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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Gore Vidal:Living Through History, interview with Robert Scheer


Nov 21, 2006 Truthdig

Gore Vidal (left) sits with Robert Scheer (right) at Vidal’s home in Los Angeles, Califorina.

Iconic author and historian Gore Vidal speaks with Robert Scheer about his new memoir, “Point to Point Navigation,” and the events that shaped his life and his country, from war with Hitler to the “waking nightmare” of Iraq.

Partial Transcript:

Scheer:

Let me begin, well, first of all, it’s kind of depressing the way you begin this book. You say you’re headed for the exit.

Gore Vidal:

I’m not serious.

Scheer:

Oh, you’re not serious. OK. Because I got a little worried. I’m not far behind, you know.

Vidal:

No, my exit is headed toward me. I’m not running toward it.

Scheer:

But you make a point, that you’ve lived through one-third of the history of this country…

Vidal:

Most of the 20th century.

Scheer:

Yeah.

Vidal:

Three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Scheer:

And it started out, I don’t know, from the book it sounds like it was a lot more exciting, vital and fun-filled than it is now.

Vidal:

I’m now a creationist. Because the distance from George Washington to George W. Bush makes a monkey out of Darwin.

Scheer:

[laughs] Now you’ve been—you’ve seen a lot of scoundrels in your time. You’ve been in, you know, you’ve been through some periods when we’ve been ruled by liars. You’ve exposed a number of those lies…

Vidal:

There’s a difference between that and having, uh, and having systemic lying—which is the only way these people know how to govern. The president says, “Look, look in New Orleans in no time at all, everything’s gonna be cleaned up and, uh, [imitating Bush] I’ve given orders, and when I told you, last time I was here in, uh, whatever square this is ... it’s got a church here, isn’t it? It’s a cathedral square! I told—what I told you then, I meant. And that’s what your gonna get.” He was telling the truth. They got nothing, and they got nothing the second time around. Everybody knows that about him. There are a few crazies who want to cheer the flag and this yappy little terrier as though he were a real president. Well, he’s not a real president. He’s a thing, a chimera who was put together by the Supreme Court, first time around, and reelected by, uh, Diebold, Sequoia and some other interested parties. Everybody knows he isn’t there. Or what is there isn’t for us—it’s not our president. We do have a real, uh, a shadow president in Vice President Cheney, whose wife is a famous novelist given to tales of unnatural love… . But Lynne, more power to you. She’s my kind of novelist.

Scheer:

I mean, you witnessed the Third Reich. You grew up at a time when people—you were in the military ... . Your generation, as you say in the book, was cannon fodder in fighting the third Reich. Young cadets who thought they were taking language training and then they end up…

Vidal:

They ended up in the Battle of the Bulge.

Scheer:

So how did we get to this point?

Vidal:

I think it’s a sort of waking nightmare I’m in. I get up in the morning. I get the newspapers. I start to open them up and I see Iraq. What happened there? I’ve just ... during my sleep I block it out. And because I thought in 1945—‘46 I got out of the Army—I thought, well, I’ve had my war, my father had his war, my grandfather’s generation had the Civil War, and I thought, well, that’ll do for now. That’ll do for the next century or so. Then we had what I call the golden age, which was from 1945 to 1950. All the arts in America exploded. Unlikely arts like ballet. We had been nowhere—we’d never heard of toe-dancing before, and suddenly we had the ballet theater. We had some of the best ballet dancers in the business. Suddenly in music there’s Lenny Bernstein ... comes along—a one-man orchestra, really. We were producing many first-rate poets, starting with Robert Lowell ... and Tennessee Williams in the theater. I mean it was a burst. In five years this happened. Everybody came along at the same time. Why? Because we’d lived through depression. We’d lived through World War II. Most of us had not been too frightened to get into the war, and so we went, and got frightened once we were there, naturally, but we felt that was what you had to do. So our reward was a golden age of five years in all the arts. And those of us who were in the arts, I mean it was a magical time. Then what happened? Korea. And the evil genius of our country, which I will chat about another time, is Harry Truman, and Dean Acheson, who was the brain for him. But Truman was ... he wanted a war. Preferably cold, but he’d settle for a hot one. Why? He had one good motive, which he would explain to you all the time. And that was, the depression had not ended by 1940. We were still deep in depression. It had returned. The New Deal had not solved it. He was terrified, and when Franklin Roosevelt put $8 billion into the economy to rearm America in 1940, it was the end of the depression. Everybody had a job. The country was prosperous. And then we won the war. We’re very good at war, by the way. We must tell the Republicans, remind them. World War II was ours, Vietnam was theirs, and certainly this mess in the Middle East is theirs. So we did know how to win them, not that I approve of war, but if you’re going to have one, you better win it. And then suddenly by 1950 we’re in Korea, we’re losing. And then the wars begin. Many of them for the same reason: that the people who own the country thought it was good for business. Politicians saw it was a way to rise, play the patriotic card. And so there we were, with a golden age aborted on our hands. It’s often been mentioned, the amount of melancholy that can be found in the novelists of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Well, it was—we’d lived through the thing once. And it was all coming back again. Here we are, contesting with Cuba, threatening to throw missiles. Here we are, fighting the Viet Cong in Southeast Asia—we don’t belong there. We had a good excuse for the other wars—for the real wars—but not for those. But it did us in. So this election, coming up, although it’s a mere off-year, this is the on-year election of all our lives. And if we don’t turn it around the right way, we’re not going to have representative government. We’re not going to have the people’s voice ever again expressed quadrennially in the presidential election, because they can falsify it each time now. So now’s the time to use a new Congress, hoping we get one, to tidy up.

