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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- BLOCK A
AR: This week on Talk Asia, a literary icon revealed. We're with Gore Vidal.
Always outspoken and always controversial. Vidal's life has spanned the major shifts and upheavals in the United States, which he has faithfully chronicled in fiction and non-fiction.
Widely hailed as America's greatest man of letters, he remains a high-profile commentator with bitter opposition to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Born into politics as the member of a rich and powerful family, he joined the Navy at 17 before shocking the world by writing one of the first novels to include and openly gay character.
He's since written plays, essays and movies, also appearing in a number of films including the political satire, Bob Roberts. Vidal ran for office himself in 1960, calling for the recognition of Communist China, and later made a senate bid in 1982, which became the subject of a documentary. We meet in Hong Kong.
AR: You have been called many times a controversialist...What has been your favorite uproar, because goodness knows that you've been embroiled in quite a few?
GV: Not as many as I'm given credit for. I would say that since 1945, the United States, which was absolutely the "mandate of heaven," as Confucius would say, had fallen upon us. The world was ours. Down to the silly president that we now have, a dangerous president, we'd lost it all. So, my war against American imperialism is my largest... I can't say it the British way (Controversy). I was working to hard on that one word... You don't need the long "O." We have a short "O." (Scandal). Yes, scandal.
AR: Now, in Point to Point memoirs. You say that you were once a famous novelist. So, what are you now?
GV: Somebody who goes on television. I've said that the fact that people seldom read anymore, particularly in the great Republic to the east of us. Readers are few. All these literary prizes should go to the readers: "Nobel Prize for the best reader in Milwaukee." And you know, we must honor them because they are so few. Since literature means nothing to the general public and they don't know the names, really, of any of the writers, nor would they dream of reading them...
AR: You do seem to have this rather anti-establishment drive about you. I mean you've also suggested that the Bush administration let the attacks of September 11, 2001 happen. What did you base that on?
GV: (interrupts) No, I never said that. I am quoted as saying that to show that "I'm a crazy person who believes in conspiracy theories."
AR: Plenty of people do believe there is a conspiracy theory about that.
GV: Yes, they do, but I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I only go by facts that I know about. I've never been a journalist which means that I don't use opinions as facts. And this is unknown to journalists everywhere at any time; I don't do that at all. I'm a conspiracy analyst, because I know where it's coming from. What sort of general disquiet is out there in the population? I said there was plenty of information about 9-11 before it happened. And there is a presidential briefing that they finally came across after much activity to try to get their hands on it, this is Congress. Of course we'd been warned.
GV: But we had the most incompetent vicious government in the history of the United States. There is nothing compared to it. And I've written the history of the United States in something like 20 volumes. It's there and they are unique. They didn't let it happen, it happened because they're incompetent. And Bush was cleaning, brushing his ranch, on his awful piece of land that he's got in the middle of Texas, and he did nothing, because he does nothing. He's totally inactive and inopportune. And the stupidest man who has ever been the President of the United States. How can I tell that he's stupid? I don't know him. Listen to him try to talk English. Every word is unfamiliar to him. He stumbles over this one, he stumbles over that one. And you know, you think, "The poor thing should be put away and sent home...and kept under wraps." But big money wanted him for President so Halliburton could make a fortune.
GV: So, on one hand, Bush is knocking down Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the other hand, he's putting up billions of our tax money to rebuild them. And who does he go to? He goes to Halliburton, Vice-president Cheney's company.
AR: You've also had some infamous friends, including the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, with whom you corresponded. What was he like? And why did you decide to be in touch with this person who had done such terrible things?
GV: Well, he got in touch with me. I had never met him. He had written a couple of pieces that were published after he was arrested and condemned to death. He was on death row in Taraho, Indiana. And I had written a piece about him because I understood exactly why he did what he did: He declared war on the Federal Government. He got every declaration known to man in the Gulf War; he was in the infantry, a great rifleman... got the Silver Star, etcetera, and etcetera. A model soldier. And a very bright guy, had he been born in less humble circumstances, he would have gone to law school and would now be a judge somewhere.
