by David Sheff
a candid conversation with the acerbic social commentator, political polemicist, playwright, producer and author of “myra breckinridge” — june 1969
“If we survive long enough to evolve a rational society, there will be a trend toward bisexuality. For one thing, bisexuality is, quite simply, more interesting than monosexuality.”
“The people recognized themselves in L.B.J. and recoiled. He was the snakeoil salesman, just as Nixon is the realtor intent upon selling us that nice development land that turns out to be swamp.”
“It is quite true that Myra Breckinridge has earned me a great deal of money. If I were to say that I had written it in order to make money, I would be understood and absolved of sin.”
One of the few happy developments of 1968 — a year disfigured by police riots, student rebellions, political assassinations and a rancorous presidential campaign — was the emergence into the national consciousness of Gore Vidal. Myra Breckinridge, Vidal’s controversial 11th novel, which appeared in February of last year, has sold some 4.5 million copies — an almost unheard-of success for a serious literary work in America. And Vidal reached an even larger audience six months later. At both political conventions and on election night, he appeared opposite William F. Buckley Jr. as a commentator for ABC. Except for one vituperative exchange between the two authors on the bloodiest night of the disturbances at the Democratic Convention in Chicago — an exchange that neither man really won — many observers agreed that the pugnacious polemicist and editor of the National Review had finally met his caustic match in Vidal. At least the television audience discovered that there was someone on the left with a tongue and a mind as sharp as Buckley’s on the right.
Vidal’s mixed-media breakthrough as a first-magnitude celebrity was neither a surprise nor an overnight success. Though he’s only 43, he has been excelling in a remarkably disparate number of careers for close to a quarter of a century. Often concurrently, he has been a novelist, a writer of television dramas, a Hollywood scenarist, a theater critic, a playwright, a member of inner White House social circles, a political columnist, a television personality and even a political candidate.
Literary success came early. Graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943, Vidal served out the war on a ship transporting men and supplies from island to island in the Aleutians. His first novel, Williwaw, was based on these wartime experiences. Written when he was 19, it was followed in 1947 by In a Yellow Wood, and Vidal found himself in contention with Truman Capote for lionization as America’s brightest young literary light. But both books are marred by a tendency to mime the styles of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway. “I was,” Vidal conceded later, “easily the cleverest young fox ever to know how to disguise his ignorance and make a virtue of his limitations.” In his third novel, The City and the Pillar, Vidal wisely forsook the flat realism of the first two — but he also abandoned convention. A frank and sympathetic homosexual romance, it cast him out of literary favor with readers and critics alike.
Five more novels followed in quick succession. About three of them — Search for the King, The Judgment of Paris and Messiah — Vidal says, somewhat bitterly, “These works resembled hardly at all the books that had gone before, but unfortunately, I was by then so entirely out of fashion that they were ignored.” In 1954, thoroughly discouraged and in need of money, Vidal turned to writing for television. A score of scripts through the next two years — some originals, some adaptations — earned him as much money as had the previous near decade of novel writing. The most successful of his television plays, Visit to a Small Planet, presaged Vidal’s deepening political concerns. The visitor of the title — a sophisticate from outer space — comes to earth to see a war, even if he has to start one himself, because, he explains, “It’s the one thing you people down here do really well.” Vidal adapted the show for Broadway, where it enjoyed a two-season run. In the late Fifties, he wrote two more plays for the tube (in one of which he played a minor role) and worked on a number of film scripts, including Ben-Hur and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer. His second Broadway play, The Best Man, followed in 1960 — and also ran for two seasons.
By 1960, in fact, it began to seem as if Gore Vidal was the collective nom de plume of a half-dozen equally gifted men. Three movies written or inspired by Vidal, as well as the play, were appearing simultaneously in New York; Jack Paar and David Susskind had discovered in him a provocative new guest; and his theater criticism was appearing regularly in The Reporter. To top it off, Vidal was the Democratic candidate for Congress in New York’s 29th District.
The writer’s active interest in politics came even earlier that his commitment to writing. (“I have, since childhood,” Vidal told The New Yorker, “said that I would rather be President than write.”) His parents were divorced when he was 10, and his mother married Hugh D. Auchincloss, who is also the stepfather, through another marriage, of the present Mrs. Aristotle Onassis — the link that was to make Vidal a frequent White House visitor in Camelot’s first years. Vidal spent much of his childhood in the company of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, guiding the fervidly isolationist old man around the Capitol and reading newspaper editorials, the Congressional Record and works on monetary theory to him. At Exeter, still very much under his grandfather’s influence, he organized a group that propagandized against American participation in World War II. By the time he decided to run for Congress in 1960, the conservatism of his youth had evolved into a tough, if not radical, liberalism — favoring recognition of Communist China, federal aid to education and a decrease in defense spending. Vidal lost the race but garnered more votes than had any Democratic candidate in the district since 1910.
Committing himself again to writing — and to the novel, with Julian, a fictionalized biography of the fourth century Roman emperor who tried in vain to turn back the tide of Christianity — Vidal rejected two subsequent offers to run for office in New York. And in March 1963, he broke his links with the Kennedy White House in a interviews article called “The Best Man — 1968.” “There are flaws in his persona hard to disguise,” he wrote of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “For one thing, it will take a public-relations genius to make him appear lovable. He is not…. He has none of his brother’s human ease; or charity.” Vidal’s opinion of Robert Kennedy changed as Kennedy himself did in the following years, but the possibility of a conventional political career for the writer was closed.
His fascination with the ways of power, however, remained very much alive. In Washington, D.C., which was published in 1967, Vidal shifted novelistically from Roman to American imperial politics, tracing the fortunes of a number of archetypal figures who, in the years from 1937 to 1952, helped transform the American republic into what Vidal calls “possibly the last empire on earth.” Like Julian before it, the book was an instant best seller.
In Myra Breckinridge, Vidal moved from the surgical dissection of political venery to a broader and bloodier attack on America’s social and sexual mores. The book’s title character participates in orgies, an interminable anal rape and a sadomasochistic coupling that ends in a broken neck for one ecstatic partner, all in the course of what Vidal considers “a mad hymn to bisexuality.” Most critics found the book’s theme less affirmative. In the words of The Reporter, “Others, including…Mailer and Albee, have declared war on the American Dream, but no one so far has disposed of it in quite such a nightmare fashion.”
With his fiction becoming increasingly polemical, Vidal has often turned to the critical essay in recent years to promote his ideas. About Rocking the Boat, the first of his hardcover collections of nonfiction, New York’s Mayor John V. Lindsay wrote: “Vidal is the most ingratiating of iconoclasts. For while he is leveling the household gods with a devastating sally, he has disarmed you with the sliest grins.” The second anthology — and Vidal’s most recent book — is Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship, published this spring by Little, Brown. Its 25 pieces of literary and social comment fully justify the Manchester Guardian‘s pronouncement that “Vidal has an acute and impish intelligence which makes him the nearest thing imaginable to a new-model Bernard Shaw.”
Vidal divides his time between homes in Rome, where he does most of his writing, and in New York City — although a number of projects have made him a frequent Hollywood visitor this year. Shooting began a few weeks ago on his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Seven Descents of Myrtle, and he is both writing and producing big-budget film versions of Julian and Myra. He satisfies his interest in politics by working for the New Party, which he helped found after the defeat of Senator Eugene McCarthy and the bloodshed of the Democratic Convention. Our interview began with the political turmoil of the past year and a half — and the outlook for the new administration.
Playboy: As one who was intimately involved in last year’s electoral process — first as an early supporter of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy, then as a political commentator for ABC at the Republican and Democratic Conventions — what do you see as the probable impact of the Nixon administration on this country and on the world?
Vidal: “People are what they are,” as Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, more in sorrow than in triumph. Nixon is what he is and — again, Mrs. Roosevelt — “You can’t change people.” There is, of course, a popular myth that people do change; but in real life, they don’t. With age and experience, they simply become more adroit at selling themselves. Nixon has never been interested in issues or ideas, only in self-promotion. His congressional career was a perfect blank — nothing accomplished, no one represented except an occasional favor for those who contributed to his famous slush fund. He did fight the Commies, however, and so became known. Reports on his vice presidential years show that at Cabinet meetings, he seldom had anything to say about issues but a good deal to say about promoting the party.
Playboy: Soon after the election, Newsweek suggested that Nixon’s qualifications as a complete political technician are among his redeeming presidential assets. Do you feel there’s any truth to that?
