're 20-something in quality of life. Down to around II in
per-capita income. We decline and decline. We burn up our money on
"defense". How do we keep going? The
Japanese buy one fourth of the
Treasury bonds at every auction. This pays for our Empire. The day they
stop paying for us, the game is up.
Playboy: Why would they stop?
Vidal: Why do they continue? I can see the
alienated from us. We say, "Without our markets and magnificent
military machine, they can't survive". Well, they can survive very
well, indeed. I see them marrying
China before the century ends. I see
them opening up all over the world. They are brilliant at selling.
Something we used to be. They have a global view that we lack. They were
being scolded by us ––
insulted by us ––
because they weren't doing enough for
the Third World. So they said, "All right. This year, we will take the
United States' place and put up five billion dollars for
development". Where did they put it?
Mexico. They're building a pipeline
near Tabasco, where all the
Mexican oil is. They're building refineries.
The Mexican oil that we thought would finance our gas
guzzlers is going
to go off to Japan in
Janese ships. If that will be their
for the next 100 years, they won't need the
Middle East, on which they're
altogether too dependent right now.
Playboy: OK, let's play out your grim
scenario. If our economy collapses, as y predict, what will happen
Vidal: A dictatorship. There's a real fascist strain in the
American psyche, which was energized recently by
fascist charm. He appeals to the vigilante, the lonely Gary
Cooper type out
there trying to defend the honor of
womanhood and property against
hoodlums. It has always been part of the American myth,
yet it's a
fascist notion, because it goes against the whole idea of law and order
and due process.
Playboy: So what do we do?
Vidal: Imitate the
Russians. They are in a worse mess, than we are. They
are trying to save themselves from economic inertia, from becoming a
Third World nation.
So, they are turning inward. They will get out of
Afghanistan and Poland. I used to teas Soviet friends about
counrry they hate as much as the Poles hate them. I'd say, "Why don't
you just pull out and turn Poland over to the United Stares? Stop all
aid to the Poles. Let the United States step in and pay
Two birds with one stone".
I suspect that that is what
doing –– trying do –– turning the Soviet Union inward. The next U.S.
President –– if we have a President –– is going to have to forget foreign
affairs –– the only fun Presidents have –– and go domestic. He'll have no
choice. There's going to be a good deal of internal strife. In spite of
all our secret police and all the killings and all the people sent to
prison. Did you know we rank number three in the world in people in
Playboy: Are you referring to all prisoners or to political prisoners?
Vidal: I call them political and so do the blacks, but the whites don't.
I would say half the blacks in prison are, in a sense, political
prisoners. The land of the free follows
South Africa and the Soviet
Union in the number of people in prison.
Of course, it's the dream of all rulers to have as many people in prison
as possible. It's my dream to have them in prison, starting with Ronald
Reagan and working my way to George Bush and to most of Congress.
[SinisteT smile] We all have our priorities. There's a wonderful
saying, "Every madman has his agenda".
Anyway, it may be that Gorbachev will save us, because he has opened the
possibility of the end of the Cold War. If we respond, we have a chance.
If that budget is not cut and we don't stop the "The Russians are
coming" propaganda, there isn't going to be an economy.
Playboy: Conservatives would argue that the Soviets have not stopped
their advance, that glasnost is just cosmetic.
Vidal: Anyone, who knows any history, knows that they are not moving
anywhere. Anyone who knows any history knows that the United States has
been constantly on the move since 1847. It's the mind-set. "They're
the march!" We always had to have a rationale for
Americans, as we were basically
Anglo-Saxon then, held the
pretensions about white man's burden, believing our institutions were
better, than those of anyone else, and that we would bring freedom,
justice and little Lord Jesus to other people, whether they wanted him
Playboy: You see no aggressive Soviet
moves? What about
Czechoslovakia, Poland and
Vidal: Yes, they went into
Afghanistan and they did very badly there,
but it wasn't as dumb, as our invasion of
Cuba nor as totally insane and
disastrous, as our
Vietnam adventure. Yes, they did take the eastern
European countries as buffer states. With our connivance. A part of the
Truman phony Cold War. We had to have an enemy.
Stalin was a monster. So
we pinned him down in the dismal corner of Europe and let him persecute
his captives. Our "conservatives", to choose a polite word, like to say,
that Stalin really won the war and the Soviets doubled their territory.
They didn't quite do that, but we quadrupled that.
Playboy: On what map do you base that?
Vidal: They got eastern Europe. We got
Germany and Japan and western Europe. Now, face it: Would you rather
have Germany, Japan and western Europe or would you be happier with
Playboy: You don't see a difference between allies and satellites? The U.S. has not taken over its allies.
Vidal: We have had military controlbases, atomic weaponry, troops –– in the
Axis powers Germany,
Italy and Japan ever since
1945. We invented NATO to
control our European allies, militarily, under our suzerainty. Only
Gaulle ever objected, and much good it did him. We occupied England in
1948 with our B-29s, and it's still occupied.
Latin America is more or
less within the Empire, as are
Australia and, in part, the
countries. Now let's hear again about the Soviet menace. They're winning
all the big ones. Like Cuba.
Playboy: There still is a difference. They forcibly took over.
Vidal: We have taken over to the extent, that we have wanted to, and
Japan and Europe have obeyed us loyally. We have our bases there and
they have done, what we want. There's been no rebellion against us,
because while we were bullying everyone, they –– particularly Japan and
Germany –– were busy mastering the 20th Century world, while the United States lost its grip as a mercantile power.
Playboy: Largely, because Germany and Japan could rely on American
Vidal: We gave them no choice, particularly Japan. They were
able to put everything into business, and then they took our business
away from us.
Playboy: American tradition is not to dictate to Japan or Germany or its
other allies, how to live or how to run their countries. The Soviet
tradition is somewhat different, wouldn't you agree?
Vidal: You don't think we're trying to tell the people of
EI Salvador, how to live? Were we trying to tell the people of
how to live? For decades, we have determined the governments of Germany
and Japan. Things now crumble. Slowly. Of course, the Soviets' system is
repressive. It's inherent in their
culture. But you can be certain, that
if our clients were to get seriously out ofline, we'd tighten the
screws. Yet according to Ron and the system he works for, it's the Reds,
who are perpetually on the march.
