Being Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal, photo by Jana Birchum

On his bookshelf, Larry McMurtry has 46 of Gore Vidal’s 50 published works. Those 46 volumes, McMurtry writes in the November 30 issue of The New York Review of Books, are what he would take with him were he traveling to a far place for several years. Not a bad choice. With the complete works the reader gets American history elaborated in Vidal’s novels of empire, a social history of Postwar America in collected essays, Vidal’s acclaimed memoir Palimpsest, high-church literary criticism in Vidal’s long serial lament on the decline of the novel, and what Vidal might describe as “quality lit” in his novels set in contemporary America. There’s even Myra Breckenridge if there is a beach in the faraway place. Vidal was in Austin to deliver the keynote speech at the Texas Book Festival banquet on October 27, to discuss life, letters, and politics at Austin’s Paramount Theater, and to promote his recent book: Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006. Former Texas Observer intern Miguel Rodriguez interviewed Vidal at the Four Seasons on the morning after his keynote speech, which offended the large Laura Bush faction that remains devoted to the book event initiated by the former First Lady of Texas.

Texas Observer Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the election of your grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, to the U.S. Senate. He was a populist, a Bryanite, at war with Wall Street and other monied interests. Is there a place for someone like your grandfather in today’s politics?

Gore Vidal No. On the other hand, he had a hard time when he was in place. He helped write the constitution of the state of Oklahoma. He was one of the two people who really led it into the Union in ’07—Alfalfa Bill Murray, of course, claimed credit for every golden word of the constitution. It was future Senator Gore who made it the first socialist constitution of any other in, at that time, 48 states. He came out for the nationalizing of railroads—great sources of corruption. Today you would have to have somebody come forth and want to nationalize all fossil fuel reserves to take a similar position. That is basically where his politics were.

Then the deadly marriage was made. He was elected in ’07 of course. And [William Jennings] Bryan was hovering on the edges of everything. My grandfather didn’t much care for him personally or otherwise. But they were hell-bent, the populists, on joining up with the Democrats. So the awful marriage took place, between the city machines that were supposedly labor, and the agrarian movement, which was the Populist Party. That is how we got the dreadful Woodrow Wilson. He wanted to make the world safe for democracy. That’s about as batty as some of the things you hear nowadays. Truly batty.

So the Democratic Party was a strange hybrid from the very beginning.

He served off and on for 30 years. Made Wilson president twice. In ’12, he was in charge of most of the campaign. In ’16 Wilson was about to lose to Charles Evans Hughes in New York and made a desperate call to my grandfather, who had retreated to Oklahoma City. He wasn’t up for re-election. He said Wilson was getting us into war. Wilson got to him. And [Wilson’s private secretary Joseph P.] Tumulty, they said “Everything depends on California. Will you stump the state for us?” Reluctantly—T.P. Gore did not trust Wilson—he said I’ll do it on one condition. I’ll campaign for re-election of the president on the grounds that he kept us out of war.

Wilson joyously agreed. While planning all along to intervene. [My grandfather campaigned] up and down California, I don’t know why my grandfather was so popular there, but he was. He wired Wilson on election night and said you’ll carry California by so many electoral votes and so many popular votes—which he was right on. But Wilson went to bed thinking he’d lost the election.

Wilson got us into war, as my grandfather knew he would. Once bit, twice shy.

Your grandfather practiced law here in Texas. And he was involved with the Populist Party. What was it that attracted him to the Populist or People’s Party, in contrast to the Democratic Party?

The actuarial tables of the state of Mississippi. Mississippi senators never died. They just did not die. He was in a hurry. And in Texas people did die. They got shot. Or impeached. It was his kind of state. So he just left Mississippi. He ran for the House in Mississippi, on the Populist ticket. It was a very dirty campaign. He was thought to be too familiar with African-Americans, and they used that against him. I suppose he said “good morning” to one of them once. That was considered breaking the racial barrier.

So he and one or two of his brothers moved on to Corsicana. Texas was beginning to bloom. And in no time at all, he was back in politics again. Running for the House as—he wasn’t yet a Democrat—a Populist. And many things went wrong there. But he probably liked having an independent law office. And then one day a couple years later, the Indian Territory was beginning to mutter about statehood. He saw his opportunity, and he headed for what is now Lawton, Oklahoma. He had to lie out on the desert floor all one night so that nobody could come and take the plot of land he picked for himself. And one of his brothers in the next plot. If you strayed from your plot, you lost it.

And from there an election to the U.S. Senate?

Yes. He was in a hurry.

If your grandfather were alive, would he support someone like [Illinois Democratic Sen.] Barack Obama, who is using populist rhetoric in his speeches?

Well, if he’s anything like me, my grandfather, he would say, “Let’s get to know who he is first.” He would have nothing against him in principle. He was not a racist.

Has populism been taken over by Wall Street?