Vidal: If the technician were interested in solving real problems, we would all be in his debt. But if Nixon has ever had any ideas about the American empire or the situation of the blacks, he has been careful not to confide them to us. More to the point, since he is interested only in self-promotion, he is not about to jeopardize The Career by taking a strong position on any issue. The ghettos will be “solved,” he tells us, by giving tax cuts to private industry for doing business with the blacks. Well, it doesn’t take a profound student of the human heart to know that the tax cuts will be accepted gladly and that the ghettos will be no better off. It is a proof of his banality not only that he thinks we don’t know how inadequate what he proposes is but that the very way he puts his “solution” shows that to him the ghetto is something incurable — to be improved, not eliminated. But then, of course, he is a conservative as well as an opportunist, and conservatives believe that the poor are always with us, that the human heart is unchanging — “Basically, we’re all rascals,” as Barry Goldwater used to say — and, finally, that slaves should obey their masters. It is the liberal disposition that things can be made better than they are. I am liberal, and so unfashionable at present.
Playboy: Why? Because the conservatives are in power?
Vidal: Yes, and because they mean to do nothing, while the lively new radicals of the left have given up. The only thing left and right have in common is a disdain for the liberals. The conservatives are now tending toward fascism — crack down on dissent, support your local police, disobey the Supreme Court — while the New Left wants to destroy the entire system. Emotionally, I’m drawn to the New Left. I would certainly go to the barricades for any movement that wants to sweep away the Pentagon, Time interviews and frozen French fried potatoes. But what is to take its place? The New Left not only have no blueprint, they don’t want a blueprint. Let’s just see what happens, they say. Well, I can tell them what will happen: first anarchy, then dictatorship. They are rich in Tom Paines, but they have no Thomas Jefferson.
Playboy: Nixon has announced that after an era of confrontation, we must now begin an era of negotiation. Do you see this as a hopeful sign?
Vidal: He enjoys taking trips abroad and thinks himself an international expert because, over the years, he has met a great many heads of state with whom he has spoken through an interpreter for as long as 30 minutes. I think he’ll do a lot of traveling, but nothing much will change. You know, empires have their own dynamic, and individuals don’t much affect their progress. Take the American empire. Up until the end of the 19th century, we were confined to our own continent, seizing land from Mexico, trying to invade Canada and, of course, breaking every treaty we ever made with the indigenous population, the Indians, as an excuse for slaughtering them as well as expropriating their land. By 1899, the continent was full up. We were at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, dressed to kill, with no place to go. The result was a serious national depression — emotional as well as economic. Fortunately, that master therapist, Teddy Roosevelt, was able to contrive a war with Spain that put us into the empire business in a big way: Not only did we “free” Cuba but we took on Puerto Rico and, most significant, the Philippines. Westward the course of empire flowed and still flows. When Teddy’s cousin Franklin maneuvered the Japanese into attacking us at Pearl Harbor — so that he’d have an excuse to go to England’s aid against Hitler — we became the greatest power in the Pacific. Now America’s white hordes are on the mainland of Asia sustaining a much-deserved defeat.
Playboy: Obviously, you feel that the U.S. should withdraw from its commitments in Asia.
Vidal: If we continue, not only shall we go bankrupt, we are quite apt to be destroyed in a nuclear war with China. But can we stop? I doubt it. Empires are like cancers. Perhaps there will be a remission in our case, but it’s not very likely. Meanwhile, the biopsy report is malign. Happily, we will at least have been the shortest-lived empire in history.
Playboy: Do you think public sentiment for peace is sufficiently strong to influence the new administration in the direction of a negotiated settlement in Vietnam?
Vidal: Certainly the war is hurting the economy, and the people don’t like that. But at a deeper level, I think our people revel in war and blood, particularly if the victims belong to “inferior” races.
Playboy: That doesn’t sound like the statement of a man who identifies himself as a liberal.
Vidal: The sad paradox of liberalism is to want majority rule while realizing that the majority is instinctively illiberal. The Bill of Rights was the creation of the educated few, not of the ignorant many, who would have rejected it — and in practice do reject it, quite as firmly as Mayor Daley did last August in Chicago. Watching the police attack the educated, the odd, the nobly intentioned, I found myself admiring — if only briefly — Stalin’s treatment of his kulaks. The police represent the same class in this country, as its most bitter and ignorant. At Chicago, they had a chance to revenge themselves on their economic and intellectual betters. The result, as the Walker Report said, was “a police riot.” At the moment, the real danger to America is not anarchy but repressive police power. The fact that we recruit our police from the same class that provides us with our criminals makes them even more dangerous to us, because the true criminal at least has their respect; he is their brother, while the college professor represents all that they fear and detest.
Playboy: Is there such a great difference between the values of the “educated few” and the “kulaks” of this country?
Vidal: The difference between civilization and the Dark Ages. One Chicago cab driver told me: “You know what those hippies want? They want to show people fucking. They want everybody to do it all over the place.” After some probing, I discovered that he’d heard one of the dissenters say in an interview that there was something sick about a society that preferred its children to watch people being murdered on TV instead of making love. I said I thought this a reasonable point of view. Sex is good. Murder is bad. Wouldn’t he prefer his kids to watch love being made to violence and killing? Voice shaking with rage, he said, “I’d rather have them watch Custer’s last stand than some degenerates fucking! The cops should kill them all!” It was as if Max Lerner and Dr. Rose Franzblau had never lived.
Playboy: Though it’s certainly repugnant, there’s little really new about the violence and intolerance you abhor, and the nation has survived periods of even more intense right-wing hysteria in the past; the Joe McCarthy era is a case in point. Is there any cause for more than the usual degree of pessimism about our current prospects?
Vidal: Yes. The strain of violence that has always run deep in our society has been exacerbated by two race wars: the one at home against the blacks and the one abroad against the yellows. It is not a sign of pessimism to suspect that a series of showdowns is at hand. The tensions have been building up, of course, ever since the Puritans arrived on these shores. Incidentally, it is part of our tribal lore that the Puritans came here to escape persecution. In actual fact, they were driven first out of England, then out of Holland, because of their persecution of others. We had a bad start as a country. But then things improved in the 18th century, and we had a good beginning as a nation, with a rich continent to sustain us. Unfortunately, our puritan intolerance of other races and cultures, combined with a national ethos based entirely upon human greed, has produced an American who is not only “ugly” but, worse, unable to understand why he is so hated in the world. The social fabric is disintegrating. We face the prospect of racial guerrilla warfare in the cities, institutionalized assassinations in our politics, suppression of dissent in our Chicagos and a war in Asia that can at any moment turn nuclear — and terminal. Yet the white majority is blind to all that is happening. Violence is still our greatest pleasure, whether on television or in the barroom.
Playboy: Speaking of violence on television, one of the most memorable moments in last year’s presidential campaign was your shouting match with William Buckley on ABC during the Democratic Convention. In retrospect, how do you feel about that episode?
Vidal: I was reluctant to appear with him at all. For one thing, I knew it would reduce me to his level — I’d look like a left-wing entertainer, balancing his right-wing clown act. But the size of the audience finally tempted me; as a polemicist, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
Playboy: From your point of view, were the debates a success?
Vidal: As debates, yes — though poor Bill was not at his best. I’ve never seen anyone sweat as much as he did on camera. Finally, on election night, he refused altogether to debate me — or even meet me — and so we worked with a velvet curtain between us, answering Howard K. Smith’s questions separately. I can’t think where Bill got such a reputation as a debater. I found him a bit of a birdbrain, unable to pursue any train of thought logically, no doubt because he doesn’t want to let on to what extent he really is fascist-minded, as I implied he was on the air — “fascist,” by the way, is not a word I use often — and is therefore uninvitable even to Nixon’s White House. Unable to be honest, he is forced to be personal, accusing Norman Mailer of wife stabbing and so on. Needless to say, this sort of ad hominem attack is very much admired by the kulaks.
Remember his response to my suggestion that he was a “crypto-Nazi”? He was no Nazi, he shrieked, because he had been in the infantry — non sequitur — and he would punch me in the nose: hubris! It was a fascinating display of girlish temper, with eyes rolling, tongue flicking, lips moist and, as always, the spontaneous dissimulation: The only action he ever saw was in a classroom, teaching Spanish. For the record, I was in the Pacific with the Army during the war. Thus, to make — or avoid — a point, he will say anything. Contrary to his usual billing, Buckley is not an intellectual: He is an entertainer and self-publicist, and since the far right have practically no one they dare display in public, he has been able to make a nice niche for himself as a sort of epicene Joe McCarthy.
Playboy: Though you say you don’t usually use the word “fascist,” you’ve already used it twice.
Vidal: It’s on my mind, obviously. Pressures from students, New Left and militant blacks could cause the conservative majority of the country to counterattack, to create what would be, in effect, a fascist society behind a democratic faÃ§ade.
Playboy: Do you think Americans, at this point in time, are more susceptible to fascism than other people?
