In November 2006, the celebrated author-playwright-commentator talked with Tavis about his then-new memoir, Point to Point Navigation.
Gore Vidal Tribute
Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Gore Vidal back to this program. The legendary author and screenwriter is out now with part two of his autobiography, called ‘Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir.’ The title comes from his days as a Navy first mate during World War II, and Gore Vidal, it is an honor to have you back on the program again.
Gore Vidal: A great pleasure to be here. Very exciting last time, when you had Ambassador Wilson, with his CIA wife, who had been exposed (laugh) to the winds by the administration illegally. Poor woman.
Tavis: You remember this.
Vidal: Remember it? All the world remembers it.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laugh)
Vidal: And it was the first time you had, anyone had both of them.
Vidal: And they talked.
Tavis: Yeah. I am delighted to have you on for part two of your memoir. What does it mean to have a memoir that is so much, so thick, so dense, that you have to do it in volumes?
Vidal: Well, that’s how you do life.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laugh)
Vidal: We do life in volumes, too. And the first one was my first 40 years. Everything interesting happened then, so. (Laugh) Then the second one, which you hold in your hand, is my, the last 40 years. And at one point, I thought I should really call this ‘Between Obituaries.’ Everybody’s dying. But then suddenly, it’s kind of a whole new area. You rethink people that you’ve known along life’s doleful journey.
And it was kind of interesting recalling old friends like Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles, and people who are now dead. And one fascinating thing about it for a memoir is you can tell the truth. Not that there were any great lies to be told. But you don’t wanna hurt people’s feelings. So there are whole areas you stay away from. And suddenly, I got a call from – a friend of mine had died, and I got a call from Johnny Carson, who was retired at the beach, Malibu.
And he said, ‘I’m sorry about Howard’s death,’ and so on. And I hadn’t talked to Johnny in about a year. And I said, ‘What happened to you? I know you retired from NBC, but I thought we’d be hearing from you.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘It’s what they call semi-retired at the beach.’ I said, ‘No more Las Vegas?’ To keep him away from there would have been something.
He said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ And he’d just turned down going to a friend’s memorial. And everybody in town was gonna be there. And the widow got very upset when John said, ‘I can’t go.’ And she said, ‘Well, come on.’ This was his producer had died, Freddie De Cordova. And John said, ‘Well, I have a problem which I’ll just tell you.’ And then he just told me on the telephone.
He said, ‘People will expect to see Johnny Carson again, and that’s not who I am anymore. I can’t even pretend it. I can’t even mimic him.’ And I said, ‘You’re doing pretty well on the phone.’ He said, ‘No I’m not.’ He said, ‘I am forcing it. To be out in public and people expect me to be me, I can’t do it anymore.’ And I went, ‘What is this all about?’ He sounded perfectly normal on the telephone.
And then a week or so later, he was dead, and it was cancer of the lung and throat. He lost his voice. So the Carson voice, which everybody in America knew, he couldn’t do that anymore. And it’s that dry voice that suddenly broke up a whole crowd, and when he couldn’t do that, he stayed at the beach.
Tavis: I’m glad you shared that, that’s a fascinating story, which is what makes your life, this point to point navigation of a life, so fascinating. The people that you’ve known, and those stories that only Gore Vidal can tell. You used a phrase a couple of minutes ago, though, that I wanna go back and pick up on, ’cause I’m fascinated by it. To rethink people. To rethink people.
Vidal: Well, as you know them, life is a continuum, life is just there; it just goes on, day by day. And one by one, each of us stops. Well, when one of us stops and another survives, you really think well, what was that all about? How well did I know so and so, and did I get them right? Or when they got angry about something or other, were they right, and I was wrong? This is just reflection over people that you’ve known.
Tavis: What’s the value in rethinking people?
Vidal: To find out what you think. Somebody said, ‘What’s the value of writing?’ And the value of writing is to find out what you think. If you ask me what do I think about the agricultural policies of the current administration, it would take me – if they had any, it would take me some time (laugh) to work it out. So I’d have to sit and start writing. And then as you write, you begin to, oh, that’s…
Tavis: That’s what I think.
