Published in the January/February 2010 Humanist
He’s been called an iconoclast, a provocateur, a misanthrope, and a conspiracy theorist (“I’m a conspiracy analyst,” he corrects). And now, with his acceptance last spring of the American Humanist Association’s honorary presidency, the acclaimed writer and critic Gore Vidal can add “humanist” to the mix. On August 4, 2009, Humanist Editor Jennifer Bardi and AHA President David Niose sat down with Vidal at his home in Hollywood, California, for a lengthy conversation. Many of the familiar topics were discussed—his famous family, forays into politics and the film industry, brushes with fellow writers and public figures, his admiration for Amelia Earhart and his disgust with U.S. foreign policy—peppered with spot-on impersonations of John F. Kennedy, Greta Garbo, and George W. Bush. Something else that emerged is the unapologetic humanism of this acclaimed novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and esteemed public intellectual. Vidal, now in his eighty-fourth year, continues to entertain, enrage, and enlighten. His latest book, Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare, was published in October.
Jennifer Bardi: We wanted to start by telling you how thrilled we are that you’ve accepted the honorary presidency of the American Humanist Association. Of course, you know you follow in the footsteps of Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov, so even though humanists aren’t known primarily as literary folks, I think it’s a great tradition.
David Niose: The membership is very happy about it as well. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.
Gore Vidal: Well, thank them with my feedback, equally positive.
JB: What’s your familiarity with the AHA and the humanist movement?
Gore Vidal: I see items from time to time. I knew Asimov fairly well and Kurt very well. Do you know he was walking his dog when he fell? Darling puppy dog pulled him and he lost his balance, fell on his head, and died, which is grim because he was in pretty good form the last few years. Had something disagreeable to say about almost anything.
But yes, humanism is a great tradition and highly necessary, highly honorable. It’s all we have left of Les Lumières—the lit up ones—to which Thomas Jefferson and company belonged. And there’s no living movement. I mean, “progressive” sounds like Theodore Roosevelt gasping away.
DN: Right, you can be an imperialist and still be a progressive.
Gore Vidal: You can be a definite progressive when you’re progressing on other people’s land all the time.
JB: It would be nice if using the tag “humanist” could invoke all the issues that humanists support. But at this point, typically, it just generates the question, “Are you an atheist then? Is that what humanism is about?”
Gore Vidal: I think no. I think where you’re on strongest ground is the Constitution of the United States. All of Jefferson is humanism, writ large in his own marvelous prose. And I’ve always been a constitutionalist because I’m a Jeffersonian.
DN: We’ve taken the position that in order to improve the image of humanists, we’re going to have to get America used to the idea of atheists. The humanist chaplain at Harvard, a young guy by the name of Greg Epstein, has a book coming out and we’re hoping that it’ll be the next step in the New Atheist literature. I’m sure you’re familiar with the very popular books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris debunking religion. Epstein is trying to take it to the next level with his book, Good Without God, in which he talks about the positive aspects of humanism. But it is a bit of a dance because we don’t want to be ramming it down people’s throats.
Gore Vidal: Well, it must not sound like a religion.
DN: So we try to drop the words into conversation casually as if they’re nothing to get excited about, which is the way it should be. That’s the way it is in Europe. People don’t get so worked up if somebody says they’re an atheist.
Gore Vidal: Well, what do you do in a country with no education, no access to books, and no media that’s worth attending to?
DN: Is it troubling that even the Democrats, the supposed left side of the spectrum in America, need to embrace not just religion but conservative religion so much? Do you think that’s part of the problem in America?
Gore Vidal: There are those who’ve got to get the vote out and get elected. I fear even I, who have been a candidate, have blotted my copybook by being [he pauses, turns instantly mischievous] overenthusiastic for cannibalism and all the things that we stand for as humanists. Just to make it very clear that once a year you eat the lowliest member. It’s democratic as well—democratic cannibalism—something really difficult to achieve.
JB: You’re going to get us into trouble.
Gore Vidal: That’s what you need, my dear. That’s what you need.
DN: It’s not any worse than what the average American probably thinks about nontheistic people. But part of what the AHA is trying to do in recent years is to improve the public image of secular humanism so that maybe someday in this country we can have a wide array of candidates running as secular humanists openly and not having to declare an allegiance to conservative religion.