Vidal: Traditionally, we are less susceptible. But we are not what we were in the 18th century. The 19th century waves of immigration from slave societies like Ireland, Poland and Sicily have not yet been absorbed, and these new Americans, by and large, do not take easily to the old American values. It is unkind to mention this, but nonetheless true. Look at the success of George Wallace in the Irish and Polish communities of the North. Our new Americans are profoundly illiberal. They hate the poor, the black, the strange. To them, life’s purpose is to conform to rigid tribal law. A conception like the Bill of Rights is alien to them. Until they’ve been here a while longer, they will always be susceptible to Wallace-style demagogs — unless, of course, they change us, which is always a possibility.
Playboy: If you really believe a fascist takeover is in the works, what do you propose to do about it? Do you intend to continue living abroad, as you have for several years, or have you considered staying in this country to help organize a liberal opposition?
Vidal: I am of two minds — my usual fate. For some years I’ve divided my time between Rome, where I write, and New York, where I — what’s the word? — politick? Dissent? But I’m losing heart. For one thing, I’m convinced that man is biologically programed for war; and now that we have the means to end human life on the planet, is there anything in our past record to give one cause for optimism? But assuming I’m wrong and we avoid what editorial writers refer to as “nuclear holocaust,” how are we to survive on an overpopulated planet? Even if we fully exploit our food resources — including sea farming — and develop effective and equitable international systems of distribution, it still won’t be possible to feed the coming generations. So there will be famine and disorder. Meanwhile, we are destroying our environment. Water, earth and air are being poisoned. Climate is being altered. Yet we go on breeding, creating an economy that demands more and more consumers to buy its products — an endless, self-destructive cycle. But though most thoughtful people are aware of what we are doing to ourselves, nothing is being done to restore the planet’s ecological balance, to limit human population, to create social and political and economic institutions capable of coping with — let alone solving — such relatively manageable problems as poverty and racial injustice. Who will tell Detroit that they must abandon the fossil fuel-burning combustion engine? No one. And so the air goes bad, cancers proliferate, climate changes.
Playboy: Do you think drastic reform is likely to be affected by our present system of government?
Vidal: No. And I find that hard to admit, because for all of my adult life I’ve generally accepted what we call the democratic process. But it no longer works. Look at Congress. Last year, 81 percent of the people wanted strong gun-control legislation. But 70 percent of the Congress did not, on instructions from the National Rifle Association. Congress, President, courts are not able to keep industry from poisoning Lake Erie, or Detroit from making cars that, aside from the carbon monoxide they create, are murderous weapons. To this degree, at least, the New Left is right: The system cannot be reformed. I part company with them on how it’s to be replaced. They are vague. I would like to be specific — “programmatic,” to use a word they like even less than “liberal.”
Playboy: And what is your program?
Vidal: I would like to replace our present system with an Authority — with a capital A — that would have total control over environment. And environment means not only air, earth and water but the distribution of services and products, and the limitation of births. Where the Authority would have no jurisdiction would be over the private lives of the citizens. Whatever people said, wrote, ate, drank, made love to — as long as it did no harm to others — would be allowed. This, of course, is the direct reverse of our present system. Traditionally, we have always interfered in the private lives of our citizens while allowing any entrepreneur the right to poison a river in order to make money.
Playboy: Isn’t what you’re proposing — a dictatorship demanding absolute control over the most vital areas of our lives and yet granting absolute social and political freedom — a contradiction in terms? Isn’t it inevitable that the power of your Authority would sooner or later circumscribe the private life of every citizen?
Vidal: Though the Authority would, in its own sphere, be absolute, it would never be the instrument of any one man. There would be no dictator. The thing should be run like a Swiss hotel, with anonymous specialists going about their business under constant review by a council of scientists, poets, butchers, politicians, teachers — the best group one could assemble. No doubt my Venetian ancestry makes me prone to this sort of government, because the Most Serene Republic was run rather like that and no cult of personality ever disturbed those committees that managed the state with great success. It can be done.
Playboy: Would you explain what you mean when you say the Authority would be able to limit births?
Vidal: I mean just that. Only certain people would be allowed to have children. Nor is this the hardship that it might at first appear. Most people have no talent for bringing up children and they usually admit it — once the damage is done. Unfortunately, our tribal propaganda makes every woman think her life incomplete unless she has made a replica of herself and her loved one. But tribal propaganda can be changed. One can just as easily convince people that to bring an unwanted child into the world is a social crime as grave as murder. Through propaganda, the Japanese made it unfashionable to have big families after the war and so — alone of the Asian countries — kept their population viable.
Playboy: Your ends may be commendable, but let’s discuss the means. What would happen to the citizen who didn’t wish to live in your brave new world — to the devout Roman Catholic, for example, who refused to accept your population-control measures?
Vidal: If he didn’t want to emigrate, he’d simply have to accept the Authority’s restrictions. The right to unlimited breeding is not a constitutional guarantee. If education and propaganda failed, those who violated the birth-control restrictions would have to pay for their act as for any other criminal offense.
Playboy: With imprisonment?
Vidal: I don’t believe in prisons, but there would have to be some sort of punishment. Incontinent breeding endangers the human race. That is a fact with which we now live. If we don’t limit our numbers through planned breeding, they will be limited for us in the natural way: famine and war. I think it more civilized to be unnatural and voluntarily limit population.
Playboy: What would become of the family if only a few people were allowed to have children?
Vidal: The family is an economic, not a biological, unit; and once the economic need for it is gone — when women are able to get jobs and support themselves — the unit ceases to have any meaning. In today’s cities, it is not possible to maintain the old American idea of the family — which was, essentially, peasant; a tribal group working together to create food. For better or worse, we are now on our own, and attempts to revive the ancient family ideal — like Daniel Moynihan’s proposal for the blacks; apparently he wants to make Irish villagers of them — will fail. As for the children that we do want, I’d like to see them brought up communally, the way they are in certain of the Israeli kibbutzim. I suspect that eventually, the whole idea of parenthood will vanish, when children are made impersonally by laboratory insemination of ova. To forestall the usual outraged letters declaring that I am against the “normal” sexual act, consider what I’m talking about: the creation of citizens, not sexual pleasure, which will continue, as always. Further, I would favor an intelligent program of eugenics that would decide which genetic types should be continued and which allowed to die off. It’s within the range of our science to create, very simply, new people physically healthier and intellectually more competent than ourselves. After all, we do it regularly in agriculture and in the breeding of livestock, so why not with the human race? According to the somber Dr. William Shockley — the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who once contravened liberal doctrine by suggesting that we should look for genetic differences among the races — our preservation, through advanced medicine, of physically and mentally weak strains is now making the race less fit with each generation.
Playboy: Your critics would charge that the utopia you propose is actually a nightmarish world reminiscent of Nazi Germany and of George Orwell’s 1984. How would you answer them?
Vidal: Most things human go wrong. The Authority would probably be no exception. But consider the alternatives. Nuclear war to reduce population. World famine. The coming to power of military dictatorships. The crushing of individual freedom. At least the Authority would guarantee more private freedom to its citizens than they now enjoy.
Playboy: Realistically, do you see any chance of such an “enlightened” dictatorship coming to power?
Vidal: Dictatorship, no; enlightened, yes. Could it happen? Probably not. It takes too long to change tribal thinking. The majority will always prefer a fiery death, howling tribal slogans. A pity — but then, it is not written in the stars that this peculiar race endure forever. Now may be a good time for us to stop. However, since I believe that one must always act as though our affairs were manageable, I should like to see a Party for Human Survival started on an international scale, to try to persuade people to vote willingly for a life-enhancing as well as life-preserving system.
Playboy: Your detractors, on both right and left, would argue that the proposals you’ve just made reflect a characteristic Vidal trait: intellectual arrogance and a basic elitist contempt for the people and their ability to govern themselves. Do you think they have a point?
Vidal: I do not admire “the people,” as such. No one really does. Their folk wisdom is usually false, their instincts predatory. Even their sense of survival — so highly developed in the individual — goes berserk in the mass. A crowd is a fool. But then, crowds don’t govern. In fact, only in America do we pretend to worship the majority, reverently listening to the herd as it Gallups this way and that. A socialist friend of mine in England, a Labor M.P., once said, “You Americans are mad on the subject of democracy. But we aren’t, because we know if the people were given their head, they would bring back hanging, the birch and, of course, they’d kick the niggers out of the country. Fortunately, the Labor Party has no traffic with democracy.” I want the people to be happy, but more than that, I want them to be humane — something they are not, as everyone from Jesus to Karl Marx has had occasion to notice.