Vidal: Yeah, that’s what I think. How they screwed this up, and that, and so on. In other words, the act of writing is the act of thinking. The act of thinking leads sometimes to thoughts and then worse, this is hated by our rulers; it leads to ideas. And they hate them, ’cause the first idea might be go home.
Tavis: (Laugh) Speaking of writing as a way to figure out what it is that one thinks, if you were writing specifically about this war in Iraq, what thoughts of Mr. Vidal might we be exposed to?
Vidal: Go home. (Laugh)
Tavis: Go home. (Laugh)
Vidal: I’ve done a lot of thoughts about it along the way, since I keep writing all the time, that nobody ever explained to the American people why we were fighting in Iraq. We assaulted Afghanistan and Iraq, two small, weak countries that had done nothing to us, ever; did not have the capacity to harm us, or the will. But because of our crazy little president, ‘I’m a wartime president; I’m a wartime president,’ quack, quack, quack, quack, quack. (Laugh)
This is a loon. And any fool can see that he is loony. But the American people just switched off, I think he switched them off, his advisors did. The media has never been more poisonous or more hopeless. They won’t tell us the truth about anything, even if they knew it, which I don’t think they do. So there we were, and ‘preemptive war,’ he said. Well, what’s he trying to preempt?
Certainly not a war, because he’s starting a war. Then it went on and on about how Saddam Hussein was mixed up with Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. He has had no connection with them at all. This is why everybody in Europe – the people who can read ‘The New York Times’ without moving their lips – knows perfectly well (laugh) that there is no connection.
But this is how the little fella got away with it. He wanted a war. A wartime president, wartime president. But he’s not a wartime president; you have to have a war to be a wartime president. To have a war, you have to have a country. You can’t just go into Iraq and smash them to pieces and pretend that they are an enemy. They will become one, if you knock down their houses and kill them.
They get very grumpy when you do things like that to them. So he managed to make a lot of enemies, and we’re the ones, the bombs are gonna fall on us. He’ll be in his bunker in that awful place in Texas where he lives. He’ll be hidden away, he’ll be safe. It’ll be our cities that are gonna get it when some of these suicide bombers get angry at us, and blame us for his misdeeds.
No, it was a coup d’etat after 9/11. A bunch of very ambitious hoods from the oil and gas business, mostly, decided now is the time to take over everything. And the neoconservatives were right there with him. They wanted big armies in the Middle East to destroy countries they didn’t like. They wanted to get rid of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran. They had a long list, they’ve still got it.
I don’t think they’re going to have the chance to utilize it, because we ran out of money. But here’s a guy with no thought of cause and effect. One of the reasons that General Powell was so upset over the abandonment of the Geneva accords, which means when you capture an enemy, you don’t torture him to death, and slice off pieces of him, and send them around.
You don’t do that because if your people get taken captive, the enemy will do that to you. Now this guy is really deficient. There’s something wrong in the brain. He cannot take cause and effect. If I remove the safeguards that countries over the years have built up in battle, that you take my prisoner and I take your prisoner, I’m not gonna harm him. You’re gonna torture him and torture him, and get information out of him, even when he has none.
Particularly when he has none. Well, this was madness. What Colin Powell was trying to tell them, and they paid no attention to him, after all, he was a professional soldier, a general. He knew that this was a death warrant for any Americans that got taken captive by any enemy of the month club. And we have an enemy of the month club no, thanks to the administration. Aside from that, I’m so happy that Laura and the kid are there, and having a good time. (Laugh) And they had a wonderful Thanksgiving, I’m told.
Tavis: (Laugh) There are so many things that come to mind as I sit and listen to you. Let me just try to pick two or three apart, if I might, right quick here. Number one, it occurs to me as you’re speaking how honest, how frank, how forthright, clearly how opinionated you are, and yet one gets reminded in reading ‘Point to Point Navigation’ that you ran for office not once, but twice. I wonder whether or not our body politic could stand one whose mouth runs like yours does. Politics isn’t a place for somebody who is a truth-teller in that way, is it?