Gore Vidal: And not having to explain themselves in such tedious length that nobody will vote for them. Because Americans haven’t much capacity for grasping information. They’re so used to being lied to.
DN: What do you think of Barack Obama’s call out to humanists in his inauguration speech? He’s mentioned humanists specifically several times. He also describes his mother as a secular humanist, and if you read his biography, it certainly sounds like he was a skeptic well into adulthood and then he found religion.
Gore Vidal: It’s on his conscience I think. I mean, he’s presented himself as a Jeffersonian. He is educated and he’s sufficiently wise in the way of the world.
JB: A colleague met Obama when he was running for the Senate and she handed him some literature. She was a lobbyist for humanists and he said without any embarrassment, “oh, my mother was a humanist!” A few weeks later I read an interview in which he said his mother was a Christian.
Gore Vidal: And if your colleague’s pamphlet had said she was a fascist he’d have said, “Oh, my mother was a fascist!” I know what happens when people run for office.
JB: Actually, it was a little bit sad because in that biography Obama referred to his mother at one point as a “lonely witness for secular humanism,” which I think reveals that he knew he couldn’t hold onto her skepticism if he wanted to make something of himself in politics. What’s your opinion of Obama? Actually, it’s his birthday today so maybe we shouldn’t speak ill of him.
Gore Vidal: Hail, Obama!
He hasn’t turned out very well but, you know, I was with Hillary from the very beginning. She was an old friend and I knew she would do the job very well and then I realized that this was going to be the historic breakthrough for thirteen million people. Come on, I’m not going to vote against that. I was delighted to vote for him and to find that he was not only a very intelligent man but most eloquent too. We hadn’t had that since Adlai Stevenson was denied the presidency. So I was happy to vote for him, happy to see him elected. I’m not happy about his regime sending 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to mop up.
JB: Do you think there are any humanitarian reasons for trying to defeat the Taliban?
Gore Vidal: I’m now going to quote from John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States. He was asked if the United States would join with a bunch of Europeans in a movement to drive the Turks out of Greece because he was a classical scholar trained in Greek and they thought Adams was the most civilized American president, since Jefferson certainly. He turned them down. He didn’t say much but he said, look, the United States is not a warrior or a paladin—he used that word—that goes forth to slay foreign monsters. You must look elsewhere for that sort of power in the universe. The United States will fight under no banner other than its own, for were we to do otherwise, we would be mistress of the earth and lose our soul. Okay? I’m a Quincy Adams man.
JB: Did that apply to World War II as well?
Gore Vidal: Well, I was an isolationist before it. Certainly it did. We rush around the world, go to little powers and say, are you suffering here in Liberia? You don’t mind if we blow up your capital building, land the troops on the beach? You’ll love it—it’s going to be wonderful business for you.
JB: It’s interesting that the United States used to be thought of as the world’s policeman, which today sounds almost benevolent.
Gore Vidal: So it was meant to be. We were to keep the order that the British Empire had been doing for us until we came of age as the great power of the earth, great military power too.
You met my sidekick here [indicating his assistant, who has entered the room]. He’s a lieutenant in the Navy, from Annapolis. And he’s a head of something called the Veterans Against the Wars. Everybody thinks he’s a pacifist. He says, “I’m not a pacifist; I’m a Navy man. I love the Navy and I hate the destruction of the military by the Bush family.” They set out to destroy everything that was military because they were too stupid or too venal. They were lying and cheating and stealing money. The likes of Cheney have all kinds of special rights, like renting troops to us. I mean the whole thing is vomit-making for us old Americans. We still exist, you know. Let’s not be written off.
DN: We’ve gone so far in the direction of imperialism, and the military has really dominated the government for so long now. Do you think it’s possible to enlighten average Americans about just how far we’ve gone astray?
Gore Vidal: It can be done. I do it. I don’t get all the Americans and nobody does but I get some of them. And I know what it’s like to go into a room, say a few words and receive a standing ovation as I walk off. Well, others can do that; I’m not unique in that gift. But if you’re thinking about votes, you’re going to have to sell a lot of lies. That’s if you believe in anything. Most people believe in nothing except getting elected.
DN: You mentioned in some of your writings that the problem in America is systemic, not cyclical. And I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit because if it is systemic, we’re probably talking about more radical change that’s needed than just tweaking the system.
Gore Vidal: Well, it’s a clumsy system that was passed on to us by the Founders.
