Novelist, essayist, polemicist, all-purpose gadfly and now lion in winter, Gore Vidal has just published a second volume of memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, in which he thinks back on his life in letters and politics. Vidal, 81, talked with TIME's Richard Lacayo about the marginalization of the novel, his love life, Johnny Carson, J.F.K.'s assassination and the last word in last words.
In your memoir you say that you're not a famous novelist--that no novelist is famous because novels are not discussed in public anymore. Has it got that bad?
There's no such thing anymore as a famous novelist. You can be a famous actor, a famous baseball player, a famous or an infamous politician. My point is not about me. My point is about the novel.
Writers were once a regular feature of late-night TV. Your memoir has an admiring chapter on Johnny Carson, whose show you appeared on frequently. What made Carson different?
He was very intelligent, very political and rather frustrated by the restrictions that had been placed on him [by the network]. So if he found somebody sympathetic politically, as he found me, you ended up helping him express what he meant--but which he could not say--because of NBC's all-sides-must-be-represented-at-all-times policy.
You've been called the last small-r republican--the last defender of an old ideal of the American republic. Has the U.S. evolved into an empire?
We've been one since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace [a short book from 2002], I stunned everybody by listing all of our military interventions in the past 200 years that were undertaken without declarations of war or even causes of war, starting in 1846 and the war against Mexico, which is the first moment the idea of empire took center stage in American affairs. As President [James] Polk said, "We've just got to have California!" Well, we got California--which the Mexicans are now quietly redeeming.
In your memoir you talk about your grandfather, Oklahoma Senator T.P. Gore, who was blind. What do you think you inherited from him?
What he said to me a thousand times as I was growing up and reading to him all the time: "The foundation of the United States is due process of law." I hear that thundering in my head every day of my life. And then when I see due process of law being thrown out the window ...
Now that the Democrats have regained Congress, what would you like to see happen first?
Call Dick Cheney for questioning about his role in why we are fighting in a place we don't belong in. I think that would seriously discipline--to indulge in powerful language here--the other warmongers and profiteers. Just grill him under oath.
You write about the death three years ago of your partner Howard Auster. You say that after a time, you never were intimate but shared everything else. Is that a formula for happiness you recommend?
Oh, that's just a description of ourselves. I don't make recommendations for anybody.
What do you think of gay marriage?
Since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why on earth would anybody want to imitate it?
Not long ago you packed up your home in Ravello, Italy. Why did you decide to settle in Los Angeles?