Playboy: You once predicted that Ronald
Reagan could never be President,
because the United States isn't yet
Vidal: Well, as I said
shortly after his election, "Welcome to
Asuncion". [Laughs] Did you know
that I made Reagan President in the first place? I was casting a new
version of [my Broadway play]
The Best Man, and I refused to cast Reagan
on the ground that he wouldn't be convincing as a Presidential
candidate. I picked
Melvyn Douglas, because he would have been quite a
good President, come to think of it. Had I given Reagan the job, his
career would have been revived and he would never have gone into
Anyway, we were talking about the ruling class. If it weren't a
prerequisite, that you have millions of dollars to run for office, you
might have something resembling democracy, which we have never had. The
founding fathers were just as terrified of
democracy, as they were of
monarchy –– and curiously enough, we're tending toward
monarchy now, rather
than toward democracy.
As a result, half the people never vote at all,
and it's not because they're stupid or apathetic. It's because they
think, What's the point? There's nothing to vote for. There's only one
political party, the property party, and it represents the owners of the
country. It has two wings, the
Democratic and the
Republican, but it's
basically the same party, paid for by the same people. The candidates
are all the same. If there are two parties in the United States, they
are the 50 percent of the electorate that refuses to vote –– I'm the leader
of that party –– and the 50 percent, that does vote in Presidential
elections. Not voting is, as much of an act as voting.
Playboy: Historian Arthur
Schlesinger says it's all in the cycles –– that
the swing of the pendulum evens things out, giving us
the kind of stability other countries envy.
Vidal: Arthur, watch out! Here it comes; oh, my God, the
Crassshhhh! The pendulum got Arthur. My God, it can get any of us.
Playboy: So, you don't subscribe to his theory of cycles as it applies to
Vidal: There's something the French call
la politique du
pire. In moments of desperation, I tend to it –– that you vote for the
absolutely worst possible person in order to bring on the crisis a
little sooner. Reagan was ideal for that. He has polarized the country,
disturbed the usual apathy.
Playboy: And perhaps made Americans
desperate for a change?
Vidal: Which they won't get. People felt that
Kennedy was going to be a
radical change, but by the time Jack was killed, he had proved that he
didn't represent anything new. O, I see all the candidates as being
essentially the same person, with the same viewpoints and the same
limitations. Obviously, some have more talent than others and they vary
in character and perhaps even wisdom, but it's systemic. Individuals
cannot affect a system that has just run out of gas.
Playboy: Let's go back to a time before the
system ran out of gas. What
would have happened had Kennedy not been shot?
Vidal: He would have gone
on with the war in
Vietnam. Maybe not as long as Lyndon Johnson did, but
he loved war. He found it very exciting and dramatic. I was in the White House one day and there he was, busy designing the uniform for the
Berets. He picked the
green beret, green for mother Ireland, and he was
designing the little insignia that went on the lapels. I said, "The last
chief of state I know of, who designed military uniforms, was
Great of Prussia". Jack was not very amused by that.
Playboy: What about Kennedy's record?
Vidal: Hopeless. He was a
wonderful man and great fun, very
witty, the best company on earth, the
greatest gossiper, who ever lived, though
Walter Mondale is pretty good
in the gossip department, too. Jack would tell you where everybody on
earth was –– and with whom.
Jack was very punctilious about Johnson, because he knew not only, that
like him, but that he was potentially dangerous –– politically.
In those days, when the Vice-President came into
the room, everybody took cover, including me. But Jack wanted Lyndon to
be happy. He introduced him to a very young beauty with a very rich old
husband. Later, Jack heard that they had got on very well, indeed. Jack
was astonished [imitates J.F.K.]: "Isn't Lyndon a little too young for
Playboy: What do you think of Johnson's Presidency?
Vidal: I think [biographer] Robert
Caro is going to show, that he was
probably the most corrupt man in public life the United States has ever
known. He was also one of the most interesting –– as a politician. My
father, with Amelia
Earhart, started something called
Airlines. In the Fifties,
Northeast, which had never been profitable,
was trying to get a Miami route, which they thought could turn the
airline around. They fixed it in the
House of Representatives with John
Speaker. Johnson at the time was
A high official of
Northeast asked my
father to give
Johnson $30,000 in cash
–– he thought my
father was the logical person,
since he had been in Roosevelt's Administration and had known Johnson.
My father said, "But that's a
bribe!" The official said, "Of course it's
a bribe". And my
father said, "Well, I don't understand it. Does Johnson
favor another airline for that route?" He said, "No, he couldn't care
less, but he expects to be paid for every single vote that he delivers".
My father refused to do it, and somebody else gave the money to Johnson
and they got the route to Miami.
I have told that story for years and nobody wants to believe it. Now
Caro is spelling
all of this out in great detail
Playboy: How about Johnson's record on issues such as civil rights?
Vidal: He and Kennedy were just completing the work of the
Jack's death made Johnson able to get through a lot of legislation in
one year. I'm not saying, that Johnson didn't have some interesting
ideas. In domestic matters, he was not a fool. But he was a
certainly he was a fool about
Vietnam. That adventure was fatal,
destroyed the United States, not only internally and militarily, but
economically. That's when the big debts came. Let me give you my
full historical perspective here. What happened, in retrospect, was that
they had had a winner with
Playboy: Who is they?
Vidal: The ruling class. Now,
Eisenhower did give an embarrassing speech
warning against the
military-industrial complex and thus almost gave
away the game, but he had served it loyally. When it came to 1960, and
the candidates were Kennedy and
Nixon, they preferred Nixon, but they
could live with Jack. He was a member of the team. Then he invaded
Disaster. Then he puffed up the Missile Crisis, which made the world
unsafe for a few minutes, and then he started the war in
Vietnam. All in
all, not a great record. Then he was removed from this vale of tears.
So, to continue, they then inherited Johnson,
who turned out to be a
madman on the subject of his cojones in
Vietnam. He ran up huge debts.
