Camera Rolls: 313:40-44
Sound Rolls: 313:21-23
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Gore Vidal , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 21, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
I suppose I'll locate myself in history. I was born in 1925 at the West Point Military Academy. My father was a West Pointer, was the first instructor in aeronautics, and he was married to the daughter of Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, who had invented the state of Oklahoma some years earlier and was still in the Senate. He was the blind Senator. He was blind from the age of ten. A very colorful figure. He was the leading Populist, which meant a Democrat who favored Franklin Roosevelt at the beginning, and by 1936 had totally gone against Roosevelt and the New Deal. My father had left West Point when I was one year old, and gone to live with his in-laws, Senator and Mrs. Gore, in Rock Creek Park where I was brought up. Now, my first memories are not only of the Depression-people in the streets selling apples, but my most vivid memory was the year before, in fact, the year Roosevelt was elected—the summer of 1932. The Bonus Army marched on Washington. These were veterans of the First World War who were suffering from the Depression. They came by the thousands. They converged upon the city and they said, "We want to be paid bonuses for what we did in the First War." The government under Herbert Hoover was not about to do much of anything for anybody, but everyone was terrified.
Senator Gore, my grandfather, didn't believe in giving anybody anything, so he was opposed to the bonus. And my first memory was in the summer of '32. I went with my grandfather from his house in Rock Creek Park—he had a big, long, black Packard car and a driver called Davis—and I sat in the back of the car. As we drove down Pennsylvania Avenue on both sides were the Bonus Army. Now I thought at six or seven that they were skeletons, like those skeletons you see at Halloween. And I realized that they were not from charnel houses, but they were from poor houses. As we approached the Senate side of the Capitol they recognized Senator Gore, a highly recognizable man as the stock footage will presently show you, and they began to stone the car. And from that moment on, I knew that it could happen here and that one day we might indeed have a revolution, and it would be rich against poor.
** Now comes the election of Franklin Roosevelt. No one expected too much of him. He was a charming figure, rather wiley. He ran on the slogan that he would balance the budget. He made that speech in Philadelphia. Four years later when he was up for re-election he turned to Judge Sam Rosenman, his speech writer, and he said, "I've got to go back to Philadelphia. What do I say? The last thing I said there I was going to balance the budget." Judge Rosenman said, "Mr. President, deny that you have ever been in Philadelphia." In any case, he did not balance the budget, but he saved the Republic. He did so with a series of improvisations. There was no New Deal. There was just simply constant movement. An example of it: he made my father, Gene Vidal, who had just....he left West Point, started the first transcontinental airline called TAT, which later became TWA, which as of the moment that I am addressing you still exists, but may not....At thirty-eight my father became director of Air Commerce because Roosevelt wanted to have a Minister of Aviation, which every foreign country had, and my father was an excellent choice. My father was also put in by Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, who were his friends and co-workers in civil aviation. It's a typical example of the way that Roosevelt worked. He wanted....at one point he was angry at the airlines, and the airlines did airmail. They flew the mail. Roosevelt has great grudges, so he decided that he would not let the airlines bid for it. It'd been very corrupt under Herbert Hoover, so he didn't want corruption. He said, "The Army Air Force will fly the mail." My father said, "Mr. President, they aren't capable of flying the mail, the military pilots. I know, I am a military pilot." "Nonsense, they'll fly the mail." Well, something like twenty-two boys were killed, and Roosevelt—my father was called over to the White House. Roosevelt said, "Well, Vidal, we have a problem." My father said, "I love that 'we'" since it was over his dead body, but you always took the blame for the president. So, they quickly improvised. Roosevelt was never— unlike Hoover
