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Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal
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Gore Vidal Interview (page: 2 / 8)

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  Gore Vidal

Were you a good student?

Gore Vidal Interview Photo
Gore Vidal: No. The schools hadn't learned then, and they still haven't learned. If I could have a second career, I would go into education. They teach nothing of interest to anybody. Talking of L.A., all these problems over in Van Nuys. That was Birmingham General Hospital where they have now got a high school, and the kids are not graduating, and they can't pass algebra, they can't do this, they can't do that. Well, it's partly the teachers are not much good, but it's partly there's no tradition of reading, there's no tradition of intelligence in the country. Everybody is pleased to be sort of dumb, and it is considered cheating if you learn anything. Well, this is a very bad atmosphere for the 21st Century. The United States is already on the ropes. We are behind in everything, including the skills of our schoolchildren. You have got to learn how to make it interesting.

I hated mathematics. My grandfather was a genius at math, even though he was a blind man. Every now and then he would think of my education, while I'm reading him The Congressional Record. "Trigonometry," he said, "is the study of triangles." And with that, my brain just turned off. I didn't care what it was the study of, just keep it away from me. I must say, in the course of a long life, I have never had an occasion to do any trigonometry at all outside of the classroom. So it didn't prove to be terribly useful. Why not go to useful subjects?

Two great subjects that are never taught, one is your body, general health. There are many old gentlemen who go to their grave not knowing where the liver is. They just don't know. They don't know what the heart really does, they can't figure it, it's all too complicated. Nobody will tell them. The other thing is money. They never tell you how to get a mortgage. At 12, I was perfectly willing to move out, several times -- from my mother's house, not my grandfather's. I would have moved out if I could have got a second mortgage or even a first mortgage, but I was not allowed that luxury, because I didn't know how to do it.

Start with things people are going to need, and then remember that...

The only thing interesting about the United States is our history, and start right off from the Revolution on, or even the Indian Wars. Do all that. It is wildly interesting, and it's the most unpopular subject among children. I think it's Purdue, once a year asks the graduating seniors all over the country in high schools, "Which subjects do you like the most?" And it is always packing or lunch. "And which do you most hate?" And it's always American history. Now you have to be a genius to make that uninteresting. You have to really have great gifts of boredom, beyond the norm available to most people. I have spent my life writing American history, feeling a bit guilty, because I often think, "It's hard work. Why am I doing this? The schools should have done it."

Why am I telling the country about Lincoln and Aaron Burr? It's sad, because if ever a country was off on two or three wrong courses, it's this one.

What motivated you when you were growing up?

Gore Vidal: Well, I wanted to go to the Senate like my grandfather. He was the major figure in my childhood. So politics. I might have gone by way of the law. The law fascinates me, and I have written quite a bit about the Constitution and constitutional law. It is endlessly interesting, particularly as it is being carefully screwed up now by "interested corporate parties." Try to get every syllable out clearly. That was my major motivation.

Besides Senator Gore, were there other people or events that influenced you growing up?

Gore Vidal: My father was a great influence. He was a real jock. He was an all-American football player, a quarterback at West Point, part of the great winning team of 1917. He was captain of the team. I was the mascot. They lost the game to Navy. Nobody's perfect. But his character was a great stimulus to me. Athletes who do everything easily -- and he got a silver medal for the decathlon at the Olympic games in Antwerp in 1924 -- great athletes are very serene. They have to be. I remember he said -- he wasn't talking to me because I was not interested in athletics -- but he was talking to somebody, and he said, "Well, never look back." In other words, if you've missed a shot at tennis, never think about it again, go right on to the next one. And this was terribly good advice about life's hazardous ways, so I took that seriously.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

What about books and films? What books or films influenced you, growing up?

Gore Vidal: I wrote a little book called Screening History, in which I go in great detail into the movies that affected me growing up. This was in the years of puberty, and so on. The Prince and the Pauper, based on Mark Twain's novel with the Mauch twins in it. All of the propaganda films I loved, because they were political. There were something like 8,000 British secret agents in Washington, all trying to get to know my grandfather; the Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn; even my mother, who had a great sort of salon in Washington. So all of these rather brilliant Brits were there to try to get us into the war on their side, because the Luftwaffe was bombing them to pieces, and France had surrendered.

I was living in the middle of history. The summer of '39, obviously before 1940, with a group of boys from St. Alban's, where I was in school -- one of them being the son of Hamilton Fish, who was the great leading isolationist in the country -- and we were first in France, and then we were in Mussolini's Rome, and then we were up in Chamberlain's England. I remember standing outside No. 10 Downing Street on the day that Chamberlain went to tell the House, "We shall be at war with Hitler." If you are in the middle of history -- and then we were on the last ship, the Athenia out of Liverpool -- there was a 50-50 chance that we would not make it safely to the other shore. So all of that wakes you up to the real world.

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This page last revised on Apr 04, 2011 09:00 EDT
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