Playboy: Despite your cynicism—
Vidal: Realism is always called cynicism. I am a pessimist — who tries to act like an optimist.
Playboy: All right — despite your pessimism about the future of America and the world, and your disenchantment with the democratic process, you campaigned actively last year on behalf of Senator McCarthy’s nomination and were subsequently active in the movement to launch a fourth party, the New Party. If everything is so bleak and hopeless — short of the accession to power of the Authority — why did you bother?
Vidal: It’s better to be futile than passive. I supported McCarthy because he mobilized the youth of the country and acted as if the national institutions might still be made to work. But he failed; they failed. The next move, to my mind, was the New Party, which came into being at Chicago. It is a place for the activist young, an alternative to the system that has made Richard Nixon emperor of the West.
Playboy: Despite your long-standing animosity toward the late Senator Kennedy, you were ready to support him for the presidency before McCarthy announced his nomination. Supporters of Kennedy still argue that, despite the tardiness of his entry into the race after McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary victory, Kennedy was the only peace candidate with a real chance of victory, and that McCarthy’s failure to withdraw in his favor — allegedly prompted by personal pique — merely played into the hands of Hubert Humphrey and made his nomination inevitable. If Kennedy had lived, do you believe that McCarthy’s role would have been that of a spoiler?
Vidal: I believe just the opposite. I think Kennedy was the spoiler and that he should have withdrawn in favor of McCarthy. After all, it was McCarthy who went into New Hampshire and destroyed L.B.J., something Bobby did not have the courage to do. For all of Bobby’s renowned toughness and abrasiveness, he was politically conventional and timid. He wanted to be President in the “normal” way. He wanted “to put it together.” Well, it isn’t together anymore. It was his bad luck to be caught in a revolution he didn’t understand, though he did like its rhetoric. Yet the conservative majority of the country hated him and thought him a revolutionary. I wonder what will happen when the real thing comes along. The two Kennedys were charming, conservative politicians, nicely suited for the traditional game but hardly revolutionaries or innovators.
Playboy: Would you have preferred Kennedy to Johnson?
Vidal: Certainly. Although Bobby had been very much involved in getting us into Vietnam — he once said we had “every moral right” to be there — toward the end, he saw the light, or the votes, and became a peace candidate. Also, though I don’t believe in character changes, I do have a theory that if you keep giving a conservative politician liberal speeches to read, he will eventually become a liberal, and vice versa. Friends of mine who were close to Kennedy tell me that in the last months of his life, he really seemed to believe his own rhetoric, had come to identify with the poor and the dispossessed. If so, good. Strangely enough, I always found him a touching figure under the bad manners. He was obsessed by his relative inferiority to his older brothers. As a result, he had to be twice as tough as everyone else, have twice as many children. What a tense life it must have been — and, finally, sad.
Playboy: How did you feel when you learned of his assassination?
Vidal: Depressed. In a strange way, you come to like your enemies rather better than your friends. I will say I wasn’t surprised. It seemed inevitable. Not long ago, something like 30 percent of those living in one Manhattan neighborhood were found to be in need of psychiatric help. At the same time, there are 200 million guns in private hands in the United States; that’s one for every citizen. Were it not for fear of J. Edgar Hoover, we would all be dead.
Playboy: In this kind of society — with that many guns — do you think that public men can effectively be protected from assassination?
Vidal: No. Anybody can murder a President. Once, sitting next to Jack Kennedy at a horse show, I remarked how easy it would be for someone to shoot him. “Only,” I said, “they’d probably miss and hit me.” “No great loss,” he observed cheerfully and then, beaming at the crowd and trying to appear interested in the horses for Jackie’s sake, he told me the plot of an Edgar Wallace thriller called Twenty-Four Hours, in which a British Prime Minister is informed that at midnight he will be assassinated. Scotland Yard takes every precaution; 10 Downing Street is ringed by guards; midnight comes and goes. Then, the telephone rings. Relieved, the Prime Minister picks up the receiver — and is electrocuted. The President chuckled. He often spoke of the risk of assassination, but I doubt if he thought it would ever happen to him. His virtue — and weakness — was his rationality. He had no sense of the irrational in human affairs.
Playboy: Do you?
Vidal: I think so. But then, the artist is always more concerned with the moon’s dark side than the man of action is. However, I am not prone to mysticism or Yeatsian magic. Only once have I ever had a — what’s the word? — presentiment. In 1961 I dreamed, in full color, that I was in the White House with Jackie. Dress soaked with blood, she was sobbing, “What will become of me now?” Yet I don’t “believe in” dreams, and I certainly would not believe in this dream if someone else told it to me.
Playboy: Do you believe that the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy were the work of lone lunatics — or of a well-organized conspiracy?
Vidal: I tend to the lone-lunatic theory. Oswald. Sirhan. They are so typical, as anyone who ever served in the Army knows. We are a violent country with a high rate of mental illness, much of it the result of overcrowding in the cities, where — like rats under similar conditions in a laboratory experiment — we go insane. To allow any nut to buy a gun is a folly no other country in the world permits. During last year’s French revolution, involving millions of people, there were fewer casualties in two weeks than there were in the first hour of Newark’s ghetto riot.
Playboy: To return to the Kennedy assassinations, don’t you feel there may be some evidence to support the conspiracy theory, particularly in the Oswald case?
Vidal: Like everyone else, I believe the last book I read: “Zapruder Frame 313, J.F.K. pitches backward, not forward.” It does seem as if Oswald might have had help; and if he did, then there was, indeed, a conspiracy. I realize that a generation brought up on horror comics and Gunsmoke is convinced that the MacBirds did in our Prince, just so they could make the White House their aviary; but I think it not very likely. The villains, if they exist, are probably Texas oilmen, fearing a Kennedy repeal of the oil-depletion allowance: in other words, a conspiracy as unserious politically as the John Wilkes Booth caper. Nevertheless, just as a phenomenon, it is curious that a nation that has never experienced a coup d’Ã¨tat should be so obsessed by conspiracy — but then, a fear of “them” is a symptom of paranoia. Look at Joe McCarthy’s great success. Look at Mr. Garrison in New Orleans. Incidentally, I used to know Clay Shaw; and if there is anyone less likely to have been involved in a political murder, it is that charming apolitical man. As I predicted, Mr. Garrison’s case against Shaw was nonsense.
Playboy: Whoever assassinated John Kennedy, and for whatever reasons, do you believe that if Kennedy had lived, he could have reversed, or at least arrested, the social decay you decry?
Vidal: No. But then, no one could — or can. These things are cyclic. By and large, Kennedy drifted. When he did act, the results were disastrous. Consider the Bay of Pigs, which took for granted that the United States has the right to intervene militarily in the affairs of other nations; and Vietnam, where he — not Eisenhower — committed us to active military support of a corrupt regime. There are those who believe that had he lived, he would have got us out of Asia. But I doubt it. The week before his assassination, he told an associate, “I have to go all the way with this one” — meaning that after Cuba, he did not dare look “soft” on communism, particularly with an election coming up.
Playboy: Apart from foreign affairs, how would you assess the Kennedy administration?
Vidal: Mediocre. Presidents are supposed to be made in their first 18 months. That’s when they’re able to push through their programs. Kennedy’s first 18 months were a blank. Nothing happened. And by his third summer, it was plain even to him that he was botching the job. In private, he was full of complaints and excuses. He felt that he could do nothing with the Congress, and so he did nothing with the Congress. Re-elected in 1964 with a proper majority, however, he thought he would do great things. But, again, I doubt it. For one thing, he would have been holding the franchise for his brother and that would have meant a second administration as cautious as the first. More to the point, the quality that gave him his great charm was not of much use to him as Chief Executive: an ironic detachment about himself and others. I remember once he was complaining about how the “Pentagon just throws money around, and there’s no way of stopping them.” It didn’t seem to occur to him that even at this late date in the reign of the military-industrial complex, the administration was his, not theirs.
Playboy: Don’t you think Kennedy laid the groundwork for genuine social progress by giving the nation a new momentum in peace and civil rights that could have come to fruition in his second term?
Vidal: On almost every subject, he made at least one splendid speech, and left it at that. Domestically, he was simply carrying forward the program of the New Deal. It was left to Johnson to complete the New Deal. He rounded out not only Kennedy’s interrupted first term but Roosevelt’s fourth.
Playboy: In the foreign-policy area, many political historians cite Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis as an undeniable and major accomplishment — perhaps the greatest of his career. They point out that it set the stage for a subsequent thaw in the U.S.-Soviet relations and thus substantially reduced the danger of nuclear war. Do you agree?
