These transcripts of four interviews with the late man of letters offer some provocative volleys but cover the same ground too often and don’t show Vidal fully amplifying his ideas.
Nation contributor Wiener (History/Univ. of California, Irvine; How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America, 2012, etc.) promises that the book “offers Vidal in a more sustained mode of conversation: developing arguments, tracing connections between past and present, citing evidence. Of course he provides plenty of one-liners and zingers along the way.” The zingers have more staying power, whether he’s identifying John F. Kennedy (“a friend of mine,”) as “a flippant figure of no depth” and “a mistake as a president” or dismissing generations of the Bush clan as “the most negligible family in the country.” The two shorter and more recent (2007 and 2006) interviews that begin the book were public performances in Los Angeles, with questions from the audience as well. The earlier and more substantial ones are from a radio interview in 2000 and a 1988 print piece in Radical History Review. Much is made throughout of Vidal’s historical fiction, particularly Empire (1987), his once scandalous Myra Breckinridge (1968) and his best-known play, The Best Man (1960). His sympathetic interviewer never questions his subject’s assertions, whether he’s claiming that this country has “the worst educational system for the average citizen, for the non-rich, in the world” or charging that the culture in general and the New York Times in particular had it out for him following an early novel about gay life. He also believed that Franklin Roosevelt had advance warning of Pearl Harbor and that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks and could have stopped them.
Missing the voice and presence of a man who could be an outrageously entertaining speaker, these transcripts fail to match the depth of his writing, as well.