Gore Vidal Storms the UK

A still-vital Vidal says he’s ready to kill!

Gore Vidal

One of my favorite political essayists and commentators, Gore Vidal , is on a brief visit to the UK.

I became aware of this on Friday evening, while listening to BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, on which Mark Lawson interviewed him.

The BBC website bills this interview thus:

The American novelist, essayist and playwright Gore Vidal is on a brief visit to the UK. In a rare interview the controversial veteran writer reflects on a life of letters, in particular the recently-published second part of his memoir, Point to Point Navigation, which covers the years 1964-2006.

It would appear that this interview is not as rare as the BBC would have us believe, for, while searching for it on Google, I found several other interviews with British journalists that Vidal has given within the last week.

The first was with the very high-brow presenter, Melvyn Bragg, and recorded in Gore Vidal’s home in El Lay for the equally high-brow TV show, South Bank, which was shown last Sunday on ITV1. In an article titled, The still-vital Vidal, which appeared in last Monday’s Daily Telegraph, James Walton says:

It’s ITV1 and the two men on the screen are discussing Aristotle and the essays of Montaigne. So yes, it can only be The South Bank Show (Sunday). Quite how Melvyn Bragg gets away with bucking television trends so heroically, I’m still not sure. Nonetheless, when the result is as good as it was here, your main reaction has to be one of simple gratitude.

Bragg’s guest was Gore Vidal, who, after four decades in Italy, has returned to America for what he calls, with characteristic lack of euphemism, “the hospital years”. Now 82 and the last survivor of that generation of great American writers who’d fought in the Second World War (the others included Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut), Vidal did need the odd moment last night to gather his thoughts. Yet, once he had, his fondness and talent for a good scrap proved as stirring as ever. In the end, the effect was like seeing an old prize-fighter who may not be as fast as he used to be, but who can still land a punch with the best of them.

Vidal’s targets were wide-ranging – from John Updike to the entire history of Christianity. Naturally, George W Bush got it in the neck for being, among other things, “literally demented”. But the President’s policy of “perpetual war for perpetual peace” was also placed in its long-standing historical context, which meant an equally thorough pounding for Harry Truman and John F Kennedy.

A write-up of the interview also appeared in The Australian, which began:

Gore Vidal – author, political activist and, perhaps now, former Clinton family friend – has skewered Hillary Clinton in an interview with the BBC, describing her campaign strategy as “insane” and suggesting that her “search for the holy grail has driven her crazy”.

The 82-year-old told British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg that he believed Barack Obama was better educated and better prepared for the presidency than was former US president John F. Kennedy when he was elected.

But the famously irascible commentator, who recently returned to live in the US after spending more than 30 years in Italy, saves his most brutal appraisal for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, whom he describes as a “goddamned fool”.

On Thursday, Channel 4 News anchorman, Jon Snow, interviewed Vidal, questioning him on the American presidential campaign, during which Vidal dismissed John McCain as Mr Magoo and says he should have been court-martialled, and spoke of the bitter race to win the Democratic nomination. He was also highly critical of the Bush administration and said that Bush and Gonzalez (former Attorney General) had between them destroyed the Constitution. When asked if he considered it a great gift or a curse still to be angry in his 80s, he replied without hesitation: “A gift. I’m ready to kill!”

Returning from the interview, Snow wrote on the Channel 4 website:

I’ve just come back from Claridges. An ornate hotel in the west end whose most famous guest today is the grand old man of American letters, Gore Vidal. I have never met such an angry 82-year-old. He is absolutely on fire in our interview. And if I give you the final line, you’ll get a sense of how it is. “I’m ready to kill!”

Actually he talks very interestingly about the election and the outgoing Bush administration.