GV: So he read something I had written, in which I had mentioned his blowing up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And I said that he had an exaggerated sense of justice. He had been at Waco when the Federal Government of the United States called out the Army. And he was so furious, the next thing he did, allegedly, he built a bomb. And so he was condemned to death and on death row when he started to write me letters. And I was more and more impressed by him. And I said that your expression of your anger at the Federal Government was somewhat exaggerated. It was an understatement. I don't think you necessarily should have blown up innocent people... If you had blown up an invading army of US people, you'd have a stronger case than you do now.
AR: The conservative author and journalist, William F. Buckley Jr., once famously called you a "queer" during a live television debate. Tell us about that episode.
GV: Well, I mean I won the debates, there was no question of that. They took polls, it was ABC Television... And because I'm a writer, people think that I'm this poor little fragile thing. I'm not poor and fragile. I was born in the cadet hospital at West Point, the American military academy. My father was the most famous football player in the United States. And anybody who insults me is going to get it right back. Never been insulted to my face... Go ahead, try it. Just try it!
AR: I can't. I like you.
GV: (raises cane) I have my stick (laughs).
AR: (laughs) Yes, never insult a man with a stick (Never). Your 1948 work, The City and the Pillar, was certainly considered the first openly gay American novel, and it really outed you to the public. Did you have any idea of the sort of furor that it would cause?
GV: Oh sure, I know my people. I had been for three years in the American army in the Pacific, up north in the Lucian Islands. Of course I knew. And I knew that the United States was still a peasant country. Most of the people had agrarian values, to put it politely, so as to not disturb anybody's feelings, and we were sort of dumb, it was a dumb country. And we were outside of civilization. The word of gay has never used by me until this very moment, and I didn't regard those people as being something from outer space, which was the habit then, by them, and also by their critics. So, you know, I sold a million copies and it caused much distress at the New York Times, which I have returned in spades .The empire is my target.
AR: Mr. Vidal, it is hard to believe that anybody has a list of contacts quite like yours over the years. If you will, give us a few memories about, for example, JFK and Jackie Kennedy.
GV: Jack was there in my life because Jackie and I had the same stepfather. And we became friends after that. Then, she married Jack and I was thinking of politics back then too. And, he was the greatest gossip I have ever known. You'd name somebody, and he could tell you what country they were in at the moment and whose bed they were in at that moment. He was that dedicated to gossip, which are the beginnings of a good politician too. He knew about everybody.
GV: Enormous charm, great wit... And I was sitting with them, there is a picture of me in one of these books. And Jack is talking into my right ear because Jackie has dragged us off to a horse show, which he hated, and I hated. And I said, "How easy would it be to just shoot you, just sitting here? But they'd probably miss and get me." "No great loss." (laughs) No, he was fun, and that's what I most miss about our misadventure in Dallas. As President, I don't think he was much, no. Begins his regime by invading Cuba and losing, ends with a missile crisis which could have blown us all up. These are not to be commended, but he was an enchanting figure. And Jackie had her black sense. In fact, the one thing we had in common was the same kind of humor, which was pretty harsh.
AR: Mr. Vidal, as you were saying earlier, your father was an all-American football quarterback. He also served in the then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's government. Your mother was sadly an alcoholic. What kind of childhood did you have?
GV: Well, I lived mostly with my grandparents, my mother's father and mother. And the legendary Senator Gore, who invented the state of Oklahoma in 1907 and it was their first senator for 30 years. Inventions like Oklahoma shows a kind of wit which runs in our sort of family... I mean, who else other than a wit would have thought up Oklahoma for God's sake (Anjali laughs). And he was an atheist and they never found out, it was a part of the Bible belt; it was down there, salt of the earth, salt of the earth, those people. But, I loved the disparity. He was blind from the age of 10, so from the age of 10, I was reading to him. From the congressional record, from American history, poetry, he was very good, he was extraordinary, he was my education... I never went to college. I enlisted in the army when I was 17 and by the time I had got out, I had served some time in the hospital with a frozen leg. And in the hospital, I wrote my first novel and here I am.