Vidal: In 1963, when asked whether or not Soviet missiles in Cuba really jeopardized the security of the United States, Kennedy said, “Not really. But it would have changed the balance of political power. Or it would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality.” Kennedy’s handling of the crisis was a public-relations masterpiece, which changed nothing at all except his own image; he had made himself seem forceful. Yet when the matter ended, the Soviets were still in Cuba, 90 miles away, and we were neither stronger nor weaker, despite all the theater.
Playboy: Is your hostility to the Kennedy family prompted exclusively by political considerations, or is there an element of personal animus in your opposition?
Vidal: Personally, I didn’t like Bobby but I did like Jack. The others don’t interest me. As for my opposition — is it likely that, with my view of what needs doing in the country, I would ever be much pleased with the works of such conservative and conventional politicians?
Playboy: What was it you liked personally about President Kennedy?
Vidal: He had a fine dry kind of humor, not very American, coupled with a sort of preppish toughness that was engaging. I remember once giving to a particularly bright interviews writer a very guarded report about my childhood, which was much the same as Jackie’s. We were both brought up in Hugh Auchincloss’ — our stepfather’s — house in Virginia. I lived there from 10 to 16. Then Jackie’s mother married Mr. Auchincloss and Jackie moved into my room, inheriting several shirts of mine, which she used to wear riding. I don’t remember her in those days — I enlisted in the Army at 17 — but our lives overlapped: We have a half brother and a half sister in common. I was unaware of her, however, until the Forties, when I began to get reports from friends visiting Washington that she had introduced herself to them as my sister; I was, pre-Kennedy, the family notable. In 1949, we finally met and I allowed her claim to be my sister to stand. Anyway, I certainly know what her childhood was like, since it was pretty much the one I had endured. So I told the interviewer something about life in that world, described how sequestered it was, how remote from any reality: Great money is the most opaque of screens.
During the Depression, which was unknown to us, the Roosevelts seemed Lucifer’s own family loose among us; the American gentry liked to call them the Rosenfelds, on the fragile ground that they were really Dutch Jews and, therefore, Communist, since all Jews were Communists except the Rothschilds, who didn’t look Jewish. You have no idea what a muddled view of things the American aristrocracy had in those days, with their ferocious anti-Semitism, hatred of the lower orders and fierce will to protect their property from any encroachment. Liberal hagiographers will always have a difficult time recording the actual background of our Republic’s Gracchian princes.
Anyway, not wanting to give the game away, I made a vague reference in that interview to what I thought was an unreal “golden season” and let it go at that. One night while playing backgammon at Hyannis Port, Jack Kennedy said, “Gore, what’s all this golden season shit you’ve been peddling about life at Merrywood?” I thought him ungrateful. “You hardly expect me to tell the truth, do you?” He ignored that and chose instead to mount, as Jackie listened, a fine tirade against our family, how each of us was a disaster, ending with, “Merrywood wasn’t golden at all. It was…it was…” he searched for a simile, found one and said triumphantly, “It was the little foxes!” But, of course, he was a cheerful snob who took a delight in having married into what he regarded as the American old guard — another badge for the Kennedys, those very big foxes who have done their share of spoiling in the vineyard. But the Kennedy story is finished. The age of Nixon has begun.
Playboy: Edward Kennedy might not agree that the Kennedy era is over.
Vidal: When Teddy Kennedy first ran for the Senate, there was a great cackling from even the most devoted of the Kennedy capons: He was too young, too dumb — in fact, they were so upset that a number of them openly supported his opponent in the primary, Speaker McCormack’s nephew. At about that time, I asked a member of the Holy Family why the President had allowed his brother to run. The member of the H.F. admitted that it was embarrassing for the President, even admitted that Teddy was not exactly brilliant, but added, “He’ll have wonderful advisors and that’s all that matters.”
Politics today is big money. X can be stupid or a drunk or a religious maniac, but if he has the money for a major political career and enough political flair to make a good public impression, he will automatically attract to himself quite a number of political adventurers, some talented. With luck, he will become the nucleus of a political team that then creates his speeches, his positions, his deeds, if any — presidential hopefuls seldom do anything — until, finally, X is entirely the team’s creation, manipulated rather than manipulating, in much the same way that the queen bee is powerless in relation to the drones and workers.
At the moment, the Teddy Kennedy hive is buzzing happily. There’s honey in the comb and perhaps one day the swarm will move down Pennsylvania Avenue to occupy the White House. But, once again, I doubt it. For one thing, there are too many other swarms at work — Humphrey, Muskie, McCarthy, not to mention the possibility of a Nixon second term, followed by a good bee like Lindsay, or a bad bee like Agnew. The future is obscure. But one thing is certain: The magic of the Kennedy name will have faded in four years, be gone in eight years. By 1972, E.M.K., as he’s now being touted, will no longer be a Kennedy as we have come to think of that splendid band of brothers. Rather, he will be just another politician whom we have seen too much of, no doubt useful in the Senate but nothing more — and so, familiar, stodgy, cautious, trying to evoke memories that have faded, he will have to yield to new stars, to a politically minded astronaut or to some bright television personality like Trudeau. By 1976, Camelot will be not only forgot but unrestorable, if for no other reason than that Arthur’s heir will by then be — cruelest fate of all — unmistakably fat.
Playboy: How do you feel about the Age of Johnson?
Vidal: Sad. He did so much in his first 18 months. He was able to force through the Congress all sorts of constructive legislation, ranging from public health to civil rights. He was something of a wonder, in marked contrast to his predecessor, who treated him with contempt; the Kennedy courtiers, in fact, fled at his approach. He had every reason to dislike them. It’s been argued that Johnson’s programs were inadequate, but then, what is adequate in times like these? At least he did what he could do, given the kind of government we have, and that is the most any conventional party politician can be expected to do.
Playboy: What might a radical politician accomplish?
Vidal: The word “radical” comes from the Latin word meaning “root.” A radical politician could go to the root of things — something no conventional politician dares do, for fear of what he’ll find. But, of course, there are no radical politicians close to the top of our system, nor are there apt to be until — a paradox — it’s changed. Our politicians — like our people — are about equally divided between conservatives and reactionaries, with very few radicals of any kind.
Playboy: Would the leadership of your Party for Human Survival be radical?
Vidal: By definition, yes. After all, they would be creating a new social order to save our old race.
Playboy: Since the idea for such a party is yours, do you see yourself as a radical?
Vidal: In thought, certainly. I’m not so sure in deed. Given the power, would I also have the faith in my own rightness to pull down the house and then the energy, as well as the wisdom, to build another? Tall order. But then, Voltaire, safe among his Swiss lakes, made possible the French Revolution — and Bonaparte — just as Bernard Shaw prepared the way for Harold Wilson. Analogies are pointless, thank God. Each case is different. Each life is different. All that can be said of this time is that radical action is necessary if we are to survive.
Playboy: In your opinion, did L.B.J. — though by your definition a conventional politician — have any sense of what the times required? Or was he merely shorting up what you consider the old, outmoded social and political institutions?
Vidal: Like Kennedy, he simply continued the New Deal — which, in his youth, had all the glamor of radicalism, without its substance. Roosevelt saved capitalism by accepting a degree of welfarism. Johnson applied the same formulas, with less dramatic results. When Roosevelt’s experiments began to go sour, the Second World War disguised their inadequacy. I’ve often wondered if Johnson instinctively hoped to repeat the Roosevelt career: domestic reform, followed by the triumphant prosecution of a war. Poor man! He was doomed from the beginning. After Kennedy, he was the wrong age, the wrong class, from the wrong region. I always thought the fact that he wasn’t a bogus Whig nobleman was a point in his favor — but his public manner gave offense, and I could never understand why, since his sort of folksy hypocrisy is the national style. But perhaps that was why: The people recognized themselves in him and recoiled. He was the snake-oil salesman, just as Nixon is the Midwestern realtor, gravely intent upon selling us that nice acre of development land called Shady Elms that turns out to be a swamp. We’re used to these types and prefer something grander as our chief of state, a superior con man, preferably of patrician origin, who can disguise with noble phrases who and what we are; to euphemize, that is the presidential task. God knows they all do it. Take Latin America. In that sad continent, we support a wide range of military dictatorships that our Presidents, invariably, refer to as necessary links in the bright chain of freedom with which we are manacling the world. In our way, we are as predatory as the Russians, and every bit as maniacal in our confusing — and debasing — of language: Free means slave, democratic means oligarchic, liberated means slaughtered. A fine pair of superpowers, suitable for history’s wastebasket!
Playboy: Do you think the various superpower confrontations in Asia or the Middle East might lead to a nuclear showdown that would end just that way?
