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Gore Vidal Interview

National Book Award

June 3, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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  Gore Vidal

You did not exactly have a conventional childhood. What would you call it?

Gore Vidal: Well, it was conventional in the sense that I was at the Republican Convention that nominated Wendell Wilkie in 1940. I was at two other conventions, Democratic, since my family was Democrat. It was very conventional in that sense. If you mean it was like the boy next door, no.

How would you describe your childhood? What was it like growing up in Washington?

Gore Vidal: It was wonderful. Family life was fraught. It's never pleasant to have an alcoholic mother. I don't think many children enjoy that, but you survive it somehow.

I lived mostly with my grandparents, Senator and Mrs. Gore. He was blind from the age of ten, and I was precocious at reading, thanks to his brandishing his cane at me. So I would read to him. I was the only nine-year-old probably in the United States who understood bimetallism; he was on the Finance Committee of the Senate. I would often act as his page, take him onto the floor of the Senate, and they were giants in those days. Everybody thinks that about their childhood, but they really were. There was Huey Long, who was the funniest man that ever lived, and Borah of Idaho -- "the Lion of Idaho" -- they were all such performers! They were great actors. If you just studied them, it was like studying at the Old Vic or something. I really wanted to be a politician, but unfortunately, I was born a writer. When that happens, you have no choice in the matter.

That's a rarefied atmosphere for a ten-year-old.

Gore Vidal: Yes, it was, but there was one ten-year-old who certainly appreciated it.

I was fascinated by politics, and the Senate was the engine room of the country. Roosevelt was President during most of my childhood, still President when I went in the Army at 17, and he was the main political fact of the country, but the Senate, full of prima donnas, and each one saw himself as very much the equal of the President, if not his superior. So there was this tug of war going on between the executive and the legislative. We are getting a small, corrupt version of it (now), as everything we have today is small and corrupt, but we are seeing a bit of that, where the House of Representatives is telling the executive, "Go get lost. We are an equal power here, and you don't just break into one of our offices." Let's say I never had to take a civics course.

What were you like as a kid?

Gore Vidal: Mean. I was brought up by Senator Gore. I was more of a Gore, which was my mother's side, than a Vidal, who were rather pleasanter people from the Italian Alps.

My father was a great athlete and a great designer of airlines. He started three airlines and Roosevelt made him Director of Air Commerce, and while he was Director of Air Commerce, he got me to fly when I was ten years old. You can get the Pathé newsreel footage to add to this portrait of me at ten, getting into a plane and taking off at Bolling Field in Washington in 1936.

Gore Vidal Interview Photo
The Gores were Anglo-Irish and there was one point, back in the early 1700s, when there was something like eight Gores sitting in the rump parliament in Dublin, all in the British interests, of course. They were Protestant. Then they immigrated here, and there was one point I remember -- I was very young, but I remember it -- it was a big story in the papers. The Gores were in charge of every legislature in the South. The Gores were running Alabama, they were running Georgia, they were running this, they were running that. If you look at the career of cousin Albert Gore, you can see how he got to be Vice President really rather quickly. He is related to everybody down there, as I am, although I don't seem to be able to collect the votes that he does.

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