AR: Was it what you would have described as a happy childhood?
GV: Yeah, when I was with my grandparents, any meeting with my mother was awful; I mean drunks are not much fun to be around. And she really was. And my father told me once when he was still married to her, he hated her. And I inherited his loathing. He was on the cover of TIME Magazine because he was the minister of aviation for Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was driving home from the ministry and he saw a kiosk selling magazines and there was TIME Magazine, his face was on the cover. So he went over and bought it, took it home. He and my mother weren't talking then. And he had it, and he said, "Look at this." And she threw it in his face with such rage and malevolence. Then, when I was on the cover of TIME 40 years later, she wrote them a long letter denouncing them. (Your own mother?) My own mother, yes. They printed it with a funny headline: "A Mother's Love," you know.
And she rang me up one day, asking for money, and I said not only, "I'm never going to see you again," I said, "Never bother me again." And 20 years later when she died, I felt, well, end of the stormy voyage... There is no law that you must love your parents, particularly if they are unloving.
AR: So Mr. Vidal, it's been a while since you were last in Hong Kong. Is anything still the same?
GV: Well, The Peak, where we are right now, brings back memories from 20 years ago when I first, at that time, last visited the mountain here. And it's sort of nice to see a bit of pure nature in an urban setting.
AR: What are some of the fondest memories that you've got of Hong Kong?
GV: Well, very interesting, at the time of the Vietnam War, it was full of spies from every country (Anjali laughs, "Really?") We were just taking about John Lucary who has been around here too. It was very interesting to get a feel of the place. Who's where and who's spying on whom. And then we would go onto Bangkok for part of the winter and then sometimes up to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand. And it was a lovely world and it was a very interesting group of people from outside who lived there.
AR: Is this one of the best parts of your job, you know, getting to travel the world... What is it that really, really strikes you about your profession? Is it the travel, the money, the adulation, or is it just the process of writing itself?
GV: Well, I think it is process of writing, otherwise if you didn't like it, you couldn't do it. This part is sometimes hard work, and I do that because of my interest in politics. So, I have a couple of lives going.
AR: Yeah, one of the other things that I was particularly interested in is that you've also been able to really keep up with the times; you've voiced yourself on The Simpsons, you've appeared on Ali G even though he thought you were Vidal Sassoon. How important is it to be able to laugh at yourself?
GV: (interrupts) That was his joke, that was his joke.
I got Ali G in about 5 minutes after he started in. And I found him wonderfully funny. And so, he enticed me into trying to top his jokes, which I tried to do, and I love Borat, it's an extraordinary film. We need more of that kind of humor or we don't get any of it.
AR: But when you think of it now, and obviously you've been very vocal of them, the state of the U.S., and looking at all the people who are in the Borat movie, and they're now suing him.
GV: (laughs) Well, we may not have much humor. But we certainly can afford good litigation!
AR: You've made a great career for yourself over the years. But, who knows if it would have been as important as it is, if you had not riled people as much. Are you ever going to stop?
GV: I didn't know that I did. I've had hard targets in my lifetime, I've taken on general superstitions, but that's what writers do! So I certainly, wouldn't have changed my modus vivendi one bit.
AR: What else is there left for you to do?
GV: Well, hover over my funeral, which isn't going to take place. I'm going to be cremated; my ashes will go into Rockcreek Cemetery. Pilgrims, just remember this, Rockcreek Cemetery, Washington D.C., is the most beautiful spot on the East Coast of the United States. There are 18th century trees growing there, earlier trees, and all the early founders of that area, including the Gore family, my mother's family. I mean I'm buried in the center of a lot of Gores. You see a lot of tombstones from 17-something to this and that. And my friend Howard Austin is there and we share a plot, and I'll be there, and I'll be looking forward to seeing him.
AR: A perfect place to end it there... Thank you very much indeed for your time today.
GV: And we'll be back.