DN: At one point, you suggested a Constitutional convention. What would you change about the Constitution?
Gore Vidal: Obvious things like throwing out the Electoral College. That was just meant to cool things if there was a difficult election, as there was in 1800 when both Jefferson and Aaron Burr won the presidency. We’re still living under the fallout from that election.
DN: I’d be worried that if a Constitutional convention was held—
Gore Vidal: Oh, I know—they’d get rid of the Bill of Rights. They’ve already done it. You can only restore it. That’s the only radical thing you can do.
DN: I wonder if this country would even ask for it back.
Gore Vidal: Well, there will always be people like me who will. Why do you think I do all this television? Do you think I like it? I do it because I scare them.
JB: As the editor of the Humanist magazine, it’s certainly gratifying to have readers say, “Oh, everything in there makes so much sense, and this is just right in line with my thinking.” But how does one go about—
Gore Vidal: Selling a subscription? [laughing] To come to the point!
JB: [laughing] No, how does one break through to those for whom it doesn’t make sense, for whom it might actually create some discord?
Gore Vidal: In a way I think everything causes discord because everything is dishonest in our lives. You see, we had a rare experience which I don’t know has happened to any other country; ours is a fairly free, would-be democracy but not really in practice. The Brits showed us how that’s done. The Swedes showed us how it’s done. It has been done since the beginning of the end of feudalism. We’ve had accommodating governments that accommodated the will of the people and they accommodated dreams of the people, often to the good, sometimes to the bad. But we were bogus to begin with. I mean, have you ever met an American who believes in our unalienable rights? They say they do—they would like to—but it’s so hollow because they’re corrupted every day.
I went to Phillips Exeter Academy, which was a tough old New England school—the tougher the better for me because their toughness set a standard. It assumed that you'd be struggling for a place, for heir, whatever your station. If you were drawn to public service, they loved the idea. But it’s New England, you know, and you’d have to pay for it. You’d have to tell a thousand lies to get the voters to vote for you. You’d have to build dams where there were no rivers, that kind of thing, tough politics. But I enjoyed it because it was hard. And I knew life was hard. I was brought up by my grandfather who was thirty years a senator. I knew what they’d done to him and I was quite prepared to give as good as he gave.
On your subject, he was a dedicated atheist. Imagine—he was senator for over thirty years in Oklahoma, a hotbed of the Lord Jesus, and they never found out. He never tried to hide it. Once or twice he was talked into being photographed inside that big Methodist church in Washington because a friend of his was the minister. I remember I was taken one Sunday and I said, “Grandpa, what are we doing in this thing?” He said, “Well, my boy, you may ask what we’re doing here. I’m getting votes, I don’t know about you.”
DN: He was never asked what his religious views were?
Gore Vidal: He made a famous reply once when asked about the differences between him and Mrs. Gore, who came from a raring tearing evangelical background in Fort Worth, Texas, but never set foot in a church of her own free will. “How do you manage the difficulties that you are a—” (I forget what he called himself. He came as close to a humanist as you could without using the word). “But Mrs. Gore, she’s well-known as a Methodist and you’ve never been seen but once in a Methodist church. How have you managed the difference under a successful marriage all these years?”
“Well,” he said, “one Sunday we don’t go to her church and the next Sunday we don’t go to mine.” And he was swept to reelection. I often tell that to people in the Bible belt—you can get away with it. They don’t want to go on Sunday either.
JB: I think once you get into the territory of really discounting the possibility of the afterlife it gets a little bit uncomfortable for people. Don’t you think there’s a difference between not subscribing to that idea and not wanting to go to church?
Gore Vidal: Yes, not wanting to be extinct.
JB: Humanists actually spend a fair amount of time considering God and thinking about questions of religion. I sometimes joke that I think more about God now that I have this job than I ever did.
Gore Vidal: That’s what you should do.
JB: And then others throw Pascal’s wager at us, wondering why we don’t believe just in case.
Gore Vidal: Well, it’s a famous conundrum. There’s also the idea that something had to start it all. The answer is it started itself…or nothing did.
JB: Why do you think people so desperately want there to be a purpose for humankind?
Gore Vidal: They don’t want to be extinct. They think if there’s a purpose, somebody as wonderful as they is going to be preserved. I haven’t met many people worth preservation, you know, much less their hopes and fears. They have my sympathy but no more. I’ve been close to death a few times. You do start to think about being snuffed out like a candle but if you’re in pain or a more deadly subject, boredom, you can accept it pretty easily.
