Now here’s a man, many Americans may not have heard of. But there was a time when books by Gore Vidal were proudly displayed in Pakistan’s leading bookstores. The maestro had his own style, tone and thoughts. People read him because he was anti-establishment, outspoken and unafraid of authority. The few who knew him either adored or hated his guts. For over 60 years, Vidal critiqued politicians, presidents and judges in hundreds of his essays, novels and pamphlets. With time, Vidal faded into the twilight. Well, he has finally exited the earth at a ripe old age of 86. He died in Los Angeles.
It was the spring of 2003. At upper west side, overlooking New York’s Central Park, on a shiverish evening, fans of Gore Vidal stood in front of an imposing building, waiting for the doors to open. The most endearing thing about the crowd? It was an eclectic mix of men and women, almost all beyond their prime, yet with glimmer in the eye and sparkle in their step, they quickly filled up the hall, waiting like chattering school kids sitting on wooden benches around 18th century chandeliers igniting warmth and cheer. Too excited to sit still, I raced outside to ask the organisers if I could grab a ‘nanosecond’ with the great legend just for a photo-op. “Mr Vidal is not feeling well, he’ll leave immediately after his talk,” was the cold response I received.
The next best thing then, I consoled myself, was to buy his latest book Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta lying seductively on a table nearby, when suddenly a lone figure showed up — striking in appearance, sardonic in demeanour — somewhat tense and noirish. He threw a bored glance around, clenched his jowl and with his stick ambled towards an ancient elevator. Here was my moment to close in on him. I smiled and he returned a wry smile, I shoved the book for his signature and took his picture just in time before the elevator door shut me out.
Moments later “Bravo, Bravo,” the hall echoed with thunderous claps as he appeared on the stage, wearing an ink black polo neck (his hallmark), making his wavy mane of grey all the more dashing and his visage more brooding. He returned the applause with a nod, smiling and smirking alternatively. Newsweek had summed him best: “Vidal is a kind of contemporary Byron: patrician, major writer, glamour-boy, flouter of norms... role player in public events.”
Vidal’s opening salvo was characteristic of him: “Weep at what’s happening — the old Republic is a shadow of itself, it’s become the US of Amnesia,” he said in his guttural voice. “The despot (Bush) is firmly in the saddle because of the corrupt Supreme Court who allowed a terrible manipulation to take place (by voting in his favour), and we the people were deprived of our electoral right... America is no longer the ruler of her own soul and spirit.” A crescendo of claps rose.
Gore Vidal disdained journalists. Newspapers were his pet peeve.
“I don’t like to give my opinions as facts and that’s why I didn’t become a journalist,” he said archly when asked about 9/11. Instead, he told the audience that he spent his time connecting the dots daily by stridently scanning newspapers prior to 9/11. “My eyes have gone due to the close read I indulged in to come to the conclusion that America would be hit by terrorists.”
If terrorism is mentioned, can Pakistan be far behind? Gore Vidal cited a Guardian report on how Bush had planned attacking Afghanistan three months before 9/11. In July 2001, a group of interested parties met in a Berlin hotel to listen to a former State Department official, Lee Coldren. According to Vidal, Coldren told the Berlin gathering that Bush was disgusted with the Taliban and was considering military action. Among those present was a Pakistani diplomat Niaz Naik. “The chilling quality of this private warning was that it came, according to the Pakistani diplomat who provided the specific details of how Bush would succeed,” said Vidal amid a hushed audience. “This raises the possibility that Osama bin Laden was launching a pre-emptive strike in response to what he saw as US threats.” Gore Vidal continued with his theory that the Cheney-Bush junta had been warned about the 9/11 attack: “Mayday warnings came to Bush from President Putin, President Hosni Mubarik and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Warnings even as early as 1996, when a Pakistani terrorist Abdul Hakim Murad confessed to federal agents that he was learning to fly an aircraft in order to crash a plane into the CIA headquarters.”
Quoting Niaz Naik’s interview to BBC, Gore Vidal told us that it was Naik’s view that Washington would not drop its war plans on Afghanistan even if bin Laden was to be surrendered immediately by the Taliban. America for long, had wanted a pipeline built from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan — “from Krasnovodsk on the Caspian Sea to Karachi on the Indian Ocean coast.” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor “stole” her predecessor Sandy Berger’s plan to attack the “unlovely Osama” during the Clinton era. But now Ms Rice “denies” doing it, said Vidal. “While Sandy insists she stole his grand plan.” Americans, said Vidal, had been scared into cravenly believing that they had “many, many, many enemies” and were unable to sleep with “so much danger around”. Madeline Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, “wanted Gen. Powell to pick up fights with everyone — ‘what’s the point of having all this military and not using it?’ she would tell Powell. But the Gen. refused saying ‘his army were not toy soldiers.’”
What we heard from Vidal that night in New York was bone chilling. It was not long ago that New York was like a war zone. And here were we attentively listening to an intelligence authority, who had the common sense to meticulously connect the dots on why and how September 11 occurred. Pouring scorn on American media, Vidal frowned, “We have a pretty lousy press.” He then took a stab at newspapers that had ignored his comments on war with Afghanistan and Iraq. “The New York Times will not even cover what I had to say — they like to bury the truth and prefer silence.” Suddenly, the audience sprang to action and began to shout rapturously “Bravo! Bravo!” as if to second their contempt for the most influential newspaper in the world.
TV channels are no better. Once Aaron Brown, the then anchor at CNN “was brought to a full stop” by Gore Vidal when the latter was asked an inane question: “I don’t do 19th century Fox”, was Vidal’s retort, meaning that Fox News is two centuries behind! “Today, facts get turned into fiction,” therefore Vidal disliked appearing on TV. “I seem to be talking to the set!” he quipped. With lapidary dismissal of Fox News — the Bush administration’s mouthpiece — Vidal has a choice one liner for it: “Fox deserves to go — it’s too euphoric, it has no shelf life and cannot force its voice down our throats.”
Vidal did not spare Chris Matthews, MSNBC host of Hardball. Vidal met him during one of Matthews’ book signing events because “every TV star ends up writing a book!” “You don’t remember me?” asked Matthews, “You should have heard me in the 60’s when you came to Holy Cross.” Vidal chortled and smirked, “You were always ahead of the curve in fiction!”
The late Christopher Hitchens — another literary snob, (the Indophile who never missed an opportunity to beat up Pakistan) had “appointed himself my heir — he was a bright lad then — but now there’s a sea of change in him and I disown him as my heir,” pronounced the great master. Hitchens, as we know, ingratiated himself with Bush and supported the war. “Money is on the Right (Republican Party) side — if you need money and attention, take the example of our think-tank and the flotsam and jetsam of intellectual world.”
Goodbye Mr V!