Playboy, December 1998
20 questions: Gore Vidal
America's eminent writer corporate power, the decline of the Kennedys and the erosion, the of rights
hypertext version of the article
At 73, Gore Vidal is an esteemed author and provocateur. His novels include "Burr", "Lincoln", "1876", "Empire", "Washington, D.C.", "Hollywood'" and, most recently, "The Smithsonian Institution". A collection of Vidal's essays, "United States: 1952-1992", won the National Book Award in 1993. A memoir, "Palimpsest", was published in 1995. His latest book, "The American Presidency", appeared this fall.

His grandfather was Thomas P Gore, Oklahoma's first U.S. senator; his distant cousin is Vice President Al Gore. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was his stepsister. Joseph Dumas coaxed Vidal to answer our questions from his villa on Italy's Amalfi coast. Dumas reports: "He is everything attributed to him, and more".


Playboy: Hillary Rodham Clinton visited you in Italy. You discussed the failed attempt at creating a national health service. What happened?

Vidal: The health care proposals of the Clintons and the subsequent debacle show corporate America at its most vivid, protecting its turf and destroying anyone who tries to discipline it. Of course it was a conspiracy, though Hillary's phrase, "right wing", hardly defines it.
I said to Hillary, "If you had made the insurance companies public enemy number one, the advantage and perhaps victory 末 would have been the public's".
She said, "We tried to be fair to everyone".
Challenged by an attempt to bring the U.S. into the civilized world 末 all other first 末 world countries have national health programs the insurance and the pharmaceutical companies, together with some highspirited members of the American Medical Association, vowed that the U.S. will never have such a service. Why? A third of the costs for most health care under the present system goes to insurance companies for filling out forms and filling up their bank accounts, with not a Band-Aid for us.
Then, just to make sure no other politician would try to give the American people anything for their tax money, they set out to destroy the Clintons personally with various lurid charges 末 necrophilia is in the wings 末 while taking endless legal actions against them, to bankrupt everyone.
Those involved have now got the message: This is America. No one challenges the rich and their corporations. The only public money that can be spent for the public is for military procurement that's how we've accumulated $5 trillion worth of debt. The Clintons were taught an expensive lesson about their humble place in society. Just another pair of lawyers in a government of lawyers for the benefit of lawyers. It is unlikely any president will ever again try to give the people anything for their tax money. Other than a war, of course.


Playboy: Did you see Primary Colors and Wag the Dog? Were their releases serendipitous?

Vidal: Primary Colors 末 the film is as funny as you might expect Nichols and May to be. The plot was taken from my play and later film, The Best Man. I noticed this at the time of the book but said nothing. I am often ripped off and I suppose it is a compliment. Mr. Anonymous took my plot: Will candidate use dirt on opponent and win or refuse and drop out? My character (Henry Fonda) did not. His (Travolta) did. Wag the Dog was farce 末 this is just guessing 末 when something a bit more realistic would have been a lot funnier and more harrowing.


Playboy: Last spring, Senate GOP leaders were considering including tobacco tax revenue in the Medicare Trust Fund. Is this plausible?

Vidal: Hardly. Helms, et al. need that tobacco money to pay for their elections. The original Clinton proposal would have been sufficient to place us among civilized nations such as Canada, Germany and so on. Reflex from corporate America: They are all going bankrupt because of the frills. Bullshit, of course. We rank something like 20 or 21 in The Economist's quality-of-life survey.
Denmark is number one. Everyone wants to come to America, howls corporate America, staring at the Rio Grande. No European does except to get cheap sex and drugs. We're a second-world nation as far as 80 percent of our people go. Twenty percent do wonderfully well, working for the one percent that owns most of the wealth.


Playboy: Woodrow Wilson once said, "Secrets mean impropriety". Do you agree?

Vidal: When anyone says to me, "Can you keep a secret?" I say, "Why should I, if you can't?"


Playboy: You've said that Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a great president. Why?

Vidal: Energy. Knowledge of issues. And I favored her health care proposal, the most important notion since FDR's Social Security Act of 1935.


Playboy: Deborah Tannen laments that American society frames most public discourse in polarities. She writes: "Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention 末 an argument culture. It rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokes 末 people who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as both sides. Nearly everything is framed as a battle or game in which winning or losing is the main concern". Is that an exaggeration?

