Encounters With Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
August 7, 2012 · By Saul Landau
America's historical novelist, play and screen writer Gore Vidal was a memorable figure full of wisdom and quips.
In 2005, I interviewed Gore Vidal for my weekly TV-radio show Hot Talk. We had first met years before at a dinner party at Marc Raskin's house in Washington, D.C., where I had watched him monopolize the conversation by verbally destroying the head of a major museum. "He’s a phony, you can smell it," explained Vidal later as the reason for his ferocity.
"And he does so little for the public's benefit. He thinks only of each exhibit in his museum as another notch on his career gun – a typical Washington bureaucrat. I despise them."
In the TV interview he showed his loathing again, this time for the people who ran the country, not a museum. "The Founding Fathers feared kings and tyrants, so they made it clear in the Constitution that no one man can declare war; only Congress. We've had many wars after World War II: Congress has not declared one of them."
The man who wrote Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: The Bush-Cheney Junta excelled at essay writing, but became better known as America's historical novelist and play and screen writer. His script for The Best Man, a fine movie, is currently re-running on Broadway.
In 2006 I escorted Gore through Cuba. He was 80 and could not walk well, but used a wheel chair. The Cubans interviewed him on TV, arranged for him to give a literary address at their aula magna at the University of Havana and answer questions. The audience was replete with scholars and literary mavens who had read his books and asked him interesting questions. "The Cubans have treated me more kindly and reverently than my own countrymen," he remarked.
At an informal dinner at the U.S. Interest Section mansion (there is no formal embassy because we have no formal relations with Cuba), a U.S. diplomat began boring his guests, all members of Gore Vidal's expedition. Not tolerating the diplomat's tedious small talk, former California Senate President John Burton interrupted the diplomat: "So, what did Cuba do to us again to merit so much punishment?"
The diplomat began a litany about human rights abuse. Burton interrupted. "The Chinese killed thousands of Americans in Korea, the Vietnamese killed tens of thousands in the Vietnam War. Both countries are run by single party Communist governments and neither has a good human rights record. So what did Cuba do to us?"
The diplomat began again on Cuba's human rights record. Burton cursed and stormed out of the mansion. Vidal clapped. "My kind of politician," he exclaimed, "unfortunately termed out of office."
Later, Vidal opined about the curse of "national security." Those two magic words make the Bill of Rights disappear at the President's will. Lincoln used them to suspend habeas corpus, shut down newspapers and to preside over the bloodiest war in history because he took an oath registered in Heaven to wage war to preserve the union. Look what Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, et. al. have done in the name of those two magical words. Reagan took them to new depths in Iran-Contra. He turned the preamble of the Constitution into Swiss cheese: "put lots of holes in it."
"Oh well," he finished his discourse, "here I am in the springtime of my senility."
The Cubans showed him Old Havana, its architectural wonders and its ancient streets and brought him to the Latin American Medical School to meet the students, including a group from the United States who received a free medical school education.
His entourage included two government ministers, the President of Cuba's Parliament and various regular Cubans he had met and liked.
On the ride to the airport going home, Vidal talked about his pessimism for America's future. "The stupidity of our Cuba policy is matched elsewhere as in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're at war with the people and the earth and we’re losing control of the economy. The tide has turned against us."
Back in the United States, at a restaurant, a waiter told Gore "Have a nice day," to which the great writer replied. "Sorry, but I have other plans."
In his life he wrote twenty three novels, countless essays, screen and theater plays. He ran for office, acted in films and served as the witty TV commentator for politics and culture. He lived for decades with his partner Howard who died in 2003. When asked how he sustained such a long relationship, he quipped: "no sex."
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