Vidal: It certainly would seem so, though I personally see the last struggle for men’s minds, the ultimate blow for freedom, struck in Latin America, with us confronting the Soviet in the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, while the Chinese hover in nearby Montevideo. Brazil is much too important to lose, the way we “lost” China. Finders keepers, as they say. But since I’d like to see the world’s people survive the destruction of these two political systems, I don’t look with much pleasure on what will probably be a war only a few survive, their genes significantly altered by radiation. It could very well be that intense atomic radiation might cause the remaining human survivors to mutate, to change biologically. There is now a theory that the various radical changes that have occurred on earth — the extinction of dinosaurs, the evolution of man from ape — were the result of shifts in the magnetic pole that momentarily removed our usual outer envelope, causing the earth to be exposed to intense radiation. But to strike a cheerful note — and it is my constant desire to make happy my fellow gibbons — the handful of survivors of an atomic war would be so irradiated that their offspring, though perhaps rather odd-looking, might make possible the next great twist in that biological spiral that has brought us from amoeba to Spiro Agnew. I find the thought of a dramatic change in our physical and intellectual structure most exciting. Certainly we’ve come about as far as we can with these ugly, weak bodies adorned with feathery tentacles and soft protuberances; as for our minds — well, the less said about those primitive instruments, the better!
Playboy: To get back to politics—
Vidal: A subject I’ve yet to stray from. Shaw said that the only topics worthy of an adult’s attention were politics and religion, both in the largest sense.
Playboy: Do you believe it matters much who the President is? You seem at times to take the Spenglerian view that individual men don’t really affect history.
Vidal: A good ruler in a falling time falls, too, while a bad ruler at a time of national ascendancy rises. That is the long view. But, men certainly affect events. In physics, there is no action without reaction. Therefore, any action matters. And that is why the only moral life is to act as if whatever one does is of great moment. Though the American empire may be collapsing and none can stop its fall, I would still rather have seen McCarthy as President than Nixon or Humphrey. Yet even in McCarthy’s case, one cannot be certain how effective he might’ve been. I suppose the most we can demand of a conventional President is that he have some understanding of what is going on and a willingness to confide in us. Johnson was a compulsive liar, rather like Roosevelt, but without that master’s High Episcopal charm. Worse, Johnson did not, does not and never will understand the nature of the American empire and its consequences to us and to the world.
Playboy: What about Eisenhower? He certainly indicated in his farewell speech that he understood the military-industrial complex, which many people now think dominates our foreign policy.
Vidal: Eisenhower understood the military-industrial complex better than any other man for the simple reason that he was its chairman of the board for eight years and a loyal branch manager before that. What is puzzling is that he decided to bring up the subject just as he was retiring. Bad conscience? Who will ever know? All in all, a fascinating man, and a master politician. I’ve heard a good deal about him over the years: My father was at West Point a few years after Eisenhower and they shared many friends. In fact, Eisenhower’s doctor, General Snyder, delivered me some 43 years ago in the cadet hospital at West Point, when a star shone over the Hudson Palisades, and shepherds quaked.
Eisenhower’s career demonstrated how it is possible to fool all the people all the time. He was a highly intelligent, cold-blooded careerist who was determined — much like a Stendhal hero — to rise to the top, and did. “I may be stupid,” he once said at a press conference, “but at least I’m sincere!” Actually, he was neither, but it suited his purpose to play the part of the bumbling man of good will who was “not an expert in these matters” but somehow would do his best. The people loved the performance and, of course, The Smile. Intimates report that until the great promotion, he was a gloomy, scowling officer who was miraculously transformed when he arrived in England where, said an admiring general, “he learned to smile.”
The proof of his political genius is that he left the White House almost as popular as when he entered it. His secret? He never committed himself to any cause or to any person. All that mattered was the single-minded conserving of his own popularity. I once asked General Snyder if he thought Eisenhower would campaign actively for Nixon in 1960. He shook his head — and discussed at some length the care with which Eisenhower separated himself from others. Loyalty to others was never his weakness.
Nor is this kind of selfishness a bad quality in a politician. That other General, De Gaulle, has flourished in a similar way. But then, army staffs are the same everywhere, and those who rise to the top, particularly in peacetime, are usually master politicians of Byzantine cunning. It is true that a lifetime spent in the military hierarchy makes one totally unfit to respond to the needs of a civilian population, but that is another problem. Even so, had Eisenhower been less lazy and self-loving, he might have done some good. But, unfortunately for us, he regarded the presidency as a kind of brevet rank, a sign of the nation’s gratitude, involving no fixed duties to disturb his golf game.
Playboy: Yet, in foreign affairs, Eisenhower managed to keep the peace more effectively than his two Democratic predecessors.
Vidal: Political generals hate real wars. That is an axiom. Or, as the laundry-minded General Powers says in Visit to a Small Planet, “If there is one thing that destroys an army’s morale and discipline, it is a major war. Everything goes to hell. Lose more damned sheets and pillow-cases.” Although John Foster Dulles pursued what seemed to be a militant foreign policy, full of massive retaliations, agonizing reappraisals and calls for captive nations to throw off the Red yoke, in actual fact, Dulles was just another “good American”; that is to say, a spontaneous hypocrite who was able to say one thing, mean another and do a third, yet genuinely be indignant if he was thought inconsistent or insincere. While Dulles spouted Scripture to the heathens, Eisenhower resolved to do nothing — and I must say, those years look positively golden in retrospect. A State Department friend of mine once gave a briefing to Johnson. The subject was a Latin-American country where it looked as if one of our military juntas was about to be replaced by a liberal non-Communist regime. Johnson was distraught. “What, what,” he cried, “can we do?” To which one of his advisors — whose name must be suppressed, though his wisdom ought to be carved over the White House door-replied, “Mr. President, why not do nothing?” That was the Eisenhower genius. When come such another? Or has one come already?
Playboy: You feel it better for our Presidents to do nothing, yet your Authority would do everything.
Vidal: Let us say that, ideally, it is probably better for conventional politicians to do as little as possible, since their actions tend to make worse whatever it is they’re dealing with. Even Eisenhower managed to begin the Vietnam war by not following his normal instinct of staying out of mischief. In his memoirs, he tells us why we didn’t honor the Geneva accords and hold elections in Vietnam: because some 80 percent of the country would have voted for Ho Chi Minh. This is very candid. The sort of thing one might have found in Stalin’s memoirs, had he not made ghosts even of ghosts. But at least Eisenhower did not commit the troops. That was for Kennedy to do, acting on the best military advice. Eisenhower at least knew that our generals are not warriors but bureaucrats, dreaming of expanded T.O.s, promotions, graft — all things that small wars make possible. Getting back to your question, the Authority would be activist, in those areas of crisis that conventional politicians refuse to face.
Playboy: Do you think that under your Authority, the average citizen would find himself more or less happy?
Vidal: More. After all, he would be denied only one “pleasure” — the unauthorized bringing into society of a new citizen. Otherwise, he would be freer in his private life than he is now. At present, nearly every form of sexual activity outside marriage is forbidden him by laws that vary in their medieval exuberance from state to state. Even within marriage, certain acts are forbidden him, as that legendary cunnilinguist in California discovered when he was sent to Alcatraz for an act of extreme — indeed, positively Christian — unselfishness performed upon his legal mate. Of the countries of the West, the United States is the only one to have laws against fornication as such. Though these laws are spottily enforced, they still exist — a joy for blackmailers, particularly those who are entrusted with the power to enforce them: the police.
One of the reasons for the great rise in crime in recent years is that most police departments are more concerned with cracking down on prostitutes, gamblers and homosexualists than they are with what should be their proper function: the protection of life and property. The Authority would make it very clear that morals are not the business of the state. If a woman can get $100 from a man for giving him an hour’s pleasure, more power to them both. She is a free agent under the Authority and so is he. In any case, she is no worse than the childless wife who insists upon alimony once a marriage ends.
That various religious establishments might find certain kinds of behavior sinful is their business, not the state’s. Nor will that Baptist minister or Christian brother be allowed to impose his primitive superstitions upon a secular society, unlike the past — and even the present — when whatever the churches thought to be sin was promptly made illegal by state legislatures: whiskey, gambling, sex. The result has been a society of peculiar corruption in which the police, more than any other group, have been literally demoralized. The Authority would guarantee everyone the right to do as he pleases, as long as his activities are not harmful to the general welfare.
Playboy: And who will interpret “the general welfare”?