Kept taxes down. The day that
Wall Street demonstrated against the
Vietnam war, I knew the following: that the war was over, that that
Administration was finished and the other wing of the property party
would supply the next President. And, indeed, they did. In theory, Nixon
was a good choice. He came from the new, rich West. He had always been
adaptable and respectful, a clever lawyer. All in all, since Franklin
Roosevelt, Nixon is probably the only President
who has been
Vidal: Because of
detente with the Soviet Union and the opening up of
China. Forget his motives. They were always base. You must never worry
about motives in politics. What matters is what is
But then they find out, that he's nuts, too, and that he's got this
little flaw in his character, that no matter how marvelously his back is
being scratched, he must get it against the wall. He nearly brings down
the republic, brings on a constitutional crisis and flirts with
Now, if you're running the United States, what do you pick next? What
about a liberal Southerner, who believes in God and will clean up the
image of the office, which is a little sordid after Johnson and Nixon?
They get Jimmy Carter. Like everyone else, I'm skipping Gerald
Betty is something else. But
Carter gets bogged down in details and
there's far too much Jesus even for their taste.
Now there's real panic. They think, Why don't we get the best
TV-commercial pitchman in the business? And they did. They hired the
actor to read their lines for them. And he gave them everything they
wanted. They wanted tax cuts, not only for individuals, but particularly
for corporations. He cut all those taxes and then he kicked the poor in
the ass, which they love; that's fun for them. He gave all our money to
the military while generally staying out of wars. He was ideal, but the
chickens are coming home to roost. He decided to go covert in a way that
other Presidents have done, though not so exuberantly or so stupidly,
and he got caught. Now, that's where we are. Who will they give us next?
Playboy: Do you also feel that people and countries get what they
Vidal: God, no. I have more compassion for my countrymen than that.
Playboy: Perhaps. But you haven't
always been so cynical
Playboy: Whichever. A critic wrote that yours has been a "destiny
unfulfilled" because you were never President. Do you feel, that was ever
Vidal: I was brought up to be a politician, but I was born a writer,
which I never particularly wanted to be. I didn't have any choice in the
matter. If I had wanted to be President, I promise you, I would have found
a way ––though the thing, finally, for the individual, is accident –– right
time, right place. Also, I would have to have made myself seem like all
of them and hidden any signs of the lurking reformer. You must be really
ignorant to be successfully false. I didn't try. At 25, I wrote that
Christianity was the greatest disaster ever to befall the West. There,
to put it mildly, goes Dixie
Playboy: In the 1960 election, when you ran for Congress, what broke
your ties with the Kennedys?
Vidal: In the New York
district in which I ran, I got the
most votes any
Democrat had received since 1910. I lost by a very small
margin. I also ran 20,000 votes ahead of Jack Kennedy, at the top of the
ticket. He always said [imitates J.F.K.], "The most embarrassing thing
about 1960 was Claiborne
Pell running 1,000,000 votes ahead of me in
Rhode Island and
Gore 20,000 ahead of me in
Upstate New York". Had he
not done so badly, I would have been elected.
On Halloween night, Bobby Kennedy arrived at a
Democratic gathering in
the district. He was two hours late and gave one of the worst speeches
I've ever heard. Afterward, he came up to me and said [imitates R.F.K.], "Why don't you ever mention the ticket?" I said, "Because I want to
win". Anyway, bad blood flowed ever since
Halloween. Later, I wrote a
piece, in which I expressed my deep dislike of Bobby Kennedy, the
his policies as Attorney General. I took him to task for not riding herd
on J. Edgar Hoover. He didn't appreciate that.
Playboy: And he once threw you out of the White House, didn't he?
Vidal: Truman Capote gave an interview, in which he went into great
detail about how Bobby Kennedy had thrown me out of a party, to which
Capote had not been invited. I took him to court. He was found guilty of libel. He then
appealed, but couldn't afford the appeal and wrote me a cringing letter
saying, that he had lied and he knew that he had lied, so I withdrew the
suit. The actual event was pretty uninteresting. I was squatting beside
Jackie's chair. We were talking. There was no arm or back to the chair,
so I had one hand on her shoulder, to balance myself. Bobby came along
and removed the hand. What followed was not the most brilliant exchange.
I went up to him and said, "Don't ever do that again". Each of us then,
unwitnessed by anyone, told the other to fuck off. Then came dinner.
Later, I left the White House in a car with Arthur
George Plimpton and John Kenneth
Galbraith. So much for the dramatic
story, so popular in neo-Nazi circles.
Playboy: Are you still friends with
Vidal: I never see
mutual sister [Nina Straight, Vidal's half sister and
stepsister] keeps us informed. Years later, we ran into each other in a
lift in London on my 50th birthday.
Playboy: Did she wish you a happy birthday?
Vidal: I'm afraid two of the cooler people of our time stared with
mouths ajar at each other. Then I turned, impolitely, away.
That's not your only celebrated
feud. There was one with Norman
who decked you at a dinner party.
Vidal: He swung at me and grazed my lip and I pushed him away and he
fell backward on top of Max
Palevsky. Max thought it was a hostile act,
throwing Mailer at him. It all was over something I had written, a
defense of women's liberation, in which I had a paragraph or so about
Prisoner of Sex. Norman took great umbrage. But that was long
ago. Only the media remember these things, getting the details wrong and
missing the point. These "feuds" are largely the work of others; I'm not
the instigator, though Capote had an interesting fix on them. In his
pretrial deposition [in Vidal's libel
action against him], he said, "Gore never starts a quarrel, but he
incites you to it; then he's ready with a gun".
Playboy: Is it a way of amusing yourself?
Vidal: Well, I like fighting.
It's part of the Anglo-Irish heritage, I suppose. But I also deplore it.
Playboy: Do you want to say anything about William F.
whom you had your most notorious
Vidal: A figure of no consequence,
whom I neither read nor watch
Playboy: Back to your life as a politician. Why didn't you run again in
Vidal: I got smarter. I made a conscious decision not to go to the
of Representatives. As Jack always said, "The
House of Representatives
is a can of worms". I certainly wasn't going to hang around Washington
listening to that buzzer go off for the voting in the House. It's a
pretty grim place, unless that's to be your career; it wasn't going to
be mine, and I didn't see a Senate seat opening up in the near future.
Playboy: Until 1982, when you ran in the California primary against
Vidal: And could have won
Playboy: Why didn't you?
