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Lloyd Evans

Gore Vidal at Intelligence Squared

Lloyd Evans reports on the latest Spectator / Intelligence Squared event<br type="_moz" />

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Lloyd Evans reports on the latest Spectator / Intelligence Squared event

No debate this month at Intelligence Squared. Instead Gore Vidal is interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. The 800-strong crowd start to applaud even before Vidal reaches the rostrum. White-haired, frail and wheelchair-bound, he is modestly dressed in a dark suit but he exudes a dangerous alertness and grins hungrily as the questions begin.

Bragg moves, scalpel-like, to the meatiest issue of the day. ‘Are you surprised by Obama’s success? Because you thought Hillary would win.’ ‘I wanted her to win,’ Vidal says, subtly re-aligning the question like a chess grand-master. He tells an anecdote about Hillary’s early campaign. She identified a group of voters, ‘white middle-aged men of property’, who consistently refused to support her. After several months she discovered the problem. ‘I remind them of their first wife.’

Vidal ascribes Obama’s success to ‘the Republic’s unfinished business – slavery,’ and he foresees an Obama presidency as a ‘general expiation.’  Yet he has no relish for the contest. ‘I’ve never seen an uglier election.’ Whispering campaigns have labelled Obama ‘an apostate’, a coded message intended to persuade voters that he converted to Christianity from Islam. Vidal recalls similar dirty tricks from 2004 when the Bush campaign seemed to take a lead from Machievelli. ‘Find your opponent’s strong point. And strike them there.’ The decorated war hero John Kerry was smeared as a coward. ‘This from a president who dared not join the boy scouts.’ His derision for Bush is intense but leavened with mockery. ‘Bush keeps telling us he’s a wartime president and he claims wartime powers so that he can subvert the constitution,’ – ironic pause – ‘a document he hasn’t read.’

When Bragg asks if John McCain will prove a tough opponent, Vidal slips into a faultless Mr McGoo impersonation. ‘Well, George,’ he quails in a pipsqueak southern accent, ‘ah don’t know what’s happening here.’ This skit seems peculiarly crushing. For all his gravitas and sophisticated formality, Vidal has a crowd-pleasing nightclub quality to him. He could storm it at the Comedy Store.

They turn to political theory. ‘After years of pretending I’d read all of Aristotle, I finally did. And in the Politics Aristotle reviews every democracy there is, trying to figure out why they all failed. It’s brilliant stuff. You can’t read it unmoved because it’s our life too.’ Enthused by this grand tone, Bragg presses for more. ‘What constitutes the good life?’ Vidal seems to sense a platitude lurking and cunningly sidesteps the question. ‘The good life is not thinking about it. That’s a mistake. It’s not a formula that you can attach to yourself.’

The anecdotes and one-liners are faultlessly performed but they bear the polish of many decades. What’s amazing is that he’s even better at improvising and when Bragg opens the debate to the floor the questions pour in at random. Vidal is inexhaustible and can respond wittily to any subject under the sun.

The first questioner alludes to his recent move from Ravello to Los Angeles and asks, ‘What is the best view in the world?’ ‘I guess I’m not looking at it.’ Everyone laughs but Vidal isn’t dismissing the questioner but disparaging LA’s smoggy vistas. A woman asks about education. ‘Have standards fallen in America and England?’ ‘I’ve never been educated in England,’ he smiles, ‘except inadvertently.’ Invited to ‘share his reaction’ to the death of William F Buckley he shrugs, ‘He’s not going to like hell.’ The next question, ‘Where do you find hope and joy?’ puzzles him. ‘Is the aim of life joy? I thought utility was the aim. You never get tired of trying to be useful because you never really succeed.’ This is vintage Vidal. His ability to extemporise lapidary remarks immediately impresses everyone in the room – except himself.

More questions. ‘Why has Al Gore been so silent in this election?’ ‘Maybe he felt he had nothing to add. He saved the planet once. Two Nobels would be greedy.’ Was he surprised that Tony Blair become so enamoured of Bush? ‘It’s for you to tell me. I don’t know what hormonal ripplings there were.’ His enunciation of ‘ripplings’ is pointedly erotic. Blair, he says, had bad case of ‘Churchill envy’, and this leads him to an analysis of Churchill’s relationship with FDR. He likens the latter to the first Roman emperor. ‘He thought he was Augustus. The world is mine!’ and he set about dismantling what remained of Europe’s empires.

To end the interview there’s another Big Question. ‘Is there an afterlife?’ Short pause. ‘There is silence at the end. And good luck.’ With that, Bragg offers his thanks and we stand to applaud. Most of us have never seen anything quite so graceful and potent – and strange – as Gore Vidal. Coiled in his wheelchair he glides into the night. A fabulous talking serpent that bites with its tongue.