Vidal: The Authority. I don’t think it will be a particularly difficult task. Take cigarette smoking. Cigarettes kill and cripple many of those who smoke them. That is a fact. Yet cigarette advertisers are allowed to spend millions of dollars a year to convince young people that cigarette smoking is a glamorous, status-enhancing thing to do — and so the young are hooked early and made addicts. I think this sort of advertising is against the general welfare and should be forbidden. After all, the survival of the race is slightly more important than the market listing of the American Tobacco Company. But since the Authority guarantees personal freedom, anyone who wants to smoke can. He will be duly warned on the cigarette package, however, as to the lethal dangers of smoking. Naturally, I realize it will be difficult to convince the average American of the morality of this. From childhood we have been taught that whatever makes money must be good. Further, whatever is expensively and ingeniously advertised is inevitable and worthy. And, of course, to the consumer American, immorality means just one thing: sex. I suspect we are in for a drastic upheaval — a long overdue revision of the nation’s ethical standards, and that would be the Authority’s work.
Playboy: Could it succeed?
Vidal: Why not? The worst sort of dictatorships now have the means to maintain themselves in power as a result of advanced communications. So why not use those same means toward good ends? The preserving of the human race, the hammering out of a new code of ethics.
Playboy: Would your Authority legalize pot?
Vidal: Certainly. In the private sphere, everyone has a perfect right to kill himself in any way he chooses — gin, cigarettes, heroin, a bullet through the head. As I said before, it is not for the state to decide whether or not he is to live or die, what he is to eat, drink, smoke, make love to. Obviously, it would be inconvenient if everyone decided to stay drunk or stoned; but the point is, everyone won’t. I remember when the Wolfenden Report first came out in England and proposed that homosexuality between consenting adults be made legal. There was an enormous outcry. The baby supply would be endangered, the fabric of society disrupted, the streets crowded with young men selling their bodies. There was a marvelously insane premise at work here: If homosexuality were legal, heterosexuality would wither away! A state of affairs that not even the most militant pederast has ever dreamed of. Since England finally made legal whatever consenting adults choose to do, not only has the oversupply of babies continued, as usual, but there has been no noticeable decline in heterosexual relationships.
In the debate before the laws were changed, however, one heard the tribal voices loud and clear, calling to us from the Stone Age, when our lives were short and our natural enemies many and, to protect the tribe, it was a duty to breed. Now, 50,000 years later, the tribal mind is still programed in the same way: Make as many babies as possible and try to discourage any sort of behavior that might curtail the supply. Yet we live with daily evidence that the human race is committing suicide through overpopulation. This sort of double-think is usual with us. A perfect example was the astronaut who saw fit to read to us from the moon a barbarous religious text, disproved by the very fact it was being read from the moon.
Playboy: Do you foresee a drug culture if everyone is free to turn on in any way he pleases?
Vidal: We are a drug culture already. Sleeping pills, aspirins, the nightcap that too often becomes an Indian war bonnet. Ideally, reality should be so interesting that we don’t need tranquilizers and stimulants. But since there are too many people in the world and not enough for them to do — certainly very little that is interesting — the American majority serve their 40 hours a week in order to stun themselves with beer, television, whatever, come the weekend. Fewer people with more interesting things to do is as good an aim as any for a society.
Playboy: Do you speak from experience with drugs?
Vidal: Yes, and mostly from unpleasant experience. Marijuana has no effect on me, possibly because I’ve never smoked cigarettes. But I’ve tried hashish and mescaline and found the results physically depressing. One attempt to smoke opium made me ill. But I’m fortunate; my life is sufficiently interesting to make me want to keep alert what senses I have. That’s why I gave up whiskey two years ago and now drink only wine, a slower and more graceful way of heightening and then pleasantly losing reality. But if I had to choose between the aggressive drunk who smashes up a car and the passive marijuana smoker who bores me to death at a party, I’d take the pothead any day. Incidentally, those who oppose drug because they breed crime should realize that if all drugs were made legal and sold at cost — as would be done under the Authority — there would be no criminal trafficking in drugs and, hence, no desperate hopheads committing murders in order to get money for the next fix. Unfortunately, this solution is much too intelligent for our people ever to accept. Punishing others is one of the great pleasures of the tribe, not easily relinquished.
Playboy: What new horizons do you foresee for that other great tribal pleasure, sex? Under the Authority, do you believe the trend would be toward the type of polymorphous transsexuality you exalted in Myra Breckinridge?
Vidal: I exalted neither Myra nor her views. But I do think that if we survive long enough to evolve a rational society, there will be a trend toward bisexuality. For one thing, bisexuality is, quite simply, more interesting than monosexuality. And we are bisexual by nature. The tribe, however, has done its best to legislate our behavior, and this has done an enormous amount of damage. Homosexual behavior is as natural as heterosexual behavior. That it is not the norm is irrelevant. Blue eyes are not the norm in Mexico. If we really insisted that everyone try to conform to that sexual activity that is most practiced at any given moment, then we should have to admit that the statistical norm is neither hetero- nor homosexual but onanistic. Myra found group sexuality intriguing, and so do I. It was something our pre-Christian ancestors recognized as a part of man’s religious life, as well as a means of pleasure.
Playboy: So far, you’ve earned more than $1 million from Myra — almost as much as Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins have made from the sexy soap operas you satirize in your book. Some critics have charged that you have emulated and exploited that which you purport to condemn. Is there any validity to that?
Vidal: It is quite true that Myra has earned me a great deal of money. If I were to say that I had written it in order to make money, I would be immediately understood and absolved of every sin. But at the risk of shocking everyone, I must point out that if I wanted to use writing for making money, I would have settled in Hollywood long ago and bought a chain of Encino supermarkets. I write to make art and change society. That I do either is certainly arguable, but money is not an interest.
Playboy: Your late father reportedly told you that with Myra Breckinridge you had gone “too far.” How did you answer him?
Vidal: My father did wonder if, perhaps, I had gone too far, to which I replied that only by constant skirmishing on the frontier are new territories opened up. Being an inventor and an aviation pioneer, he saw the point to that. Twenty-one years ago. The City and the Pillar created a much larger scandal than Myra. Now it is wistfully alluded to as a delicate, sensitive book. The scandal of 1948 has become the worthy book of 1969. But the judgments of those who write for newspapers are generally worthless, because journalists are paid to anticipate and exploit the moral prejudices of their readers. If you want to know what the stupider members of the tribe are thinking, read the Chicago Tribune or the New York Daily News. Their attitudes reflect every sort of ancient superstition and bear no relevance to the world we live in. That’s why I enjoy the various underground newspapers. They are dizzy and often dull-witted, but they reflect the living aspects of our civilization as opposed to our tribalism, which is decadent and, hopefully, dying.
Playboy: Newsweek charges that Myra Breckinridge “becomes, in the end, a kind of erotic propaganda” for homosexuality. Is this true — and, if so, is it intentional?
Vidal: Myra favors anything that would limit population, but there is considerable evidence that she dislikes homosexuality. Why else would she have become a woman and fallen in love with Mary Ann? Certainly her depressing reports on the activities of Myron, her alter id, can hardly be called erotic propaganda. Despite her temporary view of herself as a messiah, Myra was never strict; anything goes, she maintained, as long as it doesn’t further crowd the world.
Playboy: In Oscar Wilde’s day, homosexuality was known as “the love that dare not speak its name,” but today it has become, in Mike Nichols’ words, “the vice that won’t shut up.” Do you consider the growing candor of homosexual spokesmen and homophile organizations a healthy sign, or the price one pays for social progress?
Vidal: I’m in favor of any form of sexual relationship that gives pleasure to those involved. And I have never heard a convincing argument to the contrary. Our problem is semantic. Tribalists have taught us to view male and female homosexuality as a form of disease, instead of what it is: a term used to describe not personality but a specific sexual act. Properly speaking, the word is an adjective and ought not to be used as a noun at all. To say that Richard Nixon is a heterosexualist tells us nothing at all about him as a politician or even — fascinating thought — as a lover. Since there is no such thing as a heterosexual personality, there can be no such thing as a homosexual personality — though it’s certainly true that homosexualists often develop a rich variety of neuroses as a result of persecution; but then, so do Negroes, Jews and — in some cultures — women. In any case, to try to alter the sexual nature of an adult is a lunatic — and hopeless — business. Unfortunately, it is also a very profitable one for quacks like the late Dr. Bergler.
Playboy: The charge was recently made by Ramparts interviews and critic Stanley Kauffman, among others, that a homosexual coterie — the “Homintern,” as some melodramatically term it — has a stranglehold on American culture and advances its own values, and the fortunes of its fellows, at the expense of the heterosexual artist. Do you believe there’s any substance to these claims?
Vidal: No. As far as I know, there exist no protocols of Sodom. All that matters in the arts is excellence; and though the sex life of the artist no doubt affects to some degree his moral tone, the final work must be judged as a thing in itself. Do Saul Bellow’s heterosexual preoccupations undermine his considerable art? The question sounds silly, because it is silly. True art is rooted in the common human condition.