Vidal: I couldn't have won the general election. The
have spent $50,000,000 to buy that seat for Pete
Playboy: Then why did you run?
Vidal: I had been lecturing up and down California, getting large
crowds. I realized it was a moment in our republic's history when the
people were getting nervous. Even
Carter had detected a malaise. I
decided that I would go against
Brown, because he was weak and I could
beat him. However, I was death to the
always suspected that I might be for real, while they knew that
was not –– he's a good beggar, though, which is what politics is today,
begging people for money.
Still, I decided to have some fun and make people read about the
election. I started at five percent and ended with 15 percent and about
half a million votes, which is quite a lot. You must remember, that there
are many people, who are very interested, in what I am politically and
they don't very often have anybody to vote for. I was awakening them and
voicing their objections to things in the society.
Playboy: So, you ran
because it was your patriotic duty?
Vidal: I never wanted it said of me, "Oh, he just complained. He never
did anything". Well, there's no other critic, who has run for the House
in [New York and the Senate in California, as well as cochaired a
political party. I have been more of an activist than any other writer
in our history.
Playboy: You've said, "I write to make art and change
society" and "A writer with an audience has more power, than most
Congressmen". Do you still believe that?
Vidal: I'm not so sure anymore.
They allow you to be rich and famous, but they don't allow you to be
influential, so what influence you do have is very indirect. To the
extent, that you're allowed to express your ideas, they are apt to fall
upon fertile soil, and you may set off a chain of reaction, that you'll
never know about. Who knows, what future political genius I may have
inspired? And you can have more visibility. After all, with the
exception of Teddy Kennedy, I suppose, I am better known, than anybody in
the Senate, which isn't saying very much, because people aren't awfully
interested in Senators.
Playboy: Let's say some of the things you've called for have taken
place –– a new Constitution, no President and a parliamentary system, of
which you are a part. What do we do first?
Vidal: We dismantle the defense budget. We withdraw from NATO. We stop
all aid to the Middle East. And we abolish the operative end of our
secret services, specifically the CIA. The savings there alone would
balance the budget. Then I would do a crash course in education with the
money, that is being saved and not being wasted on stockpiling nuclear
Playboy: How, briefly, would you restructure the educational
Vidal: The idea is simple: to teach children to think and to tell them,
what other people have thought. To do that, I would make history the
spine of any educational system. I'd start with the' big bang and the
cosmos and the Garden of Eden –– give all the theories to the
six-year-olds. Then keep going, so that by the time they're 17, they
will be getting today's history and they will have gone through at least
an outline of the story of the entire human race and will know not only
about the Western world, from which we come, but also about the East.
Along the way, the kids would come naturally to the various sciences,
and those, who are going to specialize in one or another, will sort of
bend off in a given direction. Also, it would be obligatory to learn one
foreign language, which should include
Eventually, we might have an educated citizenry. If we did, an awful lot
of our political problems would go away.
Playboy: Nothing too radical there.
Vidal: Try to get it through the system, though. The politicians are
quite happy with the way things are. If you ran a country like the
United States and were currently ripping it off, you certainly wouldn't
want an educated citizenry.
Playboy: What happens to American forreign
policy in the world according
Vidal: I think the United States should mind its own business for a
Playboy: And do what, for instance, in the
Vidal: I don't think we should give aid to Israel or
sell radar planes –– or whatever –– to anybody. Pull out of the
and pull out of Central America
Playboy: That's a brisk
policy. What about the
Philippines and other
trouble spots around the world?
Vidal: Let them all go. Of all the really unimportant countries, the
Philippines takes the cake. It's an issue only because it used to be our
property. What the
Marcos family did not steal,
Aquino's family will now
steal. Nobody seems to know it's the same family. They just have
different names. We don't have any understanding of that part of the
Playboy: How about
Vidal: Let it go. Nobody cares
Persian Gulf? All that oil?
Vidal: The big terror is
supposed to be that the
Russians will become the new allies of
they'll end up taking all that oil, right? Ok, let's say they've got the
oil. What are they going to do with it? Drink it? Deny it to western
Europe, unless everybody in western Europe gives up his
Rolex? Are they
going to burn it up, because they're evil? No. I'll tell you exactly what
they'd do. They would –– brace yourself –– sell it, because they need hard
currency, and their oil might actually be cheaper, than what we buy from
the oil cartel, which fixes prices.
Playboy: What is your prescription for fighting
Vidal: Simplicity itself. The
Israelis are going to have to give back
the land they have stolen from the
Palestinians, and create a pluralist
state. Nothing else will work.
There is no
morality in politics. There are only interests. And it is
not to our interest to have the hatred of 150,000,000
Arabs, the hatred
of one billion Moslems. They hate the United States because of our
connection to Israel. I was a great
Zionist when the thing started.
Lebanon is what turned me around. I realized, that not only is the
Israeli leadership demented, but the
Shamir/Sharons are active fascists
in the way that the Reagan/Rehnquist are passive fascists.
Playboy: It's that kind of
statement, that has gotten you branded as anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.
Vidal: I have made myself very clear on the subject. Israel has skewed
American politics like nobody's business. It is going to stop soon.
'When the American people wake up to it and realize what is going on,
they are going to be very, very angry. We haven't got the money to
support Israel. You think the
are going to give us money to
give to Israel to beat up on the
Arabs and to make nuclear weapons?
Playboy: What do you think of sanctions to equalize the trade imbalance
Vidal: I think they're pointless. Japan has won
economically. We live on their sufferance. If we make them really angry,
they will cut us loose. Then what do we do? Join
and Mexico as the bankrupt
Western Hemisphere? Japan could even live
without us as a major market.
China and Russia and even western Europe
will take up the slack.
Playboy: If you feel that governments should
mind their own business, then should they meddle in
I'd stop all meddling. We're too small, too poor and too ignorant to try
to run the world. This isn't 1945, when we were all-powerful. I'd pull
out of everywhere and try to become again what we were once very good
at –– making and selling consumer goods. Another point that few have
noticed: The nation-state is finished.
The future –– if we make it to the future –– belongs to the multinational,
which means extranational, conglomerates. We've seen only the evil
side of them, which is that they have no loyalty to any country, that
they rip off everybody, won't pay taxes, and so forth. On the other
hand, they are beyond nationalism, which is good. They're outside the
nation-state. Ultimately, they're going to want a peaceful world, a
well-educated world –– so they can sell better gadgets.
