Gore Vidal and His Reading List for America

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Dec. 9, 1974 file photo of author Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86. (AP File Photo)

I briefly interviewed Gore Vidal once. It was a little more than thirty years ago, at the end of a long day of filming in Los Angeles. I was working as writer and segment producer on an arts magazine pilot for public television.

Vidal was staying at a friend’s house near the Hollywood Bowl. At 5 pm, the prearranged time, I knocked on the door and after a minute or so heard footsteps coming down stairs. The door opened and there he was, swathed in a long, elegant, silk paisley robe (of course!) and still half-asleep.

I told him who I was and reminded him why I was there. Ronald Reagan had been in the White House for less than a year and already was threatening major cuts to funding for the arts, so as part of the pilot, I was interviewing authors about books they thought might help the rest of us through his presidency. The answers would be spotted throughout the show, like currants in a bun. Vidal nodded and returned upstairs to change while the crew set up in the living room.

A few minutes later, now in jacket and tie, he joined us and sat down as lights, camera and sound were adjusted. I told him again what I wanted but now he stared at me blankly. Books for the Reagan years? He sighed, “I haven’t a clue.”

Wait a minute, I said, we talked about this on the phone just a few days ago so you’ve had time to think about it. Now would be a great time to think harder. (I was more polite than that, but you get the idea.)

After a second or two of brow-furrowing thought, he said, “No, nothing’s coming to mind.”

Pay for the crew was ticking into overtime. I felt beads of sweat – or blood – breaking out on my forehead. Disaster. And then I realized: he was toying with me, letting me twist slowly in the wind. Slightly mean, but only slightly, because after a few more moments of paralyzing silence, he suddenly took pity and said, “Okay. I’ll give you two takes. The first will be a minute; the other, thirty seconds.”

And they were. And they were flawless.

From that moment, he was grace and bonhomie personified, telling stories, but briefly glancing warily as we broke down the equipment. 60 Minutes recently had picked up a local Italian crew to interview him at his home in Ravello. While striking the set, he claimed, they had taken all his track lighting.

The books he chose? The Federalist Papers, because with Reagan in office, he said, all of should have a better understanding of the Constitution and the lengths of thought and debate that had gone into it. Ironic in 2012, as Tea Partiers embrace the Founding Fathers and their document in a death hug and Michele Bachmann claims it was one of Gore Vidal’s novels about the early history of the United States that repulsed her so deeply she became a Republican. To which one can only say, as Vidal once did, “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

The other book he recommended was Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian’s chronicle of the fight between Sparta and Athens in the 5th century, BC. Reagan’s America was dangerously like Sparta, Vidal said, ruled by an elite, bound by tradition, xenophobic, not a democracy but a “militarized republic” too eager for confrontation.

Thucydides wrote, “We Greeks believe that a man who takes no part in public affairs is not merely lazy, but good for nothing,” and while for decades Vidal’s epicene lifestyle may have been indulgent to the extreme, his good-for-nothingness ended there. In his writing and commentary, including his plays and movie scripts, he was fully engaged in America’s public affairs, even running for office twice. His knowledge of history, overall erudition and outspoken, often outrageous, opinions – frequently mean but only slightly mean — were an asset to the national discourse whether you agreed with him or not. He held an interest in politics and government from childhood, the descendant of a uniquely American style of aristocracy, gone now, that for good or ill, saw commitment to the general welfare as essential to its noblesse oblige philosophy.

Wealth and privilege no longer mean obligation but are simply the motives for more wealth and privilege. Ten years ago, in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, Vidal wrote – presciently — “Any individual who is able to raise [enough money] to be considered presidential is not going to be much use to the people at large. He will represent…whatever moneyed entities are paying for him…. Hence, the sense of despair throughout the land as incomes fall, businesses fail and there is no redress.” A message that transcends time and party affiliation.

He was smart, acerbic, funny and astoundingly prolific. Once I was in attendance at a studio from which a short-lived attempt at a weekly, public TV quiz show was being broadcast; Gore Vidal was one of the guests. The moderator had asked the panel to identify the source of an especially pithy and eloquent quote. Each was dumbfounded until the host came to Vidal, who thought a moment, then said, “Was it me?”

It wasn’t. But it could have been.

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  • Betti VanEpps-Taylor

    While he was often more outrageous and acerbic than I was comfortable with, his novel about Abraham Lincoln more than made up for that with me. Rest in peace, sir — and may we finally begin to realize that you knew what you were talking about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ned-Smith/100000172127034 Ned Smith

    Where are the Gore Vidals, Norman Mailers, Menkens and Mark Twains of today, when they are needed more than any other time in the history of this country?

  • annenelson

    Myra Breckenridge? uggg. That Lincoln book was almost fiction according to real Historians. He thought he was a Chris Hitchens. He wasn’t. He sure had a lot of “advice for America.”

