INTERVIEWS WITH JON WIENER
"The four most beautiful words in our common language: 'I told you so.' " —Gore Vidal
"I exist to say, 'No, that isn't the way it is,' or 'What you believe to be true is not true for the following reasons.' I am a master of the obvious. I mean, if there's a hole in the road, I will, viciously, outrageously, say there's a hole in the road and if you don't fill it in you'll break the axle of your car. One is not loved for being helpful.”
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Gore Vidal, who died at the end of July 2012, is widely acknowledged as one of America’s foremost novelists, essayists and screenwriters. But Vidal was also a terrific conversationalist; indeed Dick Cavett once described him as “the best talker since Oscar Wilde.” Vidal was never more eloquent, or caustic, than when let loose on his favorite topic: the history and politics of the United States.
This book is made up from four interviews conducted with his long-time interlocutor, the writer and radio host Jon Wiener, in which Vidal grapples with matters evidently close to his heart: the history of the American Empire, the rise of the National Security State, and his own life in politics, both as a commentator and candidate.
The interviews cover a twenty-year span, from 1988 to 2008, when Vidal was at the height of his powers. His extraordinary facility for developing an argument, tracing connections between past and present, and drawing on an encyclopedic knowledge of America’s place in the world, are all on full display. And, of course, it being Gore Vidal, an ample sprinkling of gloriously acerbic one-liners is also provided.
Gore Vidal was the author of numerous novels, short stories, plays, screenplays and essays. A winner of the National Book Award, he was also a tireless political activist and, running as Democratic candidate for Congress in upstate New York, received more votes for that district than any Democrat in a half-century.
Publication November 2012 • 160 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-935928-05-8 • E-Book ISBN 978-1-935928-08-9
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor to The Nation and a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. He is the author of How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America, Historians in Trouble, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, and Professors, Politics and Pop, and the editor (with Tom Hayden) of Conspiracy in the Streets.
Boston Globe, January 23rd 2013
Harvard Magazine, January-February 2013
The Daily Beast, December 2nd 2012
The Daily Telegraph, November 19th 2012
Los Angeles Review of Books, November 6th 2012
Counterpunch, November 4th 2012
History News Network, October 21st 2012
Dissident Voice, October 21st 2012
Inside Higher Education, October 19th 2012
The Huffington Post, October 8th 2012
GORE VIDAL, IN I TOLD YOU SO …
The British always want to know what class you belong to. I was asked that on the BBC. I said “I belong to the highest class there is: I’m a third generation celebrity. My grandfather, father, and I have all been on the cover of Time. That’s all there is. You can’t go any higher in America.”
On the Kennedys
Except for Jack, I would say that that family, of that generation, anyway, had all the charm of two tons of condemned veal.
On Jack Kennedy
He loved war and he had this sort of schoolboy attitude toward it. He loved counterinsurgency. I teased him once. He was sketching insignia for the Green Berets.
Q. You saw him sketching insignia for the Green Berets?
A. Yes. I said, “The last chief of state that I know of who designed military uniforms was Frederick the Great of Prussia.” He didn’t find that very funny.
On Ronald Reagan
In ’59, I was casting The Best Man and MCA offered us Reagan to play the good guy, an Adlai Stevenson sort of presidential candidate. I said I just didn’t think that Reagan would be very convincing as a presidential candidate. Instead we hired Melvyn Douglas. As a result Douglas’ career was totally revived, he won every prize in sight and was a star from then on to his death. Reagan by then had nothing, he was by that time a host on that TV program.
Q. So if Reagan had been cast in the lead of The Best Man…
A. Melvyn Douglas would have become President—a very good President. And Ron today would probably be touring in Paint Your Wagon.
We should not have gone to war. This is no business of ours. I love the last minute idea of, “oh, we are going to bring democracy to Iraq!” “It’s a fledgling democracy,” says the little fellow. What a fledgling! It looks more like a goose to me—one gently cooking and simmering.
Now, it’s always about somebody trying to get tenure in Ann Arbor, and his wife leaves him because of that au pair from England, and the child is autistic, and we have a lot of hospital scenes that are heartbreaking. And this goes on, and on, and on. I once had to judge the National Book Awards. There was no fiction in it–there was nothing. There was certainly no literature in it. It was just “write about what you know.” And what they knew wasn’t very much. At least with me you’ll find out who was Buchanan’s Vice President.
On Myra Breckenridge
I didn’t invent cellophane, which I’ve always loved as an invention, but my father brought a big container of it home from Dupont. I was about eight or so, and I said, “what’s it for?” He said, “nobody knows, but isn’t it beautiful?”
I think Myra is a bit the same. It came to me in Rome, when I was walking down an alley. Suddenly I hear this voice, booming in my ear: “Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.” And I thought, “what is that?” This is the way a lot of comedy writing comes: you hear a voice, and you don’t know what it means. So I went on writing, and writing, and writing, and I was halfway through the book before I realized that Myra had been a man. Clever maker of fictional characters that I am, I thought no woman would sound like this.
But we are a funny country: we’ve always had more good writers than good readers. So here we are, a bunch of writers just sort of marooned in limbo with nobody to read the things. Just passing asteroids. With other countries, if you have writers, you have readers. We have writers, we can’t get anyone to read them. The theory of American publishing today is “print and pulp, print and pulp, print and pulp,” as quickly as possible, to have room for another to “print and pulp”.
On how to handle the media
Q. Was there any gay-baiting in this campaign?
Q. Even then it was considered bad karma to fuck around with old Gore. But just to be safe I had something on every politician and publisher in the district. There was one old newspaper publisher up in Columbia County, the most conservative of the five counties. He was making some giggly hints about me, and he was also having an affair with his son’s wife. So after he took one particular swipe at me, I went on the radio in Hudson, the county seat, and I was asked, “Are you getting any ideas for any novels while you’re doing this?” I said “Well, every now and then I do get an idea. I thought of a funny one the other day. A father and a son. The son marries this woman who’s very good looking and the father has an affair with her.” The whole county burst into laughter, and I never heard another word from the Chatham Bee, I think it was called. Do that sort of thing once or twice and you don’t have to worry.
As it’s used now, narcissist means a fag. I tried to give it a deeper meaning. I was helping out some book reviewer. I said “a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are.” [laughter] I think that struck a nerve, because I’ve had people come up to me on the street, keening, howling, over that. Still suffering over that blow.