ITT will not allow
you to bomb Moscow, because Moscow is a big market. Can you imagine if
they put up an expensive skyscraper in downtown Moscow and we got a
crazy fundamentalist President
who believed in Armageddon and wanted to
blow up the capital of the evil Empire?
ITT would say, "Oh, no you
don't. \'Ve've just made a big real––estate commitment there. Forget it.
Pick on somebody your own size. Like
Playboy: Just as briefly:
What do you think is going on in
Vidal: I think that what
Gorbachev is doing is disarming
He can't tell his own people that, because his
generals would go up the
wall. And he can't tell us that, because he can't give away those
bargaining chips, as ixon would say. Yet, in practice, he's cutting back
on the military and putting the money elsewhere. It would be nice, if he
could persuade us to do the same thing, but he has already figured out
that, we're going broke anyway, so it doesn't matter what we say or do.
Playboy: Let's move to your social
ideas. You've said you would legalize
drugs. Defend that in the era of
"Just say no".
would remove all drug-related
crime, which is most of organized
There would be no playground pushers, because there would be no money in
it. It would be the end of the
Mafia, the end of the CIA's running
Latin America, as it used to do during the
war and still seems to be doing in
Central America. Most people don't
want to die, so most people won't become addicts. The ones, who will die,
are going to die anyway.
Playboy: That's being pro-choice in a fairly
Vidal: Beyond all the individual issues, the big one is, Do we want the
state to be paternalistic and determine, what we eat and drink, how we
dress and so on? In my lifetime, we have moved away from a concept of
the state as being something to run the post office. A convenience to
protect persons and property. For what it's worth, the
think that the Federal Government should be in the business of
legislating private morals. To underline the point, they gave us a Bill of Rights. Anyway, I never thought I'd live to see the day, when a
President would get up in the Congress, where before him stood,
Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln,
and talk about abortion. Reagan symbolizes the end of the American
Whether you have an abortion, what you put in your own body, with whom
you have sex –– these are not affairs of the state. A government does not
exist to control the citizens. When it does, it is a tyranny, and must
be fought. The tree of liberty,
Jefferson warned us, must be refreshed
with the blood of tyrants and patriots.
Playboy: Do you consider
mandatory birth control, which you favor, a state concern?
Vidal: I see
that coming anyway. The planet last summer celebrated the birth of its
five-billionth inhabitant. It simply won't support
Playboy; But how can you justify, telling people, whether or not they can
have children and, if so, how many and not give prescriptions about
Vidal: Wantonly adding a life to a society is just
about as arbitrary and aggressive as taking a life. What you do in the
way of baby making stays on for another generation after you've departed
this Slough of Despond, because the society can't support the child and
there may be nothing at all for it to do. I think most people should be
discouraged from having children, because most people have no gift for
parenthood. Mlost parents realize this eventually. The children, of course, realize
it right away.
Playboy: One of your long-standing goals is to see
religion taxed, isn't it?
Vidal: Oh, yes. God, I get applause with that one from audiences
everywhere. Yes, I would tax the lot, including the TV evangelicals. The
founding fathers' idea of exempting churches from taxation had to do
with the property tax on the little white church on Elm Street. It was
not meant to exempt the little white church's portfolio of stocks in
Union Carbide and
Standard Oil. An interesting reason for the
deterioration of the older American cities is that so much of their more
valuable real estate was-is-owned by church and temple. Since these properties are largely tax-exempt, municipal governments go
Playboy: How do you feel about a continuing issue of this
era –– Attorney General Edwin
Meese and his commission?
Vidal: Yet another assault on the First Amendment. Pornography is a
nonissue but a lot safer to talk about than taxing
Playboy: Then why have
Meese and other so-called
evangelical TV ministers –– gotten so much attention?
Vidal: According to
pendulum number, there's always a kind of ebb and flow.
When politicians need diversion, they start talking about prayer in
school, pornography, homosexuality and
drugs. That's when they want to
keep you from watching, what they're doing. It's like the magician,
picking your pocket with his right hand and distracting you with
gestures with his left hand. Whenever I see anybody pushing those
issues, I start looking very seriously at tax reform and see, what he's
up to. Fawn Hall, Donna
Tammy Bakker are all diversions.
Sexy, but diversions.
Playboy: Let's talk about AIDS. Have you anything revisionistic to say
Vidal: Well, there is one definite plus from this horrible
disease –– the fact that birth control will now be universal as people
resort to rubbers, so it will cut the baby supply, and that's a good
thing. One odd thing –– for an epidemic that has created so much hysteria
in the press, the numbers are so small.
There's an awful lot of sex going on in western Europe, at least here in
southwestern Europe, and there are very few cases of AIDS. Many more
people would die on a bad day of the
influenza epidemic in 1917 than
have died in seven, eight, ten years of this. The practicing of safe
has cut down the rate of new cases in San Francisco and the gay
communities around the world, and the famed heterosexual community,
whoever and whatever it may be, seems not to be overly afflicted. So
here is the question: What could it be that has caused so much distress?
Could it be the hatred offaggots? Of casual sex? Even,
God help us, of Haitian refugees? I think it is.
Playboy: How is AIDS affecting
Vidal: It's going to be interesting to see the effect it has on those,
who are by nature promiscuous. In my youth, I was always a devotee of
promiscuity, and my generation did not have penicillin –– we could get
syphilis at any time, which could be a
death warrant. We could wander
around with it and not know it and give it to other people, who could
suddenly die of it. We were shown horrendous movies in the Army that
preached, "Beware of syphilis and bad girls off the post", showing
dripping cocks in lurid color, with huge chancres.
They showed us the
V.D. films at least once a month to get everybody out of the mood for
sex, which, of course, did no good at all. But, as with AIDS, there was
no real cure for syphilis then. Gonorrhea was the same. Doctors used to
have to stick a little umbrella up your
cock, and then they opened it up
inside and reamed it out to get rid of the gonorrhea. They were very
proud of how extremely painful it was, showing once again that sin was
Anyway, the postpenicillin generation has no idea, that there was ever
any risk at all in sex. So, what it means socially, is quite interesting.