** who was paralyzed in office, he couldn't think of anything to do— Roosevelt would try anything.
** So suddenly having flown the mail, made a big mess, he just does a complete reversal, and now the airlines are able to bid again as they've always bid and things were all right. Meanwhile Charles A. Lindbergh attacked Roosevelt as "The Murderer" of the army pilots beginning a life-long feud between Lindbergh and Roosevelt which culminated at the time of the Second World War. The feelings in Washington I saw—I was a very political child—I saw the New Deal from that of the house in which I lived, the house of Senator Gore, who with each passing month detested the president more and more. He saw a dictatorship coming. And I saw through the eyes of my father, who was apolitical but quite enjoyed the President's improvisations. My father did not enjoy, being a good West Pointer, the president's lying. He said, "Roosevelt lies even when there's no reason to tell a lie. He cannot tell the truth." But that is a political, how shall I say, trait which civilians often find difficult to deal with, but politicians lie in the same way that birds sing. So in the long run you have to watch what they do. The big crunch with Senator Gore and the right-wing Democratic Senators came over the gold standard. My grandfather had been a silver Senator, School of William Jennings Bryan. In fact my grandfather knew Woodrow Wilson had run the Senate. Now suddenly...
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—as if it were yesterday, the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt. We went to Willards Hotel. We old Washingtonians say Willards. I don't know why we do, but we do. I guess we're two brothers. And we rented—people were renting suites at Willards to watch the inaugural parade, and I remember a very odd thing, which was they had a kind of sound system from the Capitol connected throughout the town really, down Pennsylvania Avenue..."And we have nothing to fear but fear itself" was all out of sync. So one would be just behind the other. "We have nothing...to fear..but fear itself." It was the strangest, most surreal thing that I have ever heard in my life, this voice all around us, and all out of sync. We rather thought the administration might very well be like that. It began in chaos. Roosevelt was then faced with, as you know, a great banking crisis. He shut down the banks, gave us a bank holiday. "Nothing to fear but fear itself" was a stroke of psychological genius, because everybody was scared. Where Mr. Roosevelt was perhaps slightly mendacious was that we had a lot to fear, like a totally collapsed economic system, and what was it, thirty-five percent unemployment. It was a dire time. My grandfather began to fall out with him. Senator Gore had written the only Socialist constitution of any of the states, believe it or not. The Constitution of the state of Oklahoma was a Socialist document, nationalized the railroads, which Senator Gore wrote. With the passage of time he got more and more conservative and more and more reactionary. Like so many of the old Populists he was into every "Funny Money" scheme you could ever think of. I mean, money to him...they were constantly thinking of new means of making money, whether it was William Jennings Bryan and silver, monetizing silver, this or that. So my grandfather ended up as the Chairman, I think, of the Banking Committee, Banking and Currency. Well, I can still remember my grandfather's description of being called to the White House with a number of members of the committee, among them Carter Glass, the Senator from Virginia, later Secretary of the Treasury. About a half dozen of them were called in, and Roosevelt sat at the head of the table. My grandfather being blind, of course, couldn't see the expressions on the faces, but Carter Glass told him later what had happened. Roosevelt had decided to take us off the gold standard, which meant that there was nothing backing American currency except the government, and it may or may not be redeemable in gold, silver, or lead.
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So, secretly, as was his want, President Roosevelt had come to the conclusion that we should go off the gold standard. Now, the Western senators, particularly the old Populists, they were always worried about money being worthless, particularly those—my grandfather, the senator from Oklahoma, was from Mississippi, and he was brought up in Reconstruction, when it was not unlike Weimar Germany. The currency was worth nothing. Nobody had any money. Everybody was in hock to the Eastern banks. The soundness of currency to poor people, and particularly to farmers, was all-important. So that was really his background, plus the fact that he had written the Constitution of the state of Oklahoma, which was the only Socialist constitution of what are now fifty states. Nationalized the railroads. In one way he was very "to the left," farther to the left than Roosevelt. But he was interested in the Party of the People, and he didn't much care for Roosevelt's class, which were the Eastern Bankers and New York City. So Senator Gore and Carter Glass, the Senator from Virginia, who was also an expert on banking and currency, and four or five other members of the Banking Committee, leadership of the Senate, were called in by Roosevelt, who had decided to take the country off the gold standard. Now my grandfather being blind was not able to follow the nuance of presidential expressions during this meeting. So Roosevelt made a little pitch to the Senators, what he was going to do, and then he went around the room. He was at the head of the table at one end. My grandfather, as chairman, was head of the other. So they went around, "Mr. President, that's just a wonderful idea." "My heavens, took the words out of my