Gore Vidal, who died on July 31 at his home in the Hollywood Hills, will be remembered for his far-ranging accomplishments: his historical fiction, his campy acerbity, his Augustan literary style, his movies, his association with various celebrities. Playboy enjoyed a long and spirited relationship with Vidal, but we identify most with his radical politics, which were part of a deeply engrained tradition of American thought. He reminded us, time and again, of the many hypocrisies and injustices of the American way. Vidal rarely made concessions to his time, and he defied prevailing wisdom whenever it proved necessary, yet he recognized that—at least in a political sense—the battle had been lost. His plainspokenness, however, made us recognize what has been lost, and his death reminds us further.
Below, we have culled some of our favorite moments from Playboy’s conversations with Vidal: the June 1969 Playboy Interview, the December 1987 Playboy Interview and the December 1998 20 Questions. To read them in their entirety, visit i.playboy.com.
“Emotionally, I’m drawn to the New Left. I would certainly go to the barricades for any movement that wants to sweep away the Pentagon, Time magazine and frozen French fried potatoes. But what is to take its place? The New Left not only have no blueprint, they don’t want a blueprint. Let’s just see what happens, they say. Well, I can tell them what will happen: first anarchy, then dictatorship. They are rich in Tom Paines, but they have no Thomas Jefferson.”
“If it weren’t a prerequisite that you have millions of dollars to run for office, you might have something resembling democracy, which we have never had. The founding fathers were just as terrified of democracy as they were of monarchy—and curiously enough, we’re tending toward monarchy now, rather than toward democracy. As a result, half the people never vote at all, and it’s not because they’re stupid or apathetic. It’s because they think, What’s the point? There’s nothing to vote for. There’s only one political party, the property party, and it represents the owners of the country. It has two wings, the Democratic and the Republican, but it’s basically the same party, paid for by the same people. The candidates are all the same. If there are two parties in the United States, they are the 50 percent of the electorate that refuses to vote—I’m the leader of that party—and the 50 percent that does vote in presidential elections. Not voting is as much of an act as voting.”
“Beyond all the individual issues, the big one is, Do we want the state to be paternalistic and determine what we eat and drink, how we dress and so on? In my lifetime, we have moved away from a concept of the state as being something to run the post office. A convenience to protect persons and property. For what it’s worth, the founders didn’t think that the Federal Government should be in the business of legislating private morals. To underline the point, they gave us a Bill of Rights. Whether you have an abortion, what you put in your own body, with whom you have sex—these are not affairs of the state. A government does not exist to control the citizens. When it does, it is a tyranny, and must be fought. The tree of liberty, Jefferson warned us, must be refreshed with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”
“Tribal versus civilized is the village versus the city. To this day, the village is a reactionary and noncreative unit. Only in the city, where men and ideas are thrown together, do we get that interplay of ideas that makes it possible to write King Lear or to put a man on the moon. Naturally, the village has its virtues—good manners, a degree of kindness—and the city its demerits, too easily named; but man’s great advance in the past 2,000 years has been the work of those in cities. The irony, of course, is that culturally, in America, we are descended from the tribesmen, not the city men, and so it is hard for us to make a civilization—but we are beginning to.”
“If I were to be a serious politician, it was quite plain that I could not be a serious writer. Not only is there not enough energy for the two careers, they are incompatible. The writer is forever trying to say exactly what he means and the politician is forever trying to avoid saying what he means. I chose to be a novelist.”
“I don’t conform to any of the ideas of what an American writer should be. Either you’re academic or you’re popular. Either you are an upholder of the status quo or you are a romantic subversive. I don’t think I’m like anybody else on the scene, and I think that has caused disturbance. You’re not supposed to have as large an audience as I do if you’re any good. There is a true hatred of popularity, but if literature is too good for the people, what is it good for?”
“As for being remembered—I have little interest in the idea of posterity. Think of the thousands of years of Egyptian literature, entirely lost. What survives and what does not is simply a matter of chance, and so incalculable. All that matters to me is what I do this morning, and that I do it—and am here.”