They’ve got everything else, why not have populism? The whole country is theirs. Which is what [my grandfather] feared at the time they were putting together the constitution of the future state of Oklahoma. My grandfather was against the trusts, as they called them, those great conglomerates of money. He realized what a dicey thing our Constitution was. How easily it could be subverted.

And it has been subverted?

There’s been a coup d’etat. A very quick one. I’m usually alert to this sort of thing. But I didn’t see it coming with such speed, and the uses to which they’ve put 9/11 in order to save us from terrorism. Everybody else on Earth wants to blow us up, so we’ve got to police the entire globe. To stop people who hate us. Why do they hate us? Nobody will answer that question.

In your narratives of empire—Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Hollywood, and The Golden Age—you don’t chronicle President Polk’s war in Mexico. Are there any parallels?

Yes there are. I was asked that question not long ago, and I said the only thing that I regretted was I don’t think I’ll write another book. It’s like breaking rock in the penitentiary, the amount of research you will have to do. It’s been on my conscience that I have not done the ’36 to ’46 period, which would be Polk. The attack on Mexico, the acquisition of California. Henry Clay.

Do you find any parallels in that war and the war with Iraq? How we got in? How it was sold to the public?

Yes. There are only so many ways you can sell a war. The American people have always been antiwar. Particularly wars of aggression. Particularly wars that will take them overseas. They were fooled once by Wilson with World War I. And it’s timeless. In 1940 with Franklin Roosevelt, 80 percent of the people were against going to war against Hitler. Nobody was even talking about the Japanese then.

You come from the governing class. That has to affect your outlook on the world. How does that affect the views of you and your contemporary, former President George [H.W.] Bush? You both, for example, come from the same class. And yet you both look at the world very differently.

Well at the risk of sounding slightly snobbish, he’s a slightly lower class than we are. The Gores also have slightly higher IQs than the Bushes. Demonstrably. No, he’s a hustler. I’m more interested in history. All he knows about is how to raise money and promote himself for jobs in which he does nothing at all when he gets there—or did nothing at all when he got there. I would say we’re totally opposites. Although we’re exact contemporaries. I was at Exeter. He was at Andover.

You were quoted by Marc Cooper regarding the prospects of a military dictatorship in this country. In a recent interview, Col. Larry Wilkerson, who served with Colin Powell at Defense, then at the State Department, was on the same page as you. He says that the next terrorist act will move us toward tyranny or toward a military dictatorship. Will you comment on that? Where do you see that coming from?

From the military.

Because we’ve never had it doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there. The military is essentially only loyal to the military. They accept the civilian mastery of their corps. But they don’t really like that. And now they get people as inept as this crowd. For all practical purposes, I would say, the Army has been wrecked. The management, the civilian management, doesn’t know what it’s doing: “Oh, yeah, invade Iraq. Are you ready, general?” And [the military] will realize that they will be put to further bad purposes. And they will throw the rascals out. It will be in the interest of keeping order.

The next time we’re hit? They have made plans for nothing. There are no defenses. There’s a vast bureau of homeland security that gives lots of titles to jobs for whatever the lowly things that people do now. But there’s no preparation. I’m not the sort of person who worries about the open border, and couldn’t care less who wanders into Texas. But what shipping comes into our ports? I was made very thoughtful about this by certain documentaries I’ve seen. These great tankers come in with huge cargoes. Just put a bomb in one of those, and there goes the port of New York. Or L.A. And we’ve done nothing.

You’ve got to fight them over there. Or you’ve got to fight them over here. [Vidal says this in a spot-on impersonation of the current President Bush]. Now there is one of the stupidest lines that that master of stupidity has come up with. How are they going to get here? What will they do when they are here? Where do they ask for directions? We don’t really have proper Greyhound buses anymore. I can’t see a real invasion.

You had mentioned that when you were corresponding with Timothy McVeigh, he was like a warning bell.

Oh boy, he was.

And that ties in with the present?

He was very concerned and extremely intelligent. And a very dedicated patriot. Expressing it in sometimes rather odd ways, I would need to concede. I was not in favor of his explosives. He had worked it out pretty much on his own. I gave him some ideas just before he was killed. He was very brave about what he called “federally assisted suicide,” [which] is how he referred to his final inoculation. I said, “Well, you can probably take some solace.” He knew America was going to evolve and he was John Brown of Kansas—premature.

That’s an interesting parallel. What was the moral issue that would compare to John Brown’s?

He’s written quite a bit on it in stuff that got published before he was removed from this vale of tears. He was a professional soldier. The Army loved him. He got the Bronze Star. He got all kinds of decorations for the Gulf War. He was trying get into a special outfit when he was sort of at liberty. He went down to Waco and watched the feds destroy this bunch of religious nuts—for whom he had no feeling. But he had a lot of feeling for the Posse Comitatus Act of 1875. You may not use federal troops against—to keep order among—American citizens. It is inscribed in marble and the brain of every professional soldier.

