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