JB: Do you ever get bored? You seem like you never would, you have too much to say.
Gore Vidal: No. There are people who bore me and there are nations that do. But my political pulley test was administered at the great senator’s knee. He knew if his constituents knew how little regard he had for their wisdom, they would’ve been stunned. He was kindly old Senator Gore. He looked like God, you know, on a good day.
JB: How did he lose his sight?
Gore Vidal: Two separate accidents. One, he was throwing nails at a cow with another boy who hit his eye. On another occasion, when he was a page in the Mississippi Senate (for one of the cousins who was a state senator), he bought a birthday present for a boy whose family was also involved in the state senate. He bought him a gun, the trigger of which you pulled and a light came on. So he went to the party to give the boy the gun and the gun was jammed. He fixed it, put it down, and it went off right into his eye. And Thomas Pryor Gore, which was his name, he said, “I am blind.”
The family was quite rich. They always pretended they were dirt poor but they were well-to-do, and first they sent him to New Orleans where the only specialists in the eyes were and then they were getting ready to send him off to an asylum. And he said, “No, I’m not going. I’m going to go back to school.” And they said, “You can’t do your lessons, you can’t read. Your eyes are gone.” He said, “I’ll take my cousin Key Pittman (later senator from Nevada) to college with me in Tennessee, and he’ll read to me, and you’ll pay for it.” His father then said, “If that’s what you want.” So he was never a ward of the state. And then by the time he was nineteen he was the most famous orator for the Populist Party in the entire United States after William Jennings Bryan. Then Bryan faded away and my grandfather took his place. They were great men in those days. They took no shit from anybody.
DN: Speaking of great men, one of the torch bearers of humanism back in the middle of the twentieth century was John Dewey. Obviously, Dewey had a lot to say about religion, and one thing that he felt was important was that humanists use religious rhetoric. In other words, he liked the idea of God but Dewey’s idea of God was an ideal. He used God-language among other humanists with a wink and a nod, all knowing they weren’t talking about that God. I’m wondering if, with the benefit of hindsight, we can look back at that as a strategic error because it allowed religious rhetoric to seep into the political culture.
Gore Vidal: Well, if I were Dewey, I would not have allowed it. Just let them have that much and they’ll be sacrificing golden bulls.
DN: We’ve got “under God” in the pledge now. We’ve got “In God We Trust” as our national motto. It’s really hard to imagine getting God out of government.
Gore Vidal: I think you have to do it through negatives, the great master of which was the only Roman emperor I wholeheartedly admire, Tiberius. He was a brilliant politician, a brilliant administrator, a man of state. He was somebody who was meant to govern the Roman Empire. When Augustus died, or was murdered, he became emperor, as the succession was working then. And immediately the senate and the people of Rome sent him an overall mandate that to anything he proposed, as the Augustus living in the Palatine on the hill above the curia where they held their meetings, they would automatically concur and accept. He was already a semi-divinity in their eyes. That had started with the death of Augustus who had been deified.
I’ve been in his office in the Palatine. His entire office from which he governed the Roman Empire was smaller than this room. It had one biggish room for himself with a pretty big mirror, not a big window, and there were two or three little cubby holes for his secretaries and scribes. I used to haunt it to try and see what had occurred there. Sometimes a room will suggest what went on in somebody’s mind.
And I got to admire him more and more and then I found out what his response had been to the senate. He sent back a message because they were very upset that he didn’t respond immediately with a million thanks and he said, “I cannot accept this blanket acceptance of anything that might come from the Palatine Hill here. Suppose the emperor’s mad, suppose there has been a coup in the palace and somebody else is in charge and you don’t know about it. You still want the word of the principle to be automatic law?” And they sent back word, “Yes, Augustus. You are the law, all power is with you. Everything that you send us will be accepted and then made law.” Well, he sent it back with the same objections.
They went on and on for about three or four times and he was getting nowhere with the senate and they were getting above their station which he was quick to remind them. It would be his decision and his decision was no. After all, they lived through Caligula just before he came to the throne. Did they want that again? And they said, “we beg you, great Augustus,” and so on. He realized he was getting nowhere with them and he said, “I accept your folly but I can only make one obiter dicta. And that is how eager you are to be slaves.”