  • jeanne

    In answer to Ned’s question where are the Gore Vidals, Norman Mailers, Menkens and Mark Twains of today? It seems we are getting somewhat short changed at least as far as quantity is concerned. But let us not be short sited and overlook a treasure in our mist. Bill Moyers is, to me, such a treasure.

  • mpress

    Thank you jeanne – you took the words right out of my mouth.

  • 19obert63

    We also lost John Updike recently; for today, I’ll go with Chris Hedges,
    Bill Moyers , Daniel Yergin , James Douglas and Jeff Eugenides.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Carr/1498587397 Chris Carr

    Richard Heffner doesn’t get enough credit or airtime either. Lots of great minds out there, if you take the time to look.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cdavidbonner Chris Bonner

    Matt Taibbi, Christopher Hitchens, David Cross

  • JudeThom

    He came way before Chris Hitchens. He was Hitchens’ mentor. A great man.

  • Bruce Cox

    From time to time, I feel overwhelmed, in a joyful way, by the mind and perspective and moral leadership of this man Bill Moyers.

  • Michael

    Let’s add Amy Goodman to the list. Democracy Now is mandatory watching for anyone who is looking for news.

  • George

    Aman ans Amen! Amy is SUPER!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Albert-Lopez/1824418031 Albert Lopez

    ..I fallow with great interest Senor Bill Moyers’ comments.

  • Trish

    I really do not care who it it with wisdom to share. My frustration comes when wisdom is neither heard nor heeded.

  • noel

    He was far beyond poor Hitchens,who lost his mind some years ago.

  • noel

    We still have the greatest one of all,and hopefully will continue for more years to come: The prolific genius,Professor Noam Chomsky.

  • Maureen

    I completely agree and add gratitude.

  • kenegbert3rd

    Aye to that one! One of these days Bill should interview Professor Chomsky. That’d be a wild ride in a tilt cart. I can hear America’s IQ rise as it listened in. Give some thought to that, Mr. Moyers, if you will.
    Another thought, if I may. I wonder that it it does not take time for wise men to be recognized. We may not know who our generation’s Mark Twain was. Later generations may decide that for us. Sad, but maybe.

  • kenegbert3rd

    Mr. Vidal first came to my notice at my aunt and uncle’s house some 40-odd years ago. i was a weekend guest, and they, rock-ribbed Connecticut Republicans, never missed William F. Buckley’s television appearances. One day, I sat with them and heard my aunt say, ‘oh, that awful man Gore Vidal will be debating Bill today.’ You’d think, from the way they spoke of him, that Buckley lived next door, and was expected the following noon for coffee. At any rate I watched the entire program and will tell you that each gave as good as he got; that there was somebody in the great wide world who could verbally joust Mr. Buckley to a draw interested me no end. Started reading his books, and never stopped. Apparently I’ll have to, now.
    The above aside, one last thought. That Vidal’s reading list doesn’t include any of his own books is very instructive. I miss him already.

  • Elissa

    Elizabeth Warren and Kathleen Hall-Jamison

  • http://twitter.com/mayanspacecadet mayanspacecadet

    As usual, a perfect essay from Mr. Moyers. I love Gore Vidal as much as one can without having read a single one of his books and having never met the man. But, I think, the time has come to check one of those off the list.

  • Karentoday

    Me too. Overwhelmingly joyful, in awe,and grateful. I feel the same about his wife, who, I understand, has been the producer of his shows for all these years.

  • TeddyOrwell

    James Howard Kunstler comes to mind.

  • Jeff J

    What a stupid thing to say. I think you lost your mind…

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.mcvay.94 Richard McVay

    I met Bill Buckley twice, an intelligent fellow, but what stood out were his yellow teeth, due to cigar smoking. I never met Vidal, but have read many of his books. ‘Live From Golgotha’ being one of the wittiest (although Christians recoil at its mention). I recommend to students ‘The Decline and Fall of the American Empire’ as a primer introduction (although it was written during Japan’s peak, so insert China into that role). Vidal was America’s premier man of letters, and without fear to express his views, however contrary they were to the norms of the day.

  • Ricardo

    Thank you Mr. Moyers for keeping the light on!

  • Allen

    We do need to recognize that there are good wealthy even today and even if apolitical. Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, are putting their wealth and time into fighting disease and ignorance. Of course, it’s the Adelsons and Koch brothers of our world we need to worry about, the emboldiment of a right wing seeking to take (more) from the world, not add to it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Mr. Moyers, for continuing your excellent work!

  • Lawrence

    Any one who inspired Oral Roberts graduate Michelle Bachmann to become a Republican merely on the basis of reading his book on American history deserves gratitude.

  • Debbie Karkiainen

    Amen, Lawrence!!!!

  • bruce

    and while for decades Vidal’s epicene lifestyle may have been indulgent to the extreme”
    Please expand
    Thank You, Bruce