Vidal: The adversarial mode is implicit in our laws from at least the Magna Carta on. It is an absurd legal system, with pretrial depositions that can range throughout the antagonists' entire lives with the fetish perjury 末 a matter of little or no importance in other systems 末 being a major weapon to destroy one or the other litigant. The American passion for adversary justice is at its worst in the metaphoric wars we wage against drugs and terrorism. Unfortunately it is rooted in our Constitution and was first brought into the dreadful light of day by Abraham Lincoln.
He knew he had no legal power to free the slaves in the South, or anywhere else. He also had no particular wish to do so. He was interested in only one thing, preserving the Union and getting the seceded states back even if he had to kill every Southerner to do so. In this he was entering an uncharted wilderness. A good case can be made that any state has the right to go of its own free will, just as it freely joined the Union in the first place.
This was what the Weaver family felt when they wanted to get away from a government they found hateful. They settled in the wilderness at Ruby Ridge, where the feds finally murdered a couple of them for daring to turn their backs on the land of the unfree.
Lincoln was ingenious 末 a good lawyer, too. Because he couldn't quote the nation's scripture, the Constitution, to the effect that no state could ever leave the Union, he pounced on two concepts. First, his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Defend meant with arms, if necessary. But there wasn't much else to go on when faced with secession, other than a presidential power in case of invasion or rebellion to fight by every means out of "military necessity".
That phrase was the basis for the Civil War, in which over 600,000 young men were slaughtered. It was also, to be fair, the phrase used to free the slaves. So that is the background to Tannen's book. Ever since, in the name of a war of some sort, military necessity can be invoked and all the little children obliged to wear uniforms 末 tasteful brown, I suspect 末 and take Ritalin if they show signs of intelligence.


Playboy: In New York City, the police department has come under fire for its methods in the war on drugs, especially unlawful searches. Does this concern you?

Vidal: Certainly the police are running amok, and with the bland approval of the country's ownership, who have created two imaginary wars: one on terrorism, provoked by us internally, as at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and externally, as in Guatemala, Iran and Palestine. Naturally, the victims will try to blow up the odd building.
The other war, the one against drugs, is a means to scrap the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which forbid unlawful searches and seizures without due process of law. Drugs should of course be legalized, but our government truly frets about our health and, though it will not give us health service or an educational system, nor maintain the Bill of Rights, it does want to preserve our health by putting as many millions of Americans as possible in prison or under surveillance. The police state is here. And the people are too cowed and misinformed to take back their rights.


Playboy: What caused the dissolution of the younger Kennedy generation? Tragedy, or natural progression from lack of responsibility and privilege?

Vidal: Children and grandchildren of men of power seldom pan out. They've seen up dose the corruption of the system. Eleanor Roosevelt once said to me, "The Kennedys are so lucky that their children will still be so young when they leave the White House, as it is not the right sort of place to grow up in, with so much temptation".

Playboy: In a 1996 radio interview with Jerry Brown, the two of you spoke of the relationship between Frank Costello and Honey Fitz, and, later, Frank Costello and Joe Kennedy. 'What was the nature of those relationships?

Vidal: Honey Fitz, as mayor of Boston, was in on bootleg whiskey from Canada, the numbers racket, prostitution, Mob stuff 末 so much so, the Mob sent him the young Frank Costello from New York. Later, when His Honor got himself elected to Congress to show daughter Rose the quality folk of D.C., a House committee gathered a several-thousand-page dossier on him and he resigned. Costello went to work for Fitz' son-in-law, Joe.
During Jack's presidency, the two old hoods used to have dinner once a week with an old Teamster who gave them massages 末 this was on Central Park South. Within the family, it was always thought that joe's stroke, shortly before Jack's murder, prevented Joe from stopping the Mob, through Costello, from killing Jack as revenge for Bobby's theatrics as the attorney general going after organized crime. The Mob had done so much through Sam Giancana to get Jack elected.


Playboy: Does the Mob's anger at the Kennedys still exist?

Vidal: The Mob is not mystical like the Kennedys, who hate whole families into the 30th generation. The Mob kills the person they think responsible for hassling them. It was Bobby they were after. As Marcello of the New Orleans Mob is reported to have said, "If a dog bothers you, you don't cut off his tail".


Playboy: To you, the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman were pivotal. Why?

Vidal: Lincoln, like Bismarck at the same time in Germany, took a loosely federated nation with nothing much in common but a language and made a centralized (eventually militarized) federal state. Truman replaced the republic that Lincoln had thoughtfully left in place with a national security state, a militarized economy with bases on every continent. And he allowed our civil liberties to fade away. The first warning was when he required all government workers 末 several million people from Post Office workers up to Cabinet members 末 to swear loyalty oaths to the republic that was no more. Pure Stalin.


Playboy: Bill Clinton has established the blow job as the Oval Office sex act of choice. What will be the other legacies of the Clinton presidency?

Vidal: History won't pay much attention to Clinton other than to record 末 if the histories are not written in the boardrooms of the corporations which govern all pur lives 末 that the presidency is, at home, an ornamental office. Only in foreign affairs can a president occasionally cause a mild disturbance.


Playboy: A few years back, you narrated three 30-minute specials on the American presidency for London's Channel 4. Subsequently, U.S. rights to the series were purchased by the History Channel. Unlike the UK broadcasts, the U.S. broadcast contained a panel 末 which excluded you 末 to provide balance fo commentary. Why?