And he saw that the federal government was breaking it… with religious regularity. And the fire entered his soul. I don’t think he had anything to do with the bombing of the Murrah Building. There were a lot of co-conspirators. I list them by their FBI numbers—”of interest to be investigated.” No one was investigated. The template for the bad people in the United States is always Dallas. It’s always the lone, crazed killer. So everybody else is off the hook. Sane people don’t do that. You have to be crazy.

There’s a very good book out about what happened in Dallas. A huge book, two authors: Supreme Sacrifice. If you look at the end of my book, you’ll see that I quote from it. And in each case, there is an elaborate conspiracy. Lee Harvey Oswald had nothing to do much with the first one in Dallas. Neither did McVeigh in Oklahoma.

Do you think it’s possible that with the war in Iraq, years down the road, some soldiers coming home and can’t find jobs, that as with McVeigh, who died a martyr for many of them, could this happen again?

Of course it could. Go up to Fort Hood. You’re journalists. Just go down there and start talking to enlisted men. They’ve got what appears to be a kind of Ku Klux Klan within the military. Which the military doesn’t seem to know about. But a lot of the people on the follow-up lists of the FBI were soldiers.

To change directions, you wrote the introduction of the John Conyers report [alleging Republican theft of the 2004 election]. When the House organizes in January, it’s quite likely that John Conyers (D-Mich.) will be chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Assuming he is, what advice do you convey to Judiciary Chair John Conyers?

I think I don’t have to advise him. We’re of the same mind. There must be hearings. There must be hearings on the origins of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There must be testimony under oath. They should be as troublesome as possible.

This fool [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales, where they find these people I don’t know. He is no more competent to be attorney general as I am to be secretary of agriculture. He’s worked out a formula which is totally nonsensical: a wartime president under his inherent powers as commander and chief. OK, the answer to that, I feel like a law school professor, the president has no inherent powers. He has enumerated powers, and it’ll take you 10 minutes to read them in the Constitution. It’s not a long list. You can’t pretend he has inherent powers because we’re in times of great crisis. Lincoln, rather stupidly to my view, relieved us of habeas corpus. Well you don’t get rid of the Magna Carta, which is the basis of all our law and alleged freedoms. Lincoln I think had a real crisis. There was a real war. The Union was going to crash. So he was able to, when Congress got back in session, he was able to sell it to them. And everybody agreed on how he did the right thing. These nuts are just seizing power.

We’ve just been dispossessed of habeas corpus by statute. And the country’s response was a huge yawn?

Well, it seems that is how history is going to receive the United States of America. A great disgusted yawn. We t
rew it all away. W
ended in 1945 on top of the world. We had mastered Asia. We had mastered Europe. Those with imperial notions, I’m not one, but those who are must have been well satisfied. We had the world. And we had vast empire and wealth and protection. To just throw it away. It starts with Harry Truman. He decided he had to have an enemy like Hitler. It’s going to be Stalin and communism forever on the march. His first speech after Potsdam was a giveaway. And his first meeting with Senator [Arthur] Vandenberg, when he said, we’ve got to rearm. There’s Stalin there. I just met him in Potsdam. The man is evil. And Vandenberg said, well, if you’re going to get money out of Congress to rearm right after a big war, you’re going to have to scare the hell out of the American people.

He did, methodically. “Russians are coming! Russians are coming!” They had lost 20 million people. They weren’t going anywhere. So tell one lie, and you think of another one, and you think of a better one. You make mischief.

Yet what’s happening now is being orchestrated by a president who is lacking in historical knowledge: George Bush.

I think they thought, by they I mean the Karl Roves and even Cheney, who is a kind of piece of work we’ll never see again, “so what if he is dumb, we’re here. We’ll run the government. He doesn’t want to run it. He can’t run it.”

Is Bush similar to President Harding?

No. Harding was a first-rate politician. He was also an authority on Alexander Hamilton. He wrote a not-too-bad book about him. He was a great friend of my grandfather’s, although one was a Democrat and the other was a Republican. My grandfather said he was the nicest man he had ever known in politics. And nobody ran Harding. [Harry M.] Daugherty at the Justice Department, he was up to no good. He was a mild crook. But in eight years they could not have done as much harm as this gang has done in eight days or eight weeks. No. Harding was hardly brilliant. He was an honest man. He played by the rules of the Republic, which he had sworn to uphold.

You wrote in your current book that Paul Bowles missed the last years of the American Republic. Where is the defining point for the last years?

The day after 9/11. When somebody at the Justice Department found Bill Clinton’s recipe for containing terrorism, which is now the U.S.A. Patriot Act. They said, “Now this looks good.” There was getting rid of habeas corpus. Locking up people.

The beginning of the coup d’ etat.

Miguel Rodriguez, a former Texas Observer intern, is a freelance writer living in Corpus Christi.

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Published at 12:00 am CST