By Andrew Gumbel
Gore Vidal has often treated writing as a blood sport, and it’s heartening to see he has lost none of his appetite for pursuing enemies, real or perceived, like a game hunter addicted to the sheer brutal entertainment of the chase.
From a personal point of view, of course, it’s a little less heartening when the target happens to be me.
His Truthdig article this week is one long torrent of invective against my professional integrity as a journalist, and against what he sees as my scurrilous motives when interviewing him on behalf of the new Spanish-language Vanity Fair magazine.
He accuses me of libeling him, but also manages to portray me, without any factual basis, as a tabloid hack who spreads “Republican-style lies,” who knows nothing about his political writing, who is malicious and confused, and on and on. One could wonder who exactly is libeling whom here, but that’s an argument I sincerely hope we don’t have to have.
Instead, let me describe what happened in the interview and why I felt compelled to report what was, in my experience, the single most shockingly racist line of the 2008 presidential election campaign.
Vidal may be surprised to hear it, but I am a fan of his political writing. I think he is a spectacular prose stylist whose contrarian, irascible intelligence and wit jump out of every page. He has been kind to me in the past, crediting my work on the corruptions of the American electoral system and hosting me several times at parties at his beautiful Hollywood Hills home.
So the first thing to say is that I approached the interview without even a glimmer of malice. In fact, quite the contrary.
The conversation turned quickly to politics. He professed a certain high-minded disinterest in the great primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which had just concluded, saying he preferred to reread Aristotle and contemplate the inevitable collapse of the Republic.
He talked a lot about class, and in particular the notion of societies cultivating an enduring ruling elite. He talked about George W. Bush as an embarrassment to that class, and about Harry Truman—an old punching bag of his—as someone who was not a member and had no business being in political leadership in the first place. In fact he called Truman a “helot,” the name for a slave in ancient Sparta.
He told me he was writing a play about the confrontation between Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island, where they met for one day in 1950 to discuss Korean War strategy. MacArthur, for him, was a towering figure—“Shogun, the Mikado … a character from Shakespeare”—next to Truman, the vulgar one-time haberdasher who “pretended to read a lot of history, but didn’t understand it.”
He then pulled out the text of MacArthur’s famously poetic farewell address to the cadets at West Point and read extensively from it. “This is the Emperor Augustus,” he said, visibly moved. “Nobody in America gives a speech like that anymore.”
Almost sheepishly, I asked him whether Obama’s rhetorical skills weren’t at least worth considering for comparison. And that was when he dropped his bombshell: “Slaves have a hard time making poetry, unless it’s got a beat.”
I was stunned. Flabbergasted. And deeply troubled about where this thought had come from. The piece I wrote for Vanity Fair ended up being a 3,500-word framing device to try to make sense of that one line. My argument, which I later condensed for The Huffington Post, was that it had something to do with Vidal’s vision of this country’s ruling elite, of who deserves to belong and who does not. To the extent that the line was racist—and I believe it most certainly was—racism is not the only explanation. He considers Obama, like Truman, as a helot, not a ruler.
I may be right or wrong about that, but the stubborn fact remains: He uttered the line. It was very deliberate, and its reference to Obama was crystal-clear. I reported it not because I wanted to tarnish his reputation or to make mischief but because there was no getting around it. I gave my interpretation; others are welcome to give theirs. And if Vidal stops denying that he said it, it might be instructive to hear his explanation too. I, for one, would be all ears.
Andrew Gumbel / Zuade Kaufman, Truthdig
Contested words: Andrew Gumbel (left) stands by his Vanity Fair (Spanish edition) profile of Gore Vidal.