Vidal: Well, yes, it used to be. My grandfather was Senator from Oklahoma, a state that he invented. Humor of that sort runs in our family. (Laugh) And when Oklahoma came into the union in 1907, he was elected first Senator, and he served till ’37. And he was pretty good at saying what he thought. He tried to keep us out of World War I, which was Woodrow Wilson’s idea.
Wilson had the same kind of ambitions, only Wilson could read and write. (Laugh) But that Bush had. He wanted to be a big man, and recarve the map of Europe. And get this, this was the battiest slogan that ever came down the pike. Make the world safe for Democracy. What on Earth does that mean? Why make it safe for Democracy? Has it ever been safe for Democracy?
What do most of these countries care about Democracy? We don’t. We got rid of the Bill of Rights; we got rid of habeas corpus; we got rid of – all within the last few weeks, those things. And due process of law, upon which our entire system is based. We have no truck with Democracy, and we have not since the beginning. Woodrow Wilson suddenly thought France, Germany, anyplace he could get his hands on in Europe at the time of World War I must become democratic.
And the world must be made safe for them. Well, it was a bloodbath. Far worse than anything we’ve experienced, actually, in this mysterious Mideastern operation. And that sort of turned Americans off foreign wars, which meant – I remember, in 1940, when they were talking about going to war against Hitler, and Roosevelt wanted it. American people said, ‘After World War I, you forget it. We’re not going abroad. We got nothing out of that. Thousands of Americans were killed. And what did we get? We got Prohibition.’
Wasn’t that a nice gift? No, those who tell the truth can go pretty far. Recently in ‘Playboy,’ I wrote a piece called ‘Three Senators Gore.’ The first one being my grandfather, second one being Albert Gore’s father, and then the third being Albert, when he was a Senator.
And one thing they all had in common, they did not like foreign wars. And they didn’t like committing Americans to wars in other people’s battles. Here we are, fighting in the middle of a civil war in the Middle East. Boy, isn’t that a likely thing to be doing? So, you stay out of these things. And I remember my grandfather, when it looked like Wilson was going to get the House of Representatives to declare war on Germany in 1917, and suddenly, Senator Gore, knowing that it would cost him his seat in the Senate, there was an election coming up, he made an impassioned speech to the nation from the Senate floor.
And he said, ‘Any time – ’cause only the House of Representatives can declare war – any time the House of Representatives feels in the mood that it would like to declare war on someone, I pass the following resolution that they must go to the people and get a referendum on whether the people agree to the war.’ If that had passed, we would never have been in Vietnam, much less the mess we’re in now.
Tavis: The other thing that occurs to me as I sit and listen to you, which I’ve had the occasion to do now a few times in my career, nobody quite turns a phrase in the way that you do. You have a way with language, a way with words. Your writing is – it’s prose. Is that something that one can learn, or is that a gift that you were blessed with?
Vidal: No, I think it was probably genetic. Remember that the Gore family, my mother’s family, were, for 20 generations, both in Ireland and in Mississippi and later in the Indian territories of Oklahoma, we were lawyers and preachers. But it just was so natural, any one of us, including my Atheistic grandfather, could get up and give a beautiful sermon on how Jesus wants us for a sunbeam.
And he could do it with a straight face, too. (Laugh) No, I think that tends to be rather genetic. There was one point in Ireland, we were northern Irish and Protestant Irish. And in Northern Ireland, there were 15 Gores in the House of Parliament, all with the name Gore. Exactly the same family. These weren’t cousins, this was, the family had taken over the place. Would that we had done it here. (Laugh)
Tavis: (Laugh) See, I’m laughing, ’cause as I hear you say that you think it’s in part genetic, I raise that because even the great writers of our time today, those persons who I think are really good at writing, every one of them, without question, whether they agree or disagree, like or loathe Gore Vidal, has to give you credit for the way you string words together.