mouth, Mr. President, you know." The Senate was already getting craven, then. And then he finally said, "Well Tom." Now, no one ever called Senator Gore by his first name. My grandmother called him Mr. Gore. I don't know what they said to each other in bed, but he was always Mr. Gore. He was a frosty, a very impressive old man. And said, "Well Tom, what do you think?" I guess grandfather ground his false dentures and said, "Well, Mr. President, it's difficult for me to know what to feel, as what you are proposing is highway robbery. People have taken our currency in good faith, thinking it was issued in good faith and based upon gold, and now you say it's to be based upon nothing at all. So you have, in effect, taken the gold value for yourself from the currency, and the currency theoretically is worthless." Carter Glass told my grandfather later that the president went ashen during this, said absolutely nothing to my grandfather, shut down the meeting, and from that moment it was war between Senator Gore and President Roosevelt. My grandfather was up for re-election in '36. Roosevelt set out to purge him in favor of someone called Josh Lee, and my grandfather was defeated in the primary after thirty years. To which he said, "All is lost, including honor." But he represented the old Senate, and the old—you see, the original Democratic Party was in effect the Bryan Party, the Party of the People, in uneasy alliance with Tammany and the big city machines out of which Roosevelt had come. You remember the "Happy Warrior" that Roosevelt had termed Al Smith, the first Catholic to become a presidential candidate. So Roosevelt was this uneasy alliance trying to get along with these Southern Senators whom he hated, like my grandfather, and Tammany Hall whom he disdained. So when we talk about the President's mendacity—it was Roosevelt's inability to tell the truth—well, he couldn't tell the truth. If he told the truth over here he'd offend them over there. So he had an extraordinary habit of filibuster. If you came to see him and he didn't want to talk to you, he'd start in right away, "I had the most interesting experience this morning, I must tell you." By the time your five minutes was up he hadn't stopped talking. "Wonderful to see you. Stay in touch." You'd go out with nothing at all granted and you hadn't said a word to him that you wanted to say. He was a master politician. I would say that, he did save the country from '33 to '36. By then he was a prewar president, then he was a war president. He said, "Dr. New Deal has given way to Dr. Win the War." And he rather loved being a war-time dictator. My grandfather's take on him was always that every president wants to be a dictator. It is the nature of power. You don't accept limited powers unless you're a very limited man or woman. Once you're there in a great crisis, great presidents are defined by great crises. The greatest crisis, of course, that can befall a country is war. That is why so many presidents maneuver the country into wars, or gaze benignly upon the western course of empire, like Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt, distant cousin of Franklin Roosevelt, said that, "War is the achievement of man. It is only through war that we define ourselves..." I'm paraphrasing. "It is only through war that you know the quality of a civilization." I once asked his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth, great friend of mine, very witty woman—I said, "What on Earth was all that Jingo stuff about?" Oh, she said, "They all talked like that then. It's not serious." I said, "Tell that to the Filipinos they slaughtered," you know, in westward our course of empire. One interesting thing about Roosevelt, I think he intended to get us into the Second War as soon as possible for his usual devious mix. And this goes back, I'd say as early as '35, '36 when Hitler was rising, and the Brits already were sending out little SOS distress codes to Washington. "Help us, help us!" He had a double game, and I've never seen anyone, no historian has ever really, that I know of, I haven't read all the histories of that time, but I know from having been there, he was very anti-British. Now this is very curious. He's an upstate, Duchess County gentleman, seeming to be very much in the British model, but he's really Dutch, and with a great resentment to the British empire. So part of his pushing the country into the Second War on the side of England and the Allies, which was immediately aborted by the Japanese inspiration to blow us up in Pearl Harbor, but his whole pressure was yes, he thought Hitler was bad news and Hitler should be defeated. He wanted to put an end to colonialism. He wanted to break up the British empire, and the Dutch empire, and the French colonial empire. And who would pick up the pieces? We would. Now this was the imperial Roosevelt that is not much dealt with, and you had to be there sort of at the time knowing what the discussions that were going on, and the real hostility to England, and at the same time a sort of love-hate relationship. And of course a desire not to let them fall, not to let Hitler win. But much more important, I mean Roosevelt spent more time muttering away to Churchill about what to do about India than they did talking about opening up the Normandy landings. So in a sense he was, Franklin Roosevelt from the beginning really was going to continue the imperial mission of his cousin Theodore, who was in turn the uncle of his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, and the world was going to be American. And so he gave it to us, and from 1945-1950, that was the length of our world empire. It only lasted five years, from his death to the Korean War. The world was ours, and he and Cousin Theodore would have been very happy at this hegemony of the Earth. Then things fell apart.
