According to Gore Vidal, American society has three ways of handling its critics: "One is to black you out altogether, which they did with Noam Chomsky--he can't get published anywhere; he's been made a nonperson. Or they demonize you, which they did with Jesse Jackson. Or they trivialize you, which they do with me."
Having said that, Vidal screws up his face, pitches his voice into a high, nasal whine and delivers his imitation of an obnoxious prude commenting on the likes of Gore Vidal: "Oh, he's vicious, he's venomous. He's outrageous."
Vidal--essayist, novelist, playwright, sometime politician and lifelong critic--lives in Italy most of the time now. But he returned recently for a brief stay at his grand old Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills, making forays out to a few talk shows and speaking before a few groups on the state of the union.
For starters, he finds the state of the union close to that of a police state. He related one recent outrage to illustrate that point at a gathering of about 300 people who had come to Town Hall's luncheon meeting at the Century Plaza Tower.
As is usual when he is in Los Angeles, he was a guest on Johnny Carson's show last month. But this time around, he was asked to bring his passport or other proof of citizenship. He thought it was a joke. It was not. Were he a foreigner, he was told, the law would require him to bring a green card or documents to show that his visa was in order. It all had to do, he was told, with the federal crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants.
"So I said, 'Oh, yes! It's well known that as soon as a Mexican crosses the Rio Grande, he is immediately booked onto the Carson show, thereby depriving an American entertainer of his showcase.' "
But it was not the Carson show that was bothering Vidal. It was the requirement that he was calling a violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, and the acceptance of it.
"Now that's the beginning, you see," he said at his home, days after the Town Hall meeting. He recited in sing-song staccato: "Mandatory blood tests, urine tests, lie detector tests, come on the Carson show, bring your passport, show that you're in order, no traffic violations--this is a police state. . . ."
Americans, he said, now accept all that as the proper role of government and seem ready for laws on abortion, their sex lives and "making you say prayers aloud." At the same time, they see it as improper to "go to a corporation and say, 'Clean up a mess,' because that's 'socialism' and that's evil. How you get people to vote against their interests and to really think against their interests is very clever. It's the cleverest ruling class that I have ever come across in history. It's been 200 years at it. It's superb."
That it is happening Vidal attributes to "the cretinizing of my fellow countrymen" by the media and the educational system.
He made that assessment in the privacy of his own living room, but it varied little from his public remarks to the Town Hall gathering or from his essays. He does not tone things down or pretty them up for public consumption.
At Town Hall, chairman James P. Miscoll, executive vice president of the Bank of America, called it an honor and fun to have Vidal, whom he introduced as a "great American and really interesting individual."
The great American went on to call the country from the start an oligarchy, not a democracy; to hit at patriarchal societies, like he said exists in the United States, that permit a police state to develop; to call political corruption total, thanks to the cost of elections; to predict a depression soon; and to say flatly that America has fallen permanently behind Japan and that it soon would lag behind Western Europe as well.
Vidal, 63, referred to himself at one point as an aging patriot. And what he said about critics, he said about patriots: "Patriots in a patriarchal society are considered dangerous and so are made into nonpersons."
Clearly to Vidal, the role of a patriot is to be critical. He appealed to his influential audience to do something to change opinion before America slips off the world stage.
A few people looked peeved or sounded irate during the question period. But for the most part, the prosperous-looking group laughed at his wit, listened intently and applauded strongly.
Collection of Essays
Part of the purpose of his visit includes promoting his new book, "At Home" (Random House), a collection of essays that have appeared in periodicals from 1982 until this year.
Decline and Vidal
Acerbic Critic Gore Vidal Returns to U.S. to Find Even More Fault Than Usual
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.