What will young people do? They used to have sex, you know. They don't
now. What will take its place?
Playboy: According to you, politics is a
better bang, anyway.
Vidal: [Smiles] When I wrote "Sex is politics"
[Playboy, January 1979], I was speaking
Playboy: And there are those, who suggest, that mother
nature is weeding out the population with AIDS.
Vidal: Which proves, what an ironist mother nature is. The one group that
does not add to the population and, therefore, is in the truest sense
altruistic is the one group to get knocked off. It should obviously be
the heavy breeders that get the plague, if nature was looking out for our
best interests. People, who did not make babies, would be preserved and
the baby makers would die. I'm afraid, mother nature doesn't really like
the human race, but then, why should she?
Playboy: What's the serious political danger in all this?
Vidal: That they start locking people up. However, what if you run a
blood test on everybody in the United States
and you find that 2,000,000 have the antibody bubbling around in their
blood? You can't lock up 2,000,000 people. And a lot of people tested
will show up negative, and the disease will show up a week later, a year later, five years later, from
Playboy: What does one do responsibly?
Vidal: I think you
educate and you take precautions and that's the end of it. The mini
plague will run its course or they'll find a cure or both. Some people
are naturally immune. Why? There the cure begins.
Playboy: Will AIDS
cause the return of some of the taboos about sex?
Vidal: We know that there's been a lot of hysteria about people's being
open about sex, which violates the
essential roots of our religio-political life, roots that have been seriously frayed during the
past 20, 30 years of sexual glasnost. Out of the so-called
Judaeo-Christian synthesis have come truly perverted attitudes toward
sex –– toward life, toward government, toward everything.
Now a backlash
Playboy: Do you see this attitude spilling over into other forms
Vidal: Obviously, the faggots and the needle users are the first
targets, two unpopular groups to begin with. I also think there will be
a concerted effort on the part of the Jesus Christers and the Orthodox
Moslems to smash to bits the women's movement. Why should a
woman have sex freely? She's supposed to marry, according to God, and
have sex with only one person, her husband. She's to have babies only
from him and there is a blessed family. We could have a revival of
monogamy, not so much as a religious ideal, but as a medical reality.
"I'll be true to you,
Mildred". "And I to you,
Playboy: Or use
Vidal: Or use
Playboy: Do you see that necessarily as a bad thing?
Playboy: No. A revival of monogamy.
Vidal: Certainly it would not suit
me. I personally feel, that we live far too long to be
monogamous. It was
a nice notion, when you might not make it to the age of 14, so you'd
better impregnate someone by 13, before a rock was dropped on your head.
These days, the biggest thing keeping marriages together is the
I see marriage as a social device to trap the working population,
traditionally young males, in order to get them to do work they don't
want to do in order to support their wives and family. This pattern goes
back a long time. But it became a true prison during the industrial
revolution. Conditioning starts at birth. First thing a little girl got
was a baby doll to get her used to being a mother. A little boy got
soldiers, just in case, and team sports under a coach, just like his
future factory manager. Things are only slightly better now.
liberation altered certain ideas about the family, but the
were as trapped in the work force as the men.
Playboy: It has been reported that you have
Epstein-Barr. How bad is it?
Vidal: I may not even have it or I may be in some kind of remission.
According to the tests, I've had it, so I must have it now –– it's
incurable –– but I don't feel ill at all. Anyway, much of the American
population may have been exposed. Acute
infectious mononucleosis is an
aspect of it. When it does hit, you feel, as if you're onjet lag.
They –– you know who "they" are by now –– are desperately trying to make it
sound like AIDS. Journalists write about me, as if I'm dying. This is
wishful thinking. I am dying, but at the usual majestic pace.
Playboy: Have you had an AIDS test?
Vidal: Sure. In fact, I have a
physical once a year and I always test for everything, from syphilis and
AIDS to whatever. Other than
Epstein-Barr, and terminal
Playboy: You've been asked about it often, but do you think you will
ever discuss your own sexuality in public?
Vidal: People of my time and place don't discuss that sort of thing, nor
do we say, how much money we have. I'm not all that charmed, when other
people go public. I mean, the way [Anthony]
Burgess goes on in his
memoirs about his sex life; I like Anthony, but I don't ever want to
know anything about his sex life –– or anyone else's. What do you think, we
have fiction for? Erotic delight. The real thing, when written about,
I'm not that involved with other people, nor do I want them to be that
involved with me. And I'm not that involved with myself. I'm not going
to do an autobiography. I'm not my subject. I've never interested myself
Playboy: How do you describe your relationship with Howard
man who lives with you?
Vidal: We've been friends for a long time
–– 37 years. Our paths kept
crossing and he's a good companion.
Playboy: Have you ever been in love?
Playboy: Do you think you've missed something?
Vidal: I doubt it. Actually, if I were to place, any value judgment on it
at all, I'd say it was a plus.
Playboy: Maybe that's why
magazine called you "the disparager of all mankind".
Vidal: Come now. In truth, it's a real plus not needing people. My
favorite God-awful lyric is "People,
who need people, are the luckiest
people in the world": I turned to Mary
Martin once and said, "I think
that's the stupidest lyric I've ever heard. Every time I hear it I get
anxious". She said, "You know, so do I. I've always loathed that song".
I said, "People, who need people, are in terrible trouble. I think that's
how the lyric should go".
Playboy: Perhaps, now we know why there's so little romanticism in your
Vidal: Well, let's not start
feeling sorry for me. Of course, you need people. But one's happiness is
not contingent on the moods of others. That's the point. Obviously, I'm
aware oflust, and in youth, I've been sexually obsessed, as everybody
has. But when most people say "I love you", what they mean is "You must
love me, as much as I love me".
Playboy: Are long friendships valuable?
Vidal: Of course, but I don't
think they should be self-conscious. I can't imagine a friendship in
which one is constantly congratulating oneself about having sustained
this marvelous, warm, mature, deep relationship for so long. No, friends
are nice. Some people you seem to like better and see more of than
Playboy: It sounds rather lonely.
Vidal: I've never been lonely. I've spent most of my life with myself
and books. Besides, my sort of books couldn't get written with a lot of
Playboy: Where do most of your good friends come from?
