Gore Vidal on America's 'Lost Culture'

The 81-year-old author of "The City and the Pillar," "Myra Breckinridge," "Burr," "Lincoln," "Washington, D.C." and numerous other books, both fiction and nonfiction, on politics and history (he also ran for Congress and for the governorship of California) is no stranger to controversy—The New York Times would not review seven of his books, and just last December he slammed U.S. policy on a trip to Cuba by stating the 40-year embargo on the country was "ridiculous." Matthew Link recently spoke to the prolific writer in his current home in the Hollywood Hills. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How has the literary landscape changed since you began writing? You have written that the notion of a "famous author" does not hold true any more.
Gore Vidal: It's oxymoronic.

Is it possible for a writer today to have the clout that major writers had in the '60s and even the '70s?
I don't know. Certainly they can count on the hatred of The New York Times. Can you imagine publishing an endless series of book reviews which are largely caveats, warning people not to read certain people's books? With the energy that went into keeping people from reading Mailer or me, just to talk about my generation—you could have lit up a whole city with the passions that went into those polemics. Then what do they want you to read? Well, there's always John Updike. He's a good Christian and believes in marriage. Curiously, the publicly minded writers generally have a very difficult time of it.

Has your own audience changed over the years?
It has got larger in some ways, because of those pamphlets I write [referring to the critiques "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," "Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, and Imperial America"]. And that's it, you know. I think they might be considered as American history in italics. The nice thing about being a novelist is if you're taken up by other countries, you have a whole brand-new audience. I've just had four books translated into Turkish. I think that is because they're trying to join the European Union, and they thought they ought to find out about Abraham Lincoln. So in that sense, each year you get a whole new audience in another language.

You've written extensively about anti-intellectualism in America. Where do you think we are right now?
Deeper in the swamp of unknowing! Nor does it help that the heads of the nation are some of the stupidest people in our history. Could Darwin have been wrong? Why do so many of our statesmen have calloused knuckles?

Are we watching the end of an empire? Do you think America is trying to hang on to past glories?
What glory? We never peaked. There was 1945 and the end of World War II, that was a military peak and an economic one, too. But, culturally, we didn't have much of anything, just the beginning of something. The so-called golden age that I refer to—even though nobody knows what I'm talking about. What I mean is that in 1945, it was the very first time, after the victory over Europe and Japan, that suddenly we were No. 1 in many things. All the arts were coming alive—it was a golden age. In the theater, there was Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, in music there was Aaron Copland and Lenny Bernstein, in poetry James Merrill and Robert Lowell. Even in ballet, previously hardly known, we were preeminent. This exciting time lasted only five years, and then came the Korean War, and we've been at war ever since. And we lost any cultural lead we might have had in anything except junk entertainment. So we never made it to a civilization. We had the potential, but it was never allowed to develop. We were too busy being imperial, while 10th-rate hustlers ran the country.

Isn't that the end result of a capitalistic culture? Where the most popular win by pushing the right buttons?
That was always the thinking, but the popular have no more chance of winning than the intelligent do. We have been convinced that in a true democracy the really nice guy is going to be elected president because he has a nice smile. But even that seldom happened. We elected creeps—Lyndon Johnson was hated, Richard Nixon was hated.… People have kind of withdrawn from the life of the Republic: the Greeks were good at seeing what would go wrong, how republics are lost. Also, reading Aristotle tells us how we are going to lose these fragile constructs. In the end, republics do not last. They become imperial; they lose energy.

You've accused President Bush of getting into office twice fraudulently.
Not Bush himself. The election frauds of 2000 and 2004 were beyond his meager gifts. Let's say he was arbitrarily selected by the Supreme Court, when the people in their popular vote made it clear they wanted Gore. The re-election of 2004 was the work of corporate America—for instance Halliburton, making vast profits from Bush's totally unconstitutional wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. A rogue secretary of state in Ohio not only headed the re-election team for Bush and saw to it that Democratic votes were not cast or counted, etc. The Supreme Court, properly burned by their behavior in 2000, wisely stayed out of the Ohio mess while the Republican majorities in the legislative branch—eyes blinded at the thought of all that taxpayers' gold coming their way—stood guard against any serious investigation of the secretary of state's crimes. Not to mention the corruption of electronic voting machinery. Then Rep. John Conyers entered the field. With a competent staff, he investigated Ohio's election. He showed how and why the election had been stolen. Pro bono publico, I wrote a preface to the Conyers report. Since Conyers was then minority head of the House Judiciary Committee, I thought, no one can defend the highjacking of the election. But I'd underestimated the cunning of the corporate-owned media. Every major newspaper in the country refused to mention the Conyers report on what happened in Ohio and how the 2004 election was stolen.

Can writers in this day and age have any impact on the political process?
Well, if they think they can, they're insane. But then some insane writers like Rousseau did pretty well. You never know what you are going to affect. One thing our educational system does is eliminate all sense of curiosity. Students will condescend to read only about those things they think they already know; they don't want new things. The students end up with a few myths about society and that's about it. And that's a pity. The word "novel" has the same stem as the word "news" itself. Newspapers are also dying: no real loss here in Freedom's Land. Luminous with the blog's early light.

How do you feel about writing memoirs versus writing novels or essays?
Well, they're a lot trickier. It's a narrow line. You have to depend so much on memory and memory is very fallible. I still fuss about it. I do as many versions as I can and hope that I'm getting it right.

What's it like living in Los Angeles, in the shadow of Hollywood?
L.A. in the '40s and '50s was a true melting pot. Remember, during my first years here, there was Stravinsky, Thomas Mann—a most extraordinary bunch of refugees from Hitler. For a while, this was the intellectual center of the United States. I just picked up the other day Thomas Mann's diaries. He was sitting not far from where I live now, down in the Pacific Palisades. He was reading "The City and The Pillar," a book of mine, and making notes, wondering if he was too old to write this sort of thing himself. It was very heartening, this message from a writer I had very much admired all my life. He was the first writer who made me realize that something was seriously lacking in American literature … We had nothing compared to what you got from the Germans and particularly the anti-Hitlerites. So it was through reading Thomas Mann as a kid that I got interested in dramatizing history, and realized that ideas can be exciting in a work of historical fiction.

What work do you most want to be remembered for 50 years down the road?
Or even 50 minutes up-road. "Creation," obviously. I brought together the entire fifth-century B.C., just when everything happened in the human race. Socrates, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Confucius, they were roughly contemporaries. Everything happened in that one century. And one man could have known them all except for the inconvenience of geography.