On the same day, he appeared on stage in the south-coast seaside resort, Brighton, where he was interviewed by journalist, Andrew Marr. Writing in the following day’s Guardian, Ben Marshall said:

It was a strange sensation to see Gore Vidal wheeled on stage in Brighton last night. As his recent appearance on the South Bank Show revealed, Vidal is, for the first time ever, looking, if not sounding, his age. He was born in 1925, the year F Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, but he still has something of the enfant terrible about him, even sitting trembling and shrunken in a wheelchair. Furthermore he seems, in his archness and studied pomposity, to belong to a time I fancifully imagine, and he credibly claims, to have been altogether more thoughtful and civilised than our own.

On Friday, Vidal appeared on the Aljazeera programme, Frost Over the World, during which he told Sir David Frost why he believes Hillary Clinton has lost the battle to become the Democratic presidential candidate and why, if Barack Obama were elected president, it would be a sign of progress for the US.

Another interview with Vidal appeared in Friday’s Spectator, in which he told Mary Wakefield that America has forgotten its constitutional roots, and explains why Bobby Kennedy was ‘the biggest son of a bitch in politics’.

Yesterday, an interview, presumably given before Vidal’s departure to the UK, appeared in The Guardian, in which Vidal told James Campbell: “This country is finished. But, with a new republic like this, if you missed being here at the beginning, the next best thing is to be here at the end.”

Today, Ricard Lea in The Guardian reports:

Gore Vidal’s progress through the UK continues with an appearance at the Hay festival. He rolled on stage to warm applause yesterday, stick in hand, tie a little askew, collar escaping from the confines of his jacket, and carried on more or less where he’d left off in Brighton.

Vidal seems to want to answer every question with a quip, each one delivered with the timing of a born raconteur, each one greeted with a wave of comfortable laughter. For Hillary Clinton to be Barack Obama’s vice president “would be embarrassing for everybody”, John McCain is “intellectually in George W Bush’s league”, and his old age has brought not wisdom, but something else – “I think senility is the word you’re looking for.” He is less keen to answer at length, unless a question provides an opportunity for an anecdote, preferably one which gives a chance to throw in a brief imitation, whether of Jack Kennedy, Tennessee Williams or even Winston Churchill.

The wind, which flutters the flags pitched on the grass between the tents so picturesquely, buffets the canvas of the roof, rattling the metal supports so loudly that Vidal’s answers are sometimes lost. He’s not hearing so well, either – the audience’s questions have to be laboriously relayed. When asked if he considers Christopher Hitchens to be the “new Gore Vidal” he declares that the “old Gore Vidal is not holding the door open”, a response that gains a little poignancy when Hitchens rises from the audience to quiz him about his line on Bush and 9/11.

Yet another interview appeared in today’s Independent on Sunday, which presumably took place some days before his visit to the UK in his mansion in the Hollywood Hills, to which he moved in 2003, together with a related article about a possible love child.

It was Gore Vidal’s collection of Essays, The Last Empire, which drew my attention to Robert Stinett’s book, Day of Deceit, about FDR’s role in provoking the Japanese to attack the US at Pearl Harbor, and Gar Alperovitz’s book, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and alerted me to the destruction of the Constitution.

His autobiography, Palimpsest, is perhaps one of the finest works of its genre I have ever read.

And I have read his book on Washington’s Second Administration and John Adams’s one term Presidency, Inventing a Nation, three times. While he compares Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the post 9/11 Patriot Act, he does at least give Adams credit for keeping America out of war with, first, Britain and, then, France, despite their provocations during the first and Second French Revolutionary Wars. Bush, by contrast, has driven America to war.

Sometimes Vidal talks sheer guff.

For example, he states in several places in his writings that Jefferson was an atheist. He wasn’t; he was a Deist, which was bad enough for many Christians at the time, as his words in the Declaration of Independence bears out; a man who trembles for his country (over slavery), when he reflects that God is just is not an atheist.

He also says to Sir David Frost that we didn’t know what Hitler was going to be like in 1940. We did. Is such a statement to be attributed to age?

But I will always listen to what he has to say.


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