Playboy: After your first two novels, Williwaw and In a Yellow Wood, you were hailed, with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and John Horne Burns, as one of the brightest literary lights of the postwar era. But in 1948, your third book, The City and the Pillar, created a literary scandal, as you pointed out, because of its explicit account of a young man’s homosexual disintegration, and you were abruptly consigned to literary limbo. What emotional effect did this have on you?
Vidal: Fortunately, even at 22, I thought that what mattered most was not the world’s view of me but my view of the world, and so I survived. Others did not — like Burns, the best of us “war novelists.” After the press attacked his Lucifer With a Book — in much the same way as they attacked The City and the Pillar — Burns fled to Europe and deliberately drank himself to death at 36. One must be very tough to endure as a writer in America. Since I’ve endured for almost a quarter century, I must be tough.
Playboy: You wrote once that “In a sense, I’m not an ‘American’ writer. My whole attack — my wit and irony — is distasteful to Americans.” Would you elaborate?
Vidal: Wit and irony are distasteful to Americans, who believe that to be serious is to be solemn. This is not only a hangover from our Puritan beginnings but also a stage through which second- and sometimes third-generation Americans go as they try to make their own the language and the customs of a country still somewhat alien to them but to whose flag and prejudices they feel they owe a passionate commitment. In absorbing a new culture, the ironies are the last thing to be noted, and those who indulge in them are the first to be condemned.
Playboy: You have written, “That wide graveyard of stillborn talents which contains so much of the brief ignoble history of American letters is a tribute to the power of a democracy to destroy its critics, brave fools and passionate men.” How is this done?
Vidal: De Tocqueville predicted that a society organized like ours would prove to be hostile to the original man. He believed that a terror of public opinion was an essential characteristic of democracy. Well, we are not truly a democracy — nor have we entirely fulfilled De Tocqueville’s grim prognosis — but no one can say that we are not resourceful in our ways of dealing with dissidents. We turn them into show-business characters, not to be taken seriously. The clumsy exhortations of Paul Goodman, the shrill dialectic of Dwight MacDonald, the visceral rhetoric of Norman Mailer are all rendered small by television, by interviews profiles and — yes! — by interviews. But that is no reason to stop. Something is bound to break eventually — other than one’s self or art.
Playboy: You have admitted that, as a young writer, your “competitive instincts” were very intense and you deeply resented the success of other writers. Are these competitive instincts still strong — or have you mellowed over the years?
Vidal: Does one mellow or does one rot? The two processes are perhaps the same. Unlike most writers, my competitive instinct — though highly developed — was never personal. That is to say, I have never begrudged another writer his success, but I have sometimes deplored the taste of the moment that has made what I thought bad work successful. Happily, since injustice is the rule, one is quite as apt to be its beneficiary as its victim.
Playboy: You have characterized Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead as “a clever, talented, admirably executed fake” and said of his subsequent work, “I am not sure, finally, that he should be a novelist at all, or even a writer, despite formidable gifts. He is too much of a demagog.” Are the roles of writer and demagog really mutually exclusive?
Vidal: I think in the 10 years since I wrote that piece, Mailer has borne me out: He has almost ceased to be a novelist and has become a superb journalist, with himself as subject, pluckily taking on the various occupants of the American pantheon, from Sonny Liston to the Pentagon. Yet to be a novelist is not to be more worthy than a journalist of the highest order, particularly one with a messianic desire to change society. We may not need Norman’s novels at this time, but we certainly need his rhetoric.
Playboy: Isn’t the central political concern of writers such as yourself and Mailer a relatively new development in American letters?
Vidal: Yes and no. In the Thirties, writers were much involved with politics. Yet there has always been a high romantic view of the serious, dedicated artist as being a sort of divine idiot — like William Faulkner mumbling he was just a farmer and didn’t know much about them things. For most of the country’s history, our serious — as well as our solemn — writers were terrified of being thought politically engaged. For one thing, few of them knew much about politics, ideas or even the actual everyday life of the country. For another, in this century, they were much attracted to the Flaubert-Joyce-Eliot sacerdotal tradition: the writer as holy man, too pure for the agora. This attitude was useful to Flaubert, who was actually not all that apolitical, but I don’t think it has done Mr. J.D. Salinger much good. Of course, if political novels mean Allen Drury and social engagement means Dalton Trumbo — in other words, artless work — then one can see why the ambitious writer would steer clear of that sort of commitment or genre. He would be making a mistake, however; much of the best writing has been passionate and worldly, and most of the worst, in our time, private and proud — those dread exercises, usually taking place on campus, where last summer’s adultery turns out to have been a re-enactment of Alcestis.
Playboy: You acted on your political concern in perhaps the most direct way possible in 1960 by running for Congress in New York’s 29th Congressional District. Do you still have political ambitions, despite your defeat?
Vidal: No. But in that election, I took some pleasure in carrying the cities of Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Hudson and Kingston, and getting the most votes of any Democrat in 50 years. Two years later, I could have had the nomination for the Senate against Javits. I was then faced with the sort of choice that seems to have haunted me all my life. If I were to be a serious politician, it was quite plain that I could not be a serious writer. Not only is there not enough energy for the two careers, they are incompatible. The writer is forever trying to say exactly what he means and the politician is forever trying to avoid saying what he means. In 1962, I had returned to novel writing after almost a decade’s absence, and so the specific choice for me that year was between writing Julian and making a race for the Senate. I chose to be a novelist. In 1964, I was asked once more to run for Congress. For the last time, I said no, and with very little regret watched the man I had selected to take my place win the election in the Johnson landslide.
Also, to be practical, if one wishes to influence events, the Congress is hardly the place to do it. A writer with an audience has more power than most congressmen. If he is also able to use television, he is in a splendid position to say what needs to be said. Best of all, in wanting nothing for himself, he is more apt to be listened to than the man who lusts for office. But no matter how I try to rationalize my situation, I am split between a private and a public self. I was trained from childhood to be a politician, but I was born a writer. From time to time, I have tried to bring together the two selves, but it has not been easy. Example: I have a gift for being effective on television, something every politician longs to possess and few do; yet I am compelled to candor of a kind that is not permissible in a conventional politician. So I constantly undo myself, making impossible that golden age, the Vidal administration. No doubt just as well. For me.
Playboy: Looking back on your career, you’ve written, “It’s sad. Sometimes I think I’ve misplayed it.” How?
Vidal: If I dwell on our imperfections, it is to see them changed. As one who lives in Europe as well as America, I can say with some confidence that only the Americans can save the world from America; only our dissidents can curb the Pentagon, restore the planet’s ecological balance. Oh, I’m very American in my ambitions for our second-rate culture. If we survive, we may yet be civilized, and that is something to work for.
Playboy: Emerson once remarked of Thoreau, “He has a military cast to him…. He feels himself only in opposition.” You are at your liveliest on the attack. Would you say that you have an unusually aggressive nature?
Vidal: I wouldn’t say it, but others do. What usually sets me off is injustice. In defense of those I admire, I’m always ready — eager? — to do battle. Although I have the killer instinct altogether too well developed, I do try to deploy it in good causes. This pugnacity is inherited from my mother’s family, the Gores, an Anglo-Irish clan of eloquent, bad-tempered politicians, lawyers and preachers. In me, their furious blood is only partially diluted by a more genial Latin strain.
Playboy: Many men in history who have shared your moral indignation and militant iconoclasm have been bitter and lonely outsiders alienated not only from society but from the warmth of human contact. Is that true of you?
Vidal: I think of myself as cheerful, even on the attack, and though I am not gregarious nor anxious to be loved, I have quite enough company out here on the edge of things. For me, the only danger is a tendency to drift toward the center — which means that at some point, I must make my getaway, whether it be from the White House or from literary respectability. At one time or another, I’ve had a number of fine conventional careers within my grasp: the popular theater, Congress, television performer. But once each of these exercises had served my purpose — or perhaps once I had got the range of it — I always found some way of getting out. I’m not a courtier; I’m a critic — something most people who consider power exciting find difficult to understand. At the time of my break with the Kennedys, Arthur Schlesinger told my sister that he feared I had a death wish. To which I answered, “I have a life wish — and I can’t live vicariously.” But most people are like Arthur. They want to belong — in his case, to be a Kennedy; it is a touching, even sweet, instinct — but not for me. I can only breathe outside.
Playboy: Is that the way you’d like to be remembered? Outside?
Vidal: I am outside, certainly, and by choice. As for being remembered — I have little interest in the idea of posterity. Think of the thousands of years of Egyptian literature, entirely lost. What survives and what does not is simply a matter of chance, and so incalculable. All that matters to me is what I do this morning, and that I do it — and am here.