Gore Vidal walks with a cane these days. His compensation at a joint reading in Provincetown not long ago was discovering that ancient nemesis Norman Mailer gets around on two canes. Great entertainer and great complainer, Vidal is a grimly erudite old comic who still fills the house, and whose repartee is not all repertoire. In our conversation in Cambridge, which I offer as a Christmas bon-bon, I asked him, as the novelist of Empire, whether the plunge in these Bush years from republic to empire was now irreversible. “Well,” Vidal replied, “I think Gibbon would say: no. It’s highly reversible. And try to step aside when the Capitol falls on you. Ours will go as the others have gone.”
Harry Truman’s Cold War was the beginning of the end of our Great Republic, in the Vidal litany–the “Russians are coming” campaign when Truman and Dean Acheson knew that the Russians weren’t going anywhere. “Senator Vandenberg told Truman: ‘if you want this buildup because “the Russians are coming,” you’re going to have to frighten the American people to death or you’re not going to get any money out of Congress.’ Truman said: ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did!”
Gore Vidal can’t be taken straight, but it’s hard as well to shake his scathing contempt. His heroes in conversation turn out to be General U. S. Grant–for writing in his celebrated memoirs that our Civil War was God’s judgment and retribution for the cruel folly of our war on Mexico; Benjamin Franklin–for forseeing the corruption of the people; and John Quincy Adams–for the Munroe Doctrine and his warning not to “seek out monsters to destroy” in the world.
Of the living, Vidal speaks nothing but evil. “The cheerleader from Andover” is the worst of a very bad lot. Howard Dean “assessed the unpopularity of the war, but you can’t just do anger at the war. For a second act, why not restore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Take your stand on the recovery of our liberties.” Wesley Clark’s resume is too long: “I don’t like these men of great accomplishment who’ve accomplished nothing, and who mean nothing.” Of Dennis Kucinich: “The hair is deplorable… but it’s the only negative thing I can say about him.”
The sum of it all is the vanity of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. “I think: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’ This is what you’re up against. It’s just ambition. King-of-the-Castle is what they’re playing. Well, I want a better castle, suitable for a better king. So this system isn’t going to give it to us.”
There’s nothing the slightest bit encouraging here except Gore Vidal himself and the indomitable fierceness of his campaign to reprove us, improve us and amuse us, all at the same time. The overflow Cambridge crowd ate him up, and I hope you will, too. Listen here.
We remember also Dickens’ Mrs. Cratchit: “It should be Christmas Day, I am sure on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge.” And Bob Cratchit’s mild reply: “My dear… Christmas Day.”
Merry Christmas to one and all.