Vidal: They hated the program. The History Channel was horrified by my frank discussion of how we obtained global empire, because we are taught we don't go in for that sort of thing. Newsreels of Marines in Shanghai, on Great Wall of China 末 in the interest of Standard Oil, I believe 末 blew empty minds. Everything court historians certain we will never learn about in school was there on the screen, including Marine General Smedley Butler admitting that his role as head of the Marine Corps was as an enforcer for empire. "AI Capone had only three districts", he said: "I had three continents".
The History Channel is owned among others, General Electric, which used to provide us with expensive imperial weaponry as well as with Russians-are-coming propaganda from an actor, whom they later, gratefully, retired to the White House.


Playboy: According to The Washington Post, CIA Director George Tenet said the national intelligence budget this year totals $26.7 billion. Does that number prise you?

Vidal: Who will ever know the budget? The CIA, usually wrong on everything 末 most recently the nuclear exposions in Asia 末 should be dissolved. Intelligent countries use their state departments to find out what's going on politically in possibly rival lands and their defends departments to discover, what other people are up to in the way of armaments military mischief.
The CIA was founded as an instrument to control our European allies, not to protect them against the Soviets. The first CIA caper w April 1948, when they spent a fortune to keep the Communist Party in Italy from coming to power. Wherever democracy looks to be stirring they are the kill it, as I saw firsthand in Guatemala and wrote about in my book Dark Green, Bright Red.


Playboy: Does George Plimpton' history Truman Capote untangle the plicated Capote persona?

Vidal: George finds Truman, the pathological liar, amusing. I found him repellent. Joyce Susskind once said Truman had caused more divorces than other professional correspondent in New York.


Playboy: The notion of campaign finance reform. What happened?
Vidal: Nothing happened and, probably, nothing will. No burglar, once he has got to the second floor, ever kicks away his ladder. Under the present system everyone, who matters benefits, except the American people. Wealthy corporations elect their lawyers to high offices while the media, specifically TV, make hundreds of millions of dollars selling time for ads. An act of Congress could limit elections to eight weeks and forbid anyone to buy time on TV and radio where free time would be given nationally for national candidates (presidents, that is) and locally for local candidates. This is what civilized nations do, but God forbid we join their ranks.

Playboy: In 1963 Senator Mike Mansfield was to have delivered a speech the day JFK was killed. Grief-stricken, he canceled. This past spring, Mansfield, now 95, was invited to address the Senate leadership in the Old Senate Chamber in the U.S. Capitol. He chose to dust off the 1963 address. In essence, his themes called for a kinder Senate, one of democratic debates (as opposed to monologs in an empty chamber) and leadership, especially at times of social change. Is this fantasy?

Vidal: Fantasy now. How many senators can give an extempore speech? In my grandfather's time they knew a great deal of history 末 Latin and Greek, as well. They took themselves seriously as tribunes of the people, as voices for the unseen and unheard. Of course, there were crooks then, too, but they at least had a Dickensian sense of theater. They dressed up and spoke up. The Senate was the best show in town. Now, displaced anchorpersons, who never made it to prime time toss, their airblown locks or, more sinister, their bouffant wigs to the breeze from the air-conditioning, that keeps the television lights from overheating their thin blood. It's to weep.


Playboy: Do you believe Social Security is safe? If not, what do you recommend to fix it?

Vidal: The talk that it will be bankrupt 末 pick any year within the next ten 末 is wishful thinking based on greed. Mutual funds, brokers, bankers, etc. are desperate to get their hands on the fund. To privatize, which means, in this case, to rob. Contrary to the misinformation, it is a mildly profitable trust fund.
Contrary to the federal deceit, Social Security's income and outgo are not part of the federal government's revenues or disbursements. But they are always counted as such. Why? Because including Social Security funds and disbursements makes the 90 percent that was once spent on war seem smaller, than it actually is. This is a nice trick. Of course, to be blunt, the government has already stolen all the money in Social Security for Star Wars, etc. and replaced it with IOUs called Treasury bonds. I suppose one day these will have a curiosity value, like the notes of the old Confederacy.


Playboy: What advice do you have for Al Gore?

Vidal: I would advise him to ask himself, why on earth he should be president, for he has no plans, other than a vague commitment to the environment, which everyone has, including the polluters, who pay for him and the others. Alas, his response to Why him? would be Why them? No one who can be elected president 末 who is able to raise $100 million 末 will be of the slightest use to the country. They are paid to work for the good of corporate America. Only systemic reform 末 eight-week elections, free time on TV, as civilized countries have 末 can restore representative government.


Playboy: Does the purchase of Random House by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann bode well?

Vidal: Nothing can be worse than the way Random House has been run for the last decade. So let's try the Germans. Famous last words, no doubt.

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