Scheer:

What happened to the center in America? I mean you ... you’ve lived through this period where you say they’re thugs now. What, you know ... I don’t know if you were there at Stanley [Sheinbaum’s] house when [George] Soros was there recently?

Vidal:

No, I wasn’t.


Scheer:

I asked him this question because he has this book, again talking about fascism—and he lived under fascism in Hungary. And I asked him, I said, “Where are your buddies on Wall Street? Where are the ... ”

Vidal:

Good question.

Scheer:

“… Where are the people who worry about the world their grandchildren will inherit? You know, what happened to that notion of responsibility?” And he said, you know, it was greed. And I said, “But greed is always there, but they’re somehow still worried about the outcome.” And he said the big problem is they are innocents. They simply do not believe it will happen.

Vidal:

In the late ‘30s, early ‘40s, I forget the exact year—my generation—I went in the Army when I was 17. I had read, by then, a book called “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis, which was a very chilling account of just ordinary middle America, which goes fascist, and how it will come about. I wouldn’t say he was a great prophet, but we all knew it could happen here. We watched Hitler; I mean it was just fascinating. Every other day, if you read the papers regularly, a new country had fallen. It was suddenly up—there he is in Finland, or wherever it was he ended up—he’s all over the place! He’s got Poland; he’s going to get Czechoslovakia. He can’t get France. Hmm, he got France. We were quite used to the—there’s a wonderful song from the Revolution: “The whole world upside down” was the lyric of it. Well, we knew about the whole world upside down from having watched the newsreels of Adolph Hitler. What could happen there could certainly happen here. And we had enough home-grown Nazis anyway, who were in favor of his tactics, if nothing else. Many of them high in the Army. And I used to listen to some generals, because my stepfather was an Air Force general—not a Nazi—but he ... I can remember him, he was a very right-wing general, and he and the other generals would sit around and ... they were just sort of chuckling about how we were fighting the wrong enemy—we should be fighting Stalin, not Hitler. And then somebody would always pipe up: “Yeah, well, let’s go down to the White House and send him home.” And, of course, the American Legion had tried to do that with President Roosevelt when he first came into office. They tried to organize—it was General Smedley Butler, formerly of the Marine Corps, who turned out to be too much of a patriot, but they offered money, would he overthrow FDR in his first term. So ... it was in our air. Fascism was in the air, obviously, between Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin’s repressiveness. And no one I know ever thought we would be exempt from it. As time passed, I began to watch things we were doing which were totally imperial, totally mindless. And I thought, uh-oh, you know, we’re taking some wrong turns here. So you do your best to warn about it, and everybody does their best to pay no attention. And then suddenly you are faced with the fact that we have lost habeas corpus. So we are—900 years of Anglo-American law has been swept aside by a mere whim, and this attorney—oh, Attorney General Gonzales—every time I look at him I see Truman Capote. [Imitating Gonzales/Capote] “Well, I just don’t know ... the Constitution’s really quaint.” And he yammers away in that nasal voice of his. And I thought, my heavens, how could you have found that? I think of our ruling junta. Why not get a real lawyer or a better lawyer? Or someone at least conversant with the Constitution. But I think the loss of habeas corpus—“Oh, Abraham Lincoln did that”—all the non-history these people come up with. They don’t know why Abraham Lincoln did it—they don’t know if he did do it. It’s a talking point: “Lincoln did it, FDR did it, this one ... oh, and George Washington, oh, yes, George Washington imprisoned everybody.” All you have to do is give them a suggestion and they will cascade lies.

Scheer:

Then what is the truth on that?

Vidal:

FDR on habeas corpus unilaterally suspended it when he arrested the Japanese Americans, on the grounds that they would [support] their fellow tribalists in Asia after Pearl Harbor. And they were all mostly on the West Coast, so he put them in concentration camps. I have a friend, Louie Auchincloss—very good novelist, great lawyer - and I said, ‘When did you first become fearful for our Democracy?’ And he said, ‘I was just out of law school when Roosevelt built the concentration camps and locked up the Japanese. If he can do that, without even an act of Congress - Congress will do many stupid things for a president but they hadn’t thought to do that (as far as I remember as it went)—but that was presidential prerogative, and that set a very bad precedent.