That to me is the United States today: eager for slavery.
DN: There’s certainly a tendency towards conformity and obedience as opposed to critical thinking and questioning authority.
Gore Vidal: You are understating the case exquisitely.
JB: Don’t you think there has to be a correlation between people’s willingness to accept government authority and divine authority?
Gore Vidal: The gun is the divinity here. He who has the gun has the crown.
JB: We humanists pay a lot of attention to opinion polls and religious surveys and trends. The fastest growing demographic in the country, religiously speaking, are people who don’t subscribe to any religion. They’re not all identifying as humanists but they’re not religious. If that group is growing, wouldn’t it follow that there would be more questioning of authority?
Gore Vidal: Well, you’ve got to proselytize. It’s your job. It’s in your lap. But they’ll invent a new god, you know. There are always those who are quite willing to fill the empty pews or fill the empty crosses.
DN: Part of the problem is the concentration of power in the corporate sector and the consumer orientation of American society that makes it very easy to pacify people. A little bit of television and some comfort food, and what’s to make one a radical? Humanism helps in that regard because it makes one mindful of the importance of not being complacent.
Gore Vidal: I think one of the problems is that, yes, we can press a button, we have troops, we have guns, we have revolution. We can get rid of Jesus and Muhammad, and we can get rid of everything. Then what? You’ll find somebody is sitting there ready to invoke one God, one nation. What are you? Are you not patriotic? You don’t believe America is a great nation? What I’m confounded by in my great old age is the stupidity of the American people. Nobody can put together a thought. They don’t know why anything happens.
DN: What do you attribute that to?
Gore Vidal: To the worst educational system that has ever been devised by a first-world country. I hope I’ve answered you at length.
DN: Are you troubled by secular non-progressives? Christopher Hitchens is probably one of the best-known atheists speaking on the subject of atheism and he also backs the right wing’s foreign policy.
Gore Vidal: I generally understand why people do what they do and I understand why he did what he did, which was to make a living. The rightwing paid him more, the left didn’t pay him a damn thing, and his mentor, Mr. Vidal, was not about to die.
DN: So you’ve talked to him about it?
Gore Vidal: Yes. I said, you ought to stop talking about American politics, you don’t know anything about it. We’re as strange to you as Atlantis so stop. You make a fool of yourself every time you generalize about “we Americans.” Everybody can see you’re a homemade Liverpool drunk. You could imagine that I do not pull ne punches as we say in French.
JB: In your letter accepting the honorary presidency of the AHA you quoted Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I think that humanists and atheists sometimes can fall prey to feeling as though they really do have the truth and the answers.
Gore Vidal: Well, that’s madness. I discourage it.
JB: The former Humanist editor used to say that our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It’s not always easy to do but you’ve managed to do that so well.
Gore Vidal: I suppose I’m a sadist but not yet a masochist.
JB: Did you ever meet George W. Bush?
Gore Vidal: Of course not. You must remember one thing about us humanists, we’re great snobs and we don’t meet the lower orders.
JB: Do you think the Bush years were the darkest in American history?
Gore Vidal: If there were any darker I’d get a tin cup and a big dog.
JB: So we can only improve then. Does anything give you hope for the future?
Gore Vidal: No. Well, one thing—I won’t be here. That will be a joy.
JB: Do you have any questions for us about the American Humanist Association and what you might like to see us do?
Gore Vidal: When are you going to raise an army?
DN: [laughing] We are raising our numbers if nothing else. The AHA’s membership is at an all-time high and climbing, especially with young people through Facebook, MySpace, and so on. Young people are really gravitating so there may be reason for hope after all. I’d like to think so. People are hungry for reason.
Gore Vidal: We’d like to think that we provide it for them as best we can.
DN: As we wind down I’d like to thank you once more on behalf of the AHA for being our honorary president. It is a great thing for us. Our mission is to expand humanism in American culture and certainly your being our honorary president will help us do that and help us build a demographic of humanists who are recognized and respected as an important part of society.
Gore Vidal: I will do the best that I can and if ever there was a moment for such a movement, it’s now. This is what the Jesus Christers like to say [assuming a grave tone]: “Well, if there’s ever a moment that we need prayer it’s today because the bombs are falling on our cities,” and so on. And that’s how they play their game. I don’t say that we need be as ignoble as they. But I think nobility requires, as does honesty, that we face where we are, what we are, and how close we are.