If for you it was genetic, what advice do you give, then, to persons who want to become good writers? You’re a great writer, but let’s not put the Vidal standard out there. What about being a good writer?
Vidal: You have to want to be one. I once made myself extremely unpopular, instead of normally unpopular…
Tavis: Only once?
Vidal: Well, extremely.
Tavis: Extremely, okay. (Laugh)
Vidal: When I said one of our problems with the writers today, I was speaking about novelists, I said, everybody wants to be a great novelist. Well, who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t like to be one? But their efforts are made to be great, when their efforts should be made to try to be good. Don’t worry about great. That’s somewhere down the road, if it’s anywhere. It may not come… (technical)
…for a life work. And you do get better at it as you go along. And if you get worse, you’re so ga-ga you don’t know about it, so. (Laugh)
Tavis: Let me go back before we wrap this conversation, back to the beginning. One of the things that struck me when I read this book, you write rather – I’m trying to find the right word here – rather gracefully about, as you might put it, your moving closer to that door marked exit.
Vidal: That thrilled many, many people. (Laugh) And simultaneously, about half my reviews look like obits. They’re so pleased that my god, he’s gonna be gone, he’s gonna be gone. We can romp and play.
Tavis: How are you, have you become so comfortable with that moving toward the door marked exit?
Vidal: Well, I dislike falling apart, which we all do. Age is just a series of calamities. But being dead is no worse than not being born. I enjoyed not being born. In fact, probably enjoyed that more than I have being born. So, it can’t be any worse. So it’s not to be feared. Death is nothing. No thing is nothing. So it’s nothing to be fearful of. It’s just part of the normal – there’s a lovely poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the nineteenth century.
Somebody’s lost a daughter, and he writes, ‘It is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.’ It’s a beautiful poem. And just remember it’s the blight man was born for. That’s the contract. We signed it.
Tavis: Finally, these reviews that you refer to half of them at least as obits, what have you thought when you read these obits? When you see these writers looking back on this life, this point to point navigation, what have you made of what they’ve had to say about this life that you’ve crafted, this legacy that you’re leaving us?
Vidal: Well, I wish they’d work a little harder at being good. (Laugh) To be a good writer is just as good as being a great writer. Because greatness is not in your eyes, or anybody else’s. That is posterity, or that’s fame, or whatever. But just to try and do it well. One thing, critics, particularly American critics, one of the reasons they are all so bad, in literature, or whether they’re writing about music, theater, pretty lousy, most of them, because they’ve got this crazy semi-Democratic notion.
My feelings are just as good as yours, and my opinion is just as good as yours. Well, I may know everything about Shakespeare, and you don’t. (Laugh) But we are just the same. So we had to pretend to be total Democrats, where just everybody, even playing field. Well, it isn’t true. The trick to reviewing, and I hope if there are any reviewers listening, and you might take a clip and send it around to ones you don’t like.
Tavis: You got 30 seconds, go ahead and lay it out there.
Vidal: I think 30 minutes will be quite enough for your critics. (Laugh) Just say to them, ‘No one except your mother gives a damn about your opinion.’ (Laugh) Just don’t give it. All they wanted you to do is to describe what it was you saw on air, what it was you read on a page, what it was you saw in the theater. That’s all you do. You describe it. Don’t venture an opinion. Who are you to make an opinion? Do you know enough? Course, they always know everything. But simultaneously, you just be a little modest. It’s very hard to describe anything.
Tavis: Mr. Vidal, I will take that clip (laugh) and send it not just to your critics, but to mine, as well. (Laugh) The new book by Gore Vidal, book number two in this life, ‘Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir’ by Gore Vidal. What an honor to have you on the program, sir. Nice to see you again.
Vidal: Great to see you again.
Tavis: Be well. That’s our show for tonight. Catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. Check your local listings. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.