Scheer:

Well what about that argument, that Lincoln used it and Washington used it? I mean, they do use that argument all the time.

Vidal:

Let’s begin at the beginning. There is no war. Because everyone is either collusive or just damned dumb. They don’t know any different. I’m talking about people on television, people in the media. [Imitating shrill talking heads:] Wartime president! Wartime president!
Which, if you were in charge of the program or asking the questions: No, you’re not. You cannot be a wartime president without a war. This is impossible. For a war you need a country. [Imitating shrill talking heads:] Iraq! Iraq!
There is no war over that country. There is a criminal invasion of aggression by the United States on presidential order alone. It is completely illegal; you could be impeached any day of the week for what you’ve done: committing American troops, firing on innocent people, Saddam Hussein never had the power to do us any harm at all, and had no intention of doing it. Now we’re going to hang him! Oh boy, it’s a real serious war, you see? We got ‘im. We’re gonna hang him. [pauses]
We have turned into the worst barbarians on earth, and that is how we are regarded in other countries. And I no longer bother to put up a defense of us. I always used to say, ‘Americans are not bad, and certainly not stupid, but they’re ignorant. The educational system is terrible, and the media is bought.’ The should just about take care of everybody.

Scheer:

I don’t want to take up too much of your time here, but we did talk a little about criticism that you’ve endured. And at the end of chapter 51 - there’s a lot of chapters—

Vidal:

They’re very short.

Scheer:

Yeah. You’re discussing this fella Altman, who wrote about you, and so forth, and I don’t want to read the whole thing, but you talk about how he gets it wrong.

Vidal:

I’ll say.

Scheer:

And he gets it wrong about Jews, and there’s some quote where you mention a black writer and a Jewish writer, and then he says you’re not sympathetic to African American writers—

Vidal:

That’s just so stupid.

Scheer:

I just want to throw the third one in: and you didn’t do enough for AIDS, and then you have this great response where you say—

Vidal:

My virulogical skills are few.

Vidal and Scheer:

[laugh together]

Scheer:

But people have really expected you - it’s sort of weird: you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. To come out with strong statements, it’s, ‘Why is Gore Vidal again saying something?’ But on the other hand, people have criticized you for not championing every cause around, right? I mean, that’s what I got from [the book].

Vidal:

I chose Altman because much of what he’s written in this book about me is pretty intelligent. But he’s Australian though, and doesn’t really know the American context to everything. So I got word to him, and I said, ‘You know, I was just invited by the Congressional Black Caucus to address them. Just phone in from Italy.’ I said, ‘Do you think that would happen to this writer, that writer, the other writer?

Scheer:

But you were in fact a strong supporter of writers like Baldwin…

Vidal:

I certainly was; I tried for two years to get “Go Tell it On the Mountain” published, whose original title was “Cry Holy.” I remember it was in two white cardboard boxes. And I gave it to Elliot MacCray, who owned E.P. Dutton, and he looked at it for a while, and he said, ‘Is that James Baldwin?” And I said, yeah. And he said, ‘I can’t publish it,’ and I said, ‘Why not? It’s a wonderful book,’ and he said, ‘I’m from Virginia.’ This is not 1920, this was 1946 or ‘47.

Scheer:

You actually made the point that they had to go to France to be established -

Vidal:

To be established and properly praised.

Scheer:

But what changed? You got two areas there: Baldwin was a homosexual and a black man. How much has the world changed for those two categories, or people in those two categories?

Vidal:

Not much.

Scheer:

Really?

Vidal:

No. It’s more vocal these days. There are people who wrap themselves in the pink triangle, people who wrap themselves in Africa, but the feelings are still there; notice the campaign we’re now enduring. Mr. Foley of the Republicans is in great trouble; he’s harming them—I gather - just by what he is, not by his little notes to page boys—or whatever they are - in the Senate. [editor’s note: Foley sent electronic messages to House pages, not, apparently, to Senate pages.]

Scheer:

So you really don’t think it’s changed that much?

Vidal:

Very little. Very, very little. That you have militant movements, sometimes set in motion by one minority or another minority, it doesn’t mean you’ve changed peoples’ views. They’re fed them from birth. They don’t change. I was just down in Texas, you know, speaking in Austin, which is the liberal capitol of the state, and I was talking to liberal-minded Texans about their problems. Same old problems.

Scheer:

Right, so don’t you think there’s more tolerance? Here we are in Hollywood, and so forth, all of this stuff we’ve been hearing about: gay marriage, and in the case of black people - now called black instead of negro - there’s…

Vidal:

Changing a word does not alter a situation.

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