Ron Briley: Review of "I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics -- Interviews with Jon Wiener" (OR Books, 2012)
Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Readers of this brief book will lament the lack of wit and astute commentary which characterizes contemporary political debate. Gore Vidal, who died last July, was one of the last public intellectuals in American public life. Current viewers of our television wasteland may be shocked to learn that writers such as Vidal were once frequent guests on late-night TV like the Dick Cavett Show. Vidal represents an era when the intersection among politics, literature, art, history, and entertaining conversation mattered. With the advent of 24-hour cable news channels, the quantity of political chatter has increased, but reading Vidal reminds us of how much the quality of political discourse has deteriorated. It is not so much that one will always agree with Vidal’s conclusions, but that we are missing a witty and healthy irreverence for power which Vidal at his best represents.
I Told You So includes four interviews with Vidal conducted between 1988 and 2007 by Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California-Irvine and a contributing editor to The Nation magazine. The interviews are printed in reverse chronological order with the first conversation in April 2007 before an audience of several thousand at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the UCLA campus followed by a more intimate dialogue in December 2006 before the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at the University of Southern California. Vidal was also a political figure, which is quite evident in a radio interview he granted Wiener during the September 2000 Shadow Convention challenging the political assumptions of the Clinton administration and its heir apparent, Al Gore. Although appearing last in this collection, Wiener first interviewed Vidal for the Radical History Review at the writer’s Italian villa on July 12, 1988. Although sometimes repetitious, these conversations represent a critique of American empire and the threat of this monolith to the republic. This theme is not only evident in Vidal’s conversations but also forms an important thread in his essays, screenplays, histories, short stories, and twenty-three novels which include an overview of American history in the Narratives of Empire series with Washington, D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Golden Age (2000). Wiener concludes, “Gore Vidal wrote as a citizen of the republic and a critic of the empire. We won’t have another like him” (117).
In the early twenty-first century, Vidal was a vocal critic of President George W. Bush and his response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which resulted, according to Vidal, in assaults upon civil liberties and the ill-advised invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Vidal’s acid wit was hardly limited to the Bush dynasty. When Wiener asked the writer who was the worst American president, Vidal gave the nod to Woodrow Wilson and his crusade to make the world safe for democracy, expanding the American empire and business interests. In his critique of presidents who employed war to enhance the power of the state and stifle dissent, Vidal does not spare Abraham Lincoln. Vidal argues that in fighting the Civil War for the union, Lincoln was primarily focused upon state power rather than the issue of slavery. In fact, Vidal disagrees with many contemporary Lincoln scholars such as Eric Foner who focus upon the evolution of the Illinois politician’s views regarding racial equality. Vidal insists that President Lincoln continued to favor colonization as a solution to the nation’s racial dilemma.
Vidal describes himself as a fan of George Washington’s Farewell Address and his warning regarding entangling alliances. He insists that the term isolationist should not be used in a pejorative sense and that most Americans are isolationists who are not supportive of militarism and empire. Vidal asserts that Franklin Roosevelt discredited isolationism by fostering America’s entrance into the Second World War. Painting something of a conspiracy theory, Vidal argues that Roosevelt in 1940 engineered the Republican presidential nomination of Wendell Willkie so that both major party candidates would favor American entrance into the war in support of Great Britain. Citing scholars such as Charles Beard, Vidal believes that Roosevelt manipulated the Japanese into an attack on Pearl Harbor -- a thesis which almost all contemporary historians disavow.
Despite his criticism of Roosevelt’s internationalism, Vidal suggests that the post-World War II world offered the promise of a golden age in American arts and letters. This promise, however, proved to be short lived as Roosevelt died and was replaced by Harry Truman who sought a confrontation with the Soviet Union, culminating in the national security state and McCarthyism. Asserting that Truman involved the United States in the Korean War, a conflict which was not in the nation’s best interest, Vidal concludes, “And we have been at war ever since, and it has not done our character much good, and it hasn’t been good for business either, except for Wall Street. That’s what I say to the golden age. It was there, in ovum, but you have to sit on the egg, not step on it” (17).
While considering himself to be somewhat of a populist in the tradition of his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore from Oklahoma, Vidal acknowledges that the was born into an elite social class. However, he was radicalized by the adverse reaction to his second novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), whose protagonist was a homosexual. Vidal recognized that his sexual preference would limit his artistic and political ambitions, and his self-perception as an outsider was confirmed by the censorship and blacklisting of the McCarthy era. Vidal, nevertheless, continued to socialize with elites such as the Kennedy family, and he confessed to being taken in by John Kennedy’s wit and charm. Running for Congress in upstate New York as a Democrat in 1960, Vidal believed that an anti-Catholic reaction to Kennedy cost him the election. Vidal was also pleased that Kennedy enjoyed his 1960 political play, The Best Man. Vidal also observed that Ronald Reagan was suggested for the lead role that eventually went to Melvyn Douglas, but the playwright opposed Reagan for the role as he simply did not seem presidential. When reading these lines, one can almost see the twinkle in Vidal’s eyes. But in the final analysis, Vidal concludes that both Kennedy and Reagan were presidents who supported expansion of the American empire.
Vidal took great pride in being an iconoclast and one of the first American intellectuals to assert that the United States had established an empire endangering liberties at home and abroad. In his novels, however, Vidal usually employs the voice of the eliteelt to convey the course of empire. While the people tend to not have a direct voice in Vidal’s Narratives of Empire, he certainly anticipated the sexual politics of modern America in such satirical novels as Myra Breckenridge (1968). Many of Vidal’s observations may antagonize both liberals and conservatives, but as a public intellectual Gore Vidal dared to confront those in power and even challenge the assumptions of the historical profession. Such honesty and wit are often lacking in public life today, and as Jon Wiener suggests we may not see Vidal’s like again. Readers who enjoy the conversations of I Told You So, however, may get an even larger dose of the irrepressible Vidal in his Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir (2006).
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