Vidal: I used to have more friends in England
–– before everybody started
dying –– than anywhere else. They are –– or were –– the best talkers. And the
jokes are wonderful. The only upper class in the world, that can be
Playboy: Is the joking, the
wit, also a defense
mechanism to keep people from getting too close?
Vidal: I suppose, it can be used as that. It's very much a class or
tribal thing. Most of my friends in the United States are
may be a Jewish device to keep people at a distance, for
Playboy: Have you ever had pangs about not having had a
family or children?
Vidal: I think that around 40, men go through a period of wanting a son.
It passes. One thing, that we're all programed for is to teach, to
instruct. Dogs, cats, all mammals, at least, do it. A writer's desire to
teach is fulfilled by his work. You act out your programing, your desire
to teach, on the page. If I hadn't been able to write, I probably would
have had a family.
Playboy: You say
that writing, or teaching, is your real legacy. And you've lit into the
ruling class for its contempt for the people. But you've also said that
"the sad paradox of liberalism is to want majority rule while realizing
that the majority is instinctively illiberal".
Vidal: Did I say that? It sounds sadly true
Playboy: In the same
interview, you said, "The
Bill of Rights was the creation of the
educated few, not of the ignorant many". What we're getting at is, don't
you see a contradiction in this? Isn't there a lot of contempt for the
Vidal: Analysis is not contempt. The majority is trained to respond the
way, that the majority, that rules wants it to. I'd change the rulers and
educate the majority. After all, the only legitimate government is based
upon the people at large. There is nothing else to base it on, unless
you believe in little Lord Jesus, say, and you want a theocratic
society. As it is, we have a
Bill of Rights
–– to ensure that the majority
doesn't damage minorities out of ignorance.
Playboy: You criticize the ruling class for contempt toward the people,
but say, that the people aren't competent to be listened to. On the other
hand, if you believe in democracy, the people have, what they
want in Reagan
Vidal: First, never fall for the bullshit, that Reagan was elected to
office with a great mandate. Reagan is popular as a TV performer,
period. His ideas, to the extent that he has any, are not popular. He
knows, how to push emotive buttons, such as "Save our children", which
translates into "Get the fags"; "Right to life", which is "Abolish
abortion"; or "Just say no", which is "Submit to mandatory
More diversionary politics. Instead of talking about,
who's stealing all
the money and why we don't have an educational system, you start talking
about prayer in the schools, instead of textbooks in the schools. So, I'd
get rid of the nonsense issues and go to the real issue, which is the
education of the majority. In a way, that's all I've ever done as a
Playboy: So, you have an idealistic view of your job as writer.
Vidal: Well, I strongly believe, that one should learn something from
reading. This is unfashionable. The romantics –– which is to say most
American writers, with all their I, I, I, from
Melville to today's
hacks –– don't believe you should learn anything from a book, except the
poignant wonder of the author's life. I do the opposite. I'll examine
the Fifth Century s.c., which is when every idea, that we now, have
first burst upon the scene. That takes an awful lot of work, but anybody,
who reads Creation, is going to end up knowing a good deal about
Socratic philosophers. It is a crash course
in comparative religion and philosophy. I think, that's worth doing.
Europeans like this sort of thing, because they are curious about the
origins, while Americans tend to resent it. Why should they learn
anything from a book? On the other hand, the most popular American
writer is James Michener,
who just gives you millions of items of
information, often without a story.
Playboy: How do you feel about the
fairly standard line among critics, that your essays are superior to your
Vidal: I suppose, that's because they can actually read essays. In fact,
they have to read pieces about books in order not to read books by
anybody. In my case, how can they say, I'm a bad essayist, when everybody
reads them and knows otherwise? On the other hand, it is easy to say,
that any book, by anybody, is bad, because so few people will ever read
Playboy: Do the novels and essays come from different parts
Vidal: Well, I do my reflections,
such as the historical, religious works –– Creation, for instance,
–– with a lot of study and advance planning.
The inventions, such as
Duluth, which is my favorite, are written with
much more abandon, more pleasure. But I don't find any difference
between an essay and a novel. The same mind creates each.
Playboy: In your current novel, Empire, you have William Randolph
say, "True history is the final fiction". What does that mean in terms
of your work?
Vidal: There is no such thing as history, only some random
"facts", that I try to honor. I don't make any divisions between history,
biography, science fiction, mystery novels. It's all invention. When you
are writing about actual history, you owe it to the readers to use, what
I call the agreed-upon facts. In other words, I don't do, what E. L.
Doctorow does. I thought,
Ragtime was a charming book, but by
deliberately ignoring the agreed-upon history, he does a disservice to
the readers, who don't know who Houdini, J.P. Morgan or Emma Goldman
was. I think, there's an obligation to keep to the known.
of your books is the closest to you?
Vidal: I'd say, the one that most approximated my youth and general
Washington, D.C. The two houses in that book are the two
houses in which I was brought up, though I'm much more autobiographical
with the houses, than I am with the people. As I've said, I don't really
see myself as being one of my own subjects.
Playboy: You once wrote
you're not an "American" writer. What did you mean?
Vidal: I don't
conform to any of the ideas, of what an American writer should be. Either
you're academic or you're popular. Either you are an upholder of the
status quo or you are a romantic subversive. I don't think, I'm like
anybody else on the scene, and I think, that has caused disturbance.
You're not supposed to have as large an audience, as I do, if you're any
There is also great suspicion of those, who can't be categorized. They
don't much like
Burgess, either. He's always trying something new. On
the other hand, as much as I like old Graham
Greene and enjoy the books,
I would go crazy, writing that same book over and over again. Finally,
there is a true hatred of popularity, but if
literature is too good for
the people, what is it good for?
Among the hicks and hacks of academe, it is an article of faith, that if
a book is accessible to people, who read, it must, indeed, be a very bad
book. They've even convinced themselves, that all the great writers were
unpopular, which is absurd. George
Eliot was one of the most popular
writers of her time, and certainly the best novelist in the English
language. I don't think, they know much about
Playboy: How do
critics and academics view your political involvement?
