Gore Vidal sits on the terrace of La Rondinaia, his cliff-top villa overlooking the Gulf of Salerno, south of Naples. The red roofs of Amalfi lie hundreds of feet below. Beyond are rolling coastal hills that disappear into a sapphire sea.
Vidal has spent most of the last thirty years here in his beloved town of Ravello. He talks about the confusion he has felt since the death a year ago of his companion, Howard Austen. “For fifty-three years I had some idea who I was, in relationship with Howard. Now, I’m not so sure.” At one point in our conversation, Vidal leans over to make a phone call, then sinks back into his chair. “I was about to call Howard,” he sighs.
Vidal will soon part with the second love of his life, this Renaissance-style villa where he has been living the life of an expat and hosting people like Greta Garbo, Princess Margaret, Tennessee Williams, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. “I run into Howard’s ghost in every room. I talk to him, but he doesn’t answer.”
When I met Vidal for the first time in Los Angeles two months earlier, a scheduled twenty-minute meeting turned into a four-hour session, a downed bottle of scotch, and an invitation to meet again in Ravello. After a couple of days at the villa, he spoke as if we’d known each other for years. I hadn’t expected the raw and open way he expressed his emotions.
“I’m sufficiently Greek in attitude to be stoic, and to know that if you are too happy, you will be struck down. That’s what happened. I suppose I knew it was coming and was more or less prepared, but you never really are. It’s pretty grim living here alone, so it’s time to go.”
About to start his eightieth year and hobbling around with a bum knee, Vidal is giving up his “self-imposed exile” to live permanently in the United States. He plans to add his voice to those opposing George W. Bush, and be another wild card in an election campaign already full of surprises.
“I’m a battleship,” he says. “I’m a destroyer. I’m meant for war.” He trails off in a long pause. “But I don’t know if I can do it anymore.”
For most of his life, Vidal has waged a struggle against what he calls the “United States of Amnesia.” He’s had a prolific career as a writer of film scripts, plays, controversial essays, and celebrated novels (including Myra Brekenridge in 1968, Lincoln in 1984, and The Golden Age in 2000). He has explored America’s past, unravelled its national psyche, and railed against its misdeeds. Most of all, he’s fought against the hypocrisy of those who talk democracy, but are more interested in the defence of property.
Vidal comes from an aristocratic family. He shared a stepfather with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and his father, Eugene L. Vidal, was the first director of the Bureau of Air Commerce in the Roosevelt administration and appeared on the cover of Time in 1933. His grandfather was the first senator from Oklahoma. He’s known presidents and princesses, celebrated writers, and billionaires. Through his work he has accumulated significant wealth. Yet his criticism of American society is no less compromising than a Chomsky or a Zinn. He’s a genuine class traitor.
“The next national trauma will be a sharpening of class struggle,” says Vidal. “There are two Americas: those that have and those that have not.”
When we head out to the main square of Ravello, Vidal’s knee requires him to use a wheelchair for part of the trip. Settling in at his favourite bar, we watch sultry women and men circling each other in front of the cathedral of San Pantaleo. I’m reminded of a “Vidalism”: “A narcissist is someone better-looking than you are.”
Streams of well-wishers, a few with a raised fist in the classic salute of defiance, pay their respects. Vidal is a hero to the European left.
We settle into more scotch. “The great scandal of America right now,” says Vidal, is “the ceos, who are simply bandits. They go into a company that has a rich base, grab everything they can for themselves — stock options, huge salaries — and fire as many people as possible. If we ever have an old-fashioned revolution in the U.S., it will be made by well-educated, blue-collar workers who have lost their jobs.”
I mention that much of the working class votes for Bush. “Because the bandits own the media,” Vidal fires back, “and the media tells them America is the greatest country in the world.” He leans forward. “The infantilizing of the Republic is one of the triumphs of American television.”
Vidal’s transition from media darling to “extremist” has mirrored the process of his own radicalization. While he’s still much sought after around the world, there’s little room for Vidal in print or on television in his own country.
When he broke through as a novelist, it was at the beginning of Cold War propaganda and McCarthyism. “The American people were being systematically terrified by the country’s ownership. I believed the whole nonsense,” he writes in his memoirs, Palimpsest.
“My real political education began when I made money only to have it confiscated by a military machine. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who joined the right wing and blamed it all on a vague nemesis called ‘big government,’ I started to turn left. If the government was going to tax so much of our money, then let the government give us health care, education, and all those things other first – world countries provide their taxpayers.”
He supported Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic convention and became a frequent visitor at the White House. “We were both unadventurous conservatives, interested in personal glory. The only division between us would have been my growing hatred of the empire and his unquestioning love for it. In due course, he wanted us to win the cold war with a hot war. I think, even then, I suspected that the cold war was a fraud.” Still, Vidal bought into the Kennedy myth. “What an actor he was! What a gullible audience I was!”
