Weird Old Crackpot Novelist: To Me Hell Is the United States of Today


A few years ago, I appeared on the BBC World Service program "World Have Your Say" opposite some insufferably posh woman whose name was preceded by "Baroness," a series of unintelligible callers from Asia and the Maghreb, and the esteemed American author Gore Vidal. I sat alone in the Beeb's Washington studio wearing Arnold Drummond headphones, and, because of some technical error on the London end, I joined the program already well in progress. It was an error the producer kindly rectified by asking me to stay on for a segment about Jay-Z and his impact on the falling dollar (long, stupid story).

While I listened helplessly, unable to chime in, Vidal argued that it was presumptuous to say that a child couldn't consent to being photographed in sexual situations and mumbled something about the injustice of child pornography laws. No surprise, then, that earlier this year Vidal told The Atlantic this about Roman Polanski's thirteen-year-old victim: "Look am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she's being taken advantage of?"

In his BBC interview (and in The Atlantic), he wasn't being clever or funny or smart—qualities, I am told, that he once possessed. Both were embarrassing, almost incoherent, performances, either indicating that he had finally gone completely around the bend or that his "look at me, I'm outrageous" schtick couldn't keep up in this blogofied century. Via Arts and Letters Daily, I see that Christopher Hitchens, who Vidal once anointed his dauphin, has also noted the great novelist's descent into crackpottery:

For some years now, the old boy's stock-in-trade has been that of the last Roman: the stoic eminence who with unclouded eyes foresees the coming end of the noble republic. Such an act doesn't require a toga, but it does demand a bit of dignity. Vidal's phrasings sometimes used to have a certain rotundity and extravagance, but now he has descended straight to the cheap, and even to the counterfeit. What business does this patrician have in the gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?

Hitchens catalogs a good deal of Vidal's recent lunacies, though doesn't get to his uncontrollable Castrophilia. So allow me. He recently told a sycophantic British interviewer that the Cuban dictator "made a rather dour and rather sad country into a very happy one." On his Beatrice Webb tour of Cuba in 2007 he found that the health system was first rate, with all sorts of beeping and bleeping gizmos, and a country that was "pioneering in food and electronics." He is doubtless working on his next book of memoirs (he must be good for another) on a Cuban laptop. In a recent interview with The Independent, Vidal claims that the crimes committed by communist dictatorships happened only because the United States "goaded them" to murder. Oh, and he also tells the paper that his old pen pal Timothy McVeigh was "a noble boy."

Rereading this interview Vidal gave to Robert Scheer in 2007, I was struck by this passage:

Scheer: There was a picture of [Michael Moore] down there in Cuba, filming.  So maybe there'll be some popular exposure [to the health care system], too.

Vidal: It would be nice.  

Scheer: One interesting thing that got me about the Cuban medical system is—.  They have sent these people everywhere—to Africa…

Vidal: Yes.  Angola.

Scheer: Yeah, and everything.  These are people you'd think would be candidates to defect.  Because they've got this education.  Surprisingly, they seem to be quite loyal.

Of course, the Cubans were doing rather more in Angola than performing endoscopies on dyspeptic natives. But Scheer's point—that the selfless doctors of the revolution wouldn't dare defect—is simply untrue. In fact, a few more wonderfully educated medical professionals escaped to the United States via Venezuela just last week. And in 2009, a total of 200 doctors from a single Venezuelan mision defected to the United States. According to this report, approximately 2,000 Cuban doctors have arrived in Miami since 2006.

But let's end on a clever quote from the infinitely clever Gore Vidal, discussing his boundless erudition and his hatred of the United States: "I'm the least primitive American you're going to meet, and you have to be pretty primitive to believe in hell. To me hell is the United States of today."