When considering left-leaning essayists in the United States of the past half century, three names stand out in my mind. Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Kopkind, and Gore Vidal. Sure, there are others, but for me, these are the troika I prefer. Kopkind has been gone for several years, while Cockburn and Vidal’s passage is considerably more recent. Kopkind’s milieu was also further to the left than the other two writers, primarily because of when he wrote the bulk of his material: the 1960s and 1970s; then the United States had a militant and fairly large left-inspired movement and culture. Cockburn certainly made a mark for himself, with his critiques of the mainstream media and his unrelenting anti-imperialist take on US foreign policy, especially when it came to Israel and the Middle East. Vidal was closer to the liberal side of leftism and closer to the power elites that represented that dying segment of the US polity.
However, it was Vidal whose wit was the sharpest. His tongue, when antagonized, dripped venom cloaked in a humor that left the target of his attacks clinging to mere shreds of dignity. This is what made him so much fun to listen to and read. Like anyone who was watching television during the Democratic Convention in 1968, I will never forget his interaction with the right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley’s attempts to bait Vidal with remarks concerning his sexuality were met barb for barb by Vidal, who finally let loose and called Buckley what he truly was: “a crypto-fascist.” This exchange took place in a year that Vidal had already made a mark on with the publication of his novel Myra Breckenridge.
That novel is one of the subjects discussed in a newly-released collection of three conversations between Vidal and Nation editor Jon Wiener. The book, simply titled I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics, includes three conversations with Vidal. They are from (in the order they appear in the text) 2007, 2006, 2000, and 1988. In addition to that novel, Wiener and Vidal also discuss Vidal’s septet of novels he called the Narratives of Empire. This collection of works includes the novels Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, DC, and The Golden Age. These novels not only chronicle the history of the United States, they do so in a manner that disrupts the conventional narrative and toss a number of national myths into the trash heap of history. Vidal refused to call these novels historical fiction because, as he remarks to Wiener, that term “seems to cancel itself out.” Instead, he preferred to consider them as reflections on history.
This short book is full of what I can only call “Vidalisms.” His sharp tongue is matched only by his perceptive abilities. His description of the beginnings of the Cold War in the first conversation that appears in these pages is the most concise and comprehensible description I have ever come upon. Simply stated, the linchpin of the two or three paragraphs Vidal speaks is his observation that after the atom bomb became viable, the United States made a conscious decision to “wage perpetual war for perpetual peace.” According to Vidal, this decision was made by a very few men and locked the United States into the war-based economy and culture we live in today. As he notes in another one of these conversations, the end of the Soviet enemy meant the creation of another, even more nebulous one: terrorism.
While Vidal’s observations may be standard currency among the US Left (such as it is) and other outside political forces like that antiwar libertarians and many anarchists, it is how he states those observations that always set him apart from the standard rhetoric found in those circles. This little book does not disappoint in that regard. In addition, because Vidal comes from the closest thing the United States has to aristocracy, his words tended to carry more weight in the media outlets that represent that aristocracy’s viewpoint. For those in the hoi polloi, this membership through blood and his connections to the US upper crust provided a gateway into how that class actually functions. Unlike the mainstream media, Gore Vidal never saw his job to be the protection of ruling class secrets. Instead, he saw his duty as being one that ripped those secrets away. These conversations about politics are a good introduction to Vidal fulfilling that described duty.