Vidal joined the anti-war movement protesting the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. His 1968 debate with William F. Buckley Jr., during abc’s live televised coverage of the Democratic convention —Vidal defending the demonstrators and attacking the police; Buckley defending the war — became legendary when they almost came to blows. By the mid-1970s he was a major cultural figure. The publishing of his novel 1876 saw Vidal make the cover of Time in 1976.
By the 1990s, after exploring U.S. history in a series of novels, Vidal had come to believe that a turning point occurred after World War II when Truman, instead of demobilizing the army, expanded the war machine and ushered in the “National Security State.” Kennedy further raised military spending $17 billion ( U.S.) above that of the Eisenhower years.
“I realized how little understanding any of us had of what was actually going on at the time,” Vidal wrote in 1995. “We had been carefully conditioned to believe that the gallant, lonely usa was, on every side, beleaguered by the Soviet Union, a monolithic Omnipotency; we now know that they were weak and reactive while we were strong and provocative. Once Jack had inherited the make-believe war against communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular, he proceeded, unknown to all but a few, to change the rules of the game. He was about to turn Truman’s pseudo-war into a real war.”
With the Cold War and Kennedy mythologies now shattered in his own mind, Vidal began breaking the limits of what American media, particularly television, defined as acceptable criticism.
In a piece on Timothy McVeigh, published in September 2001 by Vanity Fair, Vidal explored the American Patriot movement. He insisted that the Oklahoma bomber could not be written off as an evil madman, arguing instead that big government and big business indeed extended their influence too far into people’s lives. Vidal condemned the bombings, but expressed some sympathy for McVeigh’s willingness to sacrifice his life for his beliefs. He was subsequently denounced for his views. A Salon artical accused him of having “gone postal.”
After 9 /11, he was increasingly marginalized by the U.S. media. Vanity Fair, long a favoured home for Vidal’s essays, pulled a piece he wrote in the weeks following the attacks. In it, he asserted that fifty years of imperial U.S. foreign policy contributed to the attack on the World Trade Center. It was later published in a book of essays in Italy, and eventually became part of an American bestseller titled Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated.
In Dreaming War: Blood For Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and in his most recent collection of essays, Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia, Vidal elaborates on his critique of the National Security State. As with McVeigh, he argues that we cannot write off Osama bin Laden as an evil fanatic. We must understand the alienation that created al Qaeda.
He also suggested that the Bush administration might have knowingly allowed the terrorist attacks to take place to gain political advantage, both domestically and internationally. Writing before the war in Iraq, he theorized one motive might have been to overthrow the Taliban to secure a contract for a U.S.-built oil pipeline.
For such heresy, Vidal has been denounced as a conspiracy theorist, and even, cryptically, compared to believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
It’s now around 3 a.m., and we are the last ones in the bar. Vidal is getting angry. “I’ve been accused of saying Bush organized a grand conspiracy to bring about the attacks. I’ve never said that.” But he clearly believes the White House might have been able to prevent the attacks if they had wanted to, and he believes they didn’t want to. “What else is one to think? And there is no question they used 9 /11 as a false pretext to attack Iraq.”
We part company around 4 a.m. I’m ready for sleep; Vidal looks like he could talk all night. The next day, I return to the villa. Vidal is reading a newspaper, leaning back on a couch so deep it’s impossible to sit up straight.
As he plans his final return to the U.S. to join the battle against Bush, he is uncertain of his reception and doubtful of his abilities. And this time, there’s no Howard in his corner. “How important is this election? ” I ask him.
“Bush is a fool. He’s put us all in danger.”
“Is Kerry any better? ”
“No,” he states flatly.”Is he less dangerous?”
“You can’t tell, but I don’t see him rushing around doing preemptive strikes against countries that displease him.”
I tell Vidal about a speech given in Toronto by one of America’s leading liberals, Bill Moyers. Moyers said that in the U.S., there is a merger taking place between big corporations, monopoly media, and three branches of government controlled by the hard right. According to Moyers, they are leading toward a one-party state.
Vidal’s eyes focus; his voice becomes passionate. “This could be the last election. If the ‘yellow rose’ [Bush] is re-elected, he might make it so that it’s too dangerous to hold another election. Terrorists will strike us time and again, and they will postpone it. Four more years of Bush and we will have the first fascist court — openly fascist — in which the lower classes are kept in a pen. Building prisons is already the number-one growth industry in the Californian building trades.”
After the barrage of criticism he’s come under the last couple of years, and the emotional loss of his companion, I wonder if Vidal is ready to stick his neck out again.
“I feel particularly committed to sticking my neck out this time. If Bush is elected, there will be another war.”
I push again: why not just enjoy a retirement?
There is fire in his eyes. He sits upright and cocks his head defiantly. Here is Vidal the destroyer.
“Because I love a fight.”