Vidal: For them, everything is a matter of deportment. To sign a letter
to The New
York Review of Books to protest the silencing of a dissident
Czech writer is correct politics. To run
Representatives is bad form.
Playboy: So, the problem is, that you're not a well-behaved writer?
Vidal: As opposed to John Updike,
who has been almost perfect in the way
he's conducted his career. He's also quite talented and, to me,
perfectly boring. I can predict, what he'll say about almost anything,
though he writes very prettily. Still, it is all absolutely predictable
and conservative and highly suitable for middle-class,
Playboy: How about Mailer? Can you predict his output?
Vidal: No –– which makes him more interesting. He's chaotic. I don't know,
to what end all that energy is being put, but at least, he has tried to
define the prospect.
once described Mailer's
Naked and the Dead as a "clever, talented,
admirably executed fake".
Vidal: Well, after all, I had read
Malraux first. I recognized the scene
coming down the mountain in
Man's Fate. Actually, I never finished
"Mailer's book, so I can't really judge it.
Playboy: Are you trying to wriggle out of your early assessment?
Vidal: That was not an assessment, but a comment. In general, I never
thought, that the novel as a form was of much use to him. He wants much
quicker public reaction, than one gets as a novelist. That means
journalism or politics or making movies, all of which he has done.
Playboy: You similarly skewered Capote
as being completely unoriginal
Vidal: I don't worry about originality, a word our countrymen use to
describe novelty. But Capote was unusually derivative.
We used to play a game with Capote's work. We'd read a passage from
Tree of Night or
Other Voices, Other Rooms and then try to find,
had stolen it from. Carson
McCullers was his principal quarry, but he
did very well with Eudora
Welty. I even found scenes from old
Bros. movies that he had lifted. He was ruthlessly unoriginal.
Playboy: Do you have a favorite writer?
Vidal: In my time, Italo
Playboy: How about Americans?
Vidal: I've always liked Saul
Bellow. We're both Puritan
though from different viewpoints. He's also an intellectual, which none
of the others is. In fact, they rather pride themselves on being
nonintellectuals. They are happy not to know history, religion,
politics, languages, other
literature or even their own. It goes back to
Hemingway, I suppose. But you can talk to Saul. He's more of a European
intellectual –– like Calvino or Primo
Levi –– than an American he-man author.
I have friendly relations with many of the others, but after they finish
telling you about, how much money they make and what kind of alimony
they're paying their wives and their aches and pains, there isn't much
to talk about.
Playboy: Do you feel that you're
part of the tradition of writers –– Voltaire,
Swift, –– who were also involved in politics and
used writing for political ends?
Vidal: I would think that Voltaire
certainly had many of the preoccupations that I have. I'm often compared
to Shaw and
Swift. I hate
Swift, so I find that this causes
consternation. No, I didn't read
Gulliver's Travels as a child and
become forever mordant and satiric. But you can resemble a predecessor
without liking him.
My job, I suppose, is instruction, and holding together a number of
disparate facts in my head and looking for a pattern. The one advantage
of age is, that your synthesizing ability gets better, because you have
more data –– theses? –– to synthesize. You get so, that you can put together a
large mosaic quite beyond, what those younger and less curious can do.
Playboy: You use the pronoun we, when you speak about Americans. Although
you choose to live in Italy, do you really consider yourself an
Vidal: Oh, yes. What else?
Playboy: You live as an
Vidal: Only in Los Angeles, where I have a house.
Ex-patriot. What a funny word to use to somebody like me. Patriotism,
literally, is my subject. America is my subject.
Playboy: Yet you live here, commenting
on America from across the
Vidal: But I also live there. Anyway, we all read the same newspapers. I
know exactly, what's going on, as much as any member of the U.S. Senate,
plus, here I can get the European view. In the winters, I am
centered on Hong Kong. So I get yet another point of view.
Playboy: Yet, in a way, you've bailed out.
Vidal: Voltaire lived on the Swiss border. It's very wise for someone
like me to be out of their reach.
Playboy: Meaning what?
Vidal: When empires fall apart,
scapegoats are needed.
Who better, than
one of the first messengers with the bad news?
Playboy: Are you a U.S.
Vidal: Oh, sure. I pay U.S.
Federal tax. California
property taxes, too. A variety of European taxes...
Playboy: Could your current apparent contentment in isolation above the
Amalfi coast, make it impossible for you to write another great novel of
Vidal: Current "contentment" created our greatest
novelist's three greatest novels, at my age, too:
The Wings of the Dove,
The Golden Bowl. Of course, Henry
James was living in
England. Oh, I still erupt.
Playboy: Isn't there less and less to erupt against, when you have said
it in as many ways as you have?
Vidal: Well, there's always the Israel lobby. [Laughs] And
has certainly been bringing a twinkle to my eye, as I bring a twinkle to
Vidal: Recently, in
Newsweek, I attacked the sleaze of the Reagan
Administration in general and himself in particular as symbols of all
that, we have lost since World War Two, our
high noon. Reagan read the
piece, was not happy; told his man at
Time magazine, that I wasn't
accurate, historically, because I wrote, that Lincoln had watched the
sunrise from his White House office, which wasn't possible. Of course,
neither Time nor Reagan knew that Lincoln's office had a fine view of
the sunrise. They thought, he presided from the
Oval Office, which wasn't
built until 1909. Time wrote, that the President had a "twinkle in his
eye" and "chuckled" when he criticized my book
Playboy: Do you get weary criticizing the same things for 25 years?
Vidal: Well, it is quite startling, how monotonous it is, but things have
changed a bit in my lifetime. They are no longer as confident as
were. They are getting quite nervous. The
twinkles in their eyes might
be not just contact lenses, but the odd tear. I think they are nervous.
So, things do change. I hope it's not too late.
Playboy: And despite the
small changes, in your view, the
one percent still rules; the rest of
the population is powerless.
Vidal: Of course.
Playboy: You'll continue to take them on?
Vidal: No choice.
Playboy: Have you become bitter?
Vidal: No, I'm very cheerful. Would one like to change the system and
start all over again? Yes, of course. A second American Revolution? Why
not? But I'd settle for a
Constitutional Convention. Anyway, we're all
still here. Each in place. Finally, the work of art is never finished,
any more than that of a republic is. All is becoming.