I picked up a couple of London Times interviews with Gore Vidal this week and have to reproduce some of his comments here to show you what a really intelligent contrarian brings to a discussion. I’ll quote a few things from an earlier interview, from May 18th 2008 – while the presidential election campaign was just gathering steam.
Firstly he speaks about JFK and compares him to Barack Obama. The interviewer is ‘I’.
“I ask if he thinks Obama has a similar charisma to that of John F Kennedy, whom Vidal got to know because he was related to his wife, Jackie.
“I never believed in Jack’s charisma,” Vidal says shortly. JFK, he believes, was “one of our worst presidents”; Bobby, his brother, was “a phoney, a little Torquemada”; and their father, Joseph, was “a crook – should have been in jail”.
So much for Camelot. “But Jack had great charm,” he adds. “So has Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.”
Here, GV is a contrarian from insider knowledge – always the best source upon which to base an opinion. The trick is to find an inside source one can trust. I’m prepared to accept the opinions of the Kennedys on trust, because they are not unique to my reading.
The next excerpt which aligns with the educated opinion from outside the US, is contrarian in that it is the opposite of that expressed by most of the internal US commentators. I particularly like his take on advertising which backs up my own comments in a previous post of mine.
“However, in Vidal’s eyes, McCain is just a symptom of the real malaise affecting America today: the cynical subversion of the US constitution. “The Bush people”, he says, “have virtually got rid of Magna Carta and habeas corpus. In a normal republic I would probably have raised an army and overthrown them. It will take a hundred years to put it all back.”
By now he has worked himself up to a crisp fury: “Those neocons, lawyers, the big corporations – worse than that, extremists – want to get rid of the great power of oversight of the executive. See what they’ll try to do to Obama. They’re crooks. They’re just gangsters. They are the enemy of the United States. There’s no such thing as a war on terrorism. It’s idiotic. There are slogans. It’s advertising, which is the only art form we’ve invented and developed. It’s lies.”
Now to go to the later, September 30th 2009 article.
“Last year he famously switched allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama during the Democratic nomination process for president. Now, he reveals, he regrets his change of heart. How’s Obama doing? “Dreadfully. I was hopeful. He was the most intelligent person we’ve had in that position for a long time. But he’s inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters. He’s acting as if Afghanistan is the magic talisman: solve that and you solve terrorism.” America should leave Afghanistan, he says. “We’ve failed in every other aspect of our effort of conquering the Middle East or whatever you want to call it.” The “War on Terror” was “made up”, Vidal says. “The whole thing was PR, just like ‘weapons of mass destruction’.”
In this next paragraph, note that he speaks of ‘you foreigners’ because the interview is for a British newspaper. Also the reason for the fox hunting metaphor, which I must say doesn’t equate to kindly old men in most British eyes – so the contrarian can be as biased or out of touch as the rest of the world, but then Vidal is 83.
“Vidal originally became pro-Obama because he grew up in “a black city” (meaning Washington), as well as being impressed by Obama’s intelligence. “But he believes the generals. Even Bush knew the way to win a general was to give him another star. Obama believes the Republican Party is a party when in fact it’s a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists.”
One or two more excerpts – just to pull a few more chains.
“Today religious mania has infected the political bloodstream and America has become corrosively isolationist, he says. “Ask an American what they know about Sweden and they’d say ‘They live well but they’re all alcoholics’. In fact a Scandinavian system could have benefitted us many times over.” Instead, America has “no intellectual class” and is “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realize how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is. Benjamin Franklin said that the system would fail because of the corruption of the people and that happened under Bush.”
I guess the contrarian has to be prepared to support unpopular, even hated causes at times. ( I suspect the ‘bought’ below is a typo for brought.)
“Vidal became a supportive correspondent of Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168 people. The huge loss of life, indeed McVeigh’s act of mass murder, goes unmentioned by Vidal. “He was a true patriot, a Constitution man,” Vidal claims. “And I was torn, my grandfather [the Democrat Senator Thomas Gore] had bought Oklahoma into the Union.” McVeigh claimed he had done it as a protest against tyrannical government.”
The links to the articles are –
I think that paints a fair picture of a lifelong contrarian, even if Vidal is rather a unique case. It points up the contrast between holding contrarian views and expressing them. I’m sure, if you asked Gore Vidal, whether it is honest and useful to express contrary opinions so forcefully he would reply that such are the bones of a full and complete debate. Does he get away with it? Well, he is 83.