Friday, August 3, 2012

The United States of Amnesia

That's what Gore Vidal called this country when I interviewed him seven years ago. He was about to turn 80, and though he distrusted mass media as much as ever -- Vidal preferred to do interviews via fax, so he couldn't be misquoted and had copies of his replies -- he agreed to chat about a new play that was going to get a staged reading at Duke University: "On the March to the Sea."

It was a drama about a Southern opportunist (played by Charles Durning) who christened a palatial new home and sent his sons off to the Civil War; when Union troops commandeered his estate, the man had to choose between loyalty to his friends and the Confederacy or the preservation of his wealth and estate. (Michael Learned and Chris Noth co-starred.)

Vidal, who died this week, often wrote books about history, whether in the fifth century before Christ ("Creation") or the New Deal ("The Golden Age"). He was equally fascinated by politics; his grandfather was Oklahoma's first senator, his mother married Jacqueline Kennedy's stepfather -- Vidal and JFK were close friends -- and Vidal ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1960. The two interests dovetailed in this play about "our own Trojan War," as he called it. (His grandmother came from Charleston, so he was especially interested in Southern history.)

The title of this blog refers to his disgust and sadness at Americans' short attention span, feeble collective memory and unwillingness to confront ugly truths. (He'd have been cynically amused, though not surprised, by the recent North Carolina legislation forbidding anyone but government agencies to release scientific data about the rise in sea level.)

Vidal experienced a spate of popularity in the current election year with a Broadway revival of "The Best Man," a stinging attack on rabid right-wingers and feeble left-wing intellectuals during a political primary campaign. The show had been revived not long before he and I spoke; when I asked about it, he said, "The sad thing was that the same jokes got the same laughs after 40 years. It's still topical." Sometimes, even the most acidulous cynics don't want to be proven right.