Can I ask you some questions?
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Well, the National Recovery Act, the NRA with that Blue Eagle. All the kids loved it, because you were given these things that you could then stick on windows and make a great mess with the NRA. And the head of it, Hugh, what was his name...large heavy—
Oh, yes. And the head of it of course, was a huge ex-journalist called Hugh Johnson, very colorful figure. And it was really to get people to come together economically, take certain as it were to shade capitalism. And of course it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which then brought on in '36 Roosevelt's, or just before '36, his desire to purge the Supreme Court, by the which time Senators like my Grandfather were in a total rage at him, that he was now trying to destroy the balance of the constitution. One of the—
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Well of all the improvisations, certainly, of the First Hundred Days and the first year or two the most vivid were the CCC, getting young men out of work and sending them around the country to work in the timber lands, to work outdoors, to feed them, give them money. Practically every public building in the United States worthwhile in the small towns and cities, the local post office, always made out of good American granite. Roosevelt built practically every post office in the country. This was Keynesianism, even though Roosevelt never understood Maynard Keynes and Maynard Keynes never understood Roosevelt. They had a terrible meeting at which neither one understood what the other one was talking about. Roosevelt was not an economist, but he was a great improviser. As he thought these things up, he had a good brain trust. He took in a lot of bright young people, and he disdained the conventional wisdom, and hence was called an enemy of his class. Well, these poor idiots on Wall Street didn't realize that Roosevelt had saved the United States, and had saved his class, as we were in danger of a lot of turbulence. We could have had a left-wing dictator. Huey Long could have strode, or stridden, out of Louisiana, every man a king. Roosevelt was very frightened of Huey Long and what this thing meant. So in an orderly way he was improvising, and it was a rather exciting time. Now, his great gift was something that nobody knew, and I don't think Roosevelt knew it either. Radio had just come into its own, and he turned out to be a superb radio performer. All the other politicians thought he was cheating, you know, since he was good at radio he ought not to use it. Or he ought to be as bad as they were. They would talk "Boom!" into the radio, the way they would do out on the Hustings, out on a platform.
Roosevelt would caress with his voice the microphone, and he treated the people as though they had intelligence.
** And I remember once I was a great friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the last ten years I lived near her, Upstate New York, I saw quite a lot of her. And she said something to me about I was a great Democratic leader in upstate New York, and she said, "You know, don't do too many subjects in one speech. Just remember, there are only one or two things you can explain. But if you take the time to explain, the people are not stupid. They will follow you. But you have to start at the beginning and you've got to explain it." Because of that, you'd notice the cadence of his voice, when he began he brought his voice down half an octave, I think it was, through a voice coach. He also, instead of rattling like politicians, I remember Eleanor Roosevelt telling me, "Would you please tell Mr. Kennedy not to talk so rapidly? Because the people can't follow what he's saying." Roosevelt was superb at explaining just what was going on, and the country tuned in to him. I mean, the idea of a sound bite in those days...I mean we were a serious country. The people had something to do with the government and they felt in Roosevelt they had somebody who understood them, somebody who spoke to them. Other politicians found him mendacious and tricky, which indeed he was, but he was also had a direct pipeline to the people.
** Then came the newsreels, and he was pretty good at them too, and he used to call them his "Garbos." "Let's watch one of my Garbos," he'd say at the White House, and they'd show the latest Pathe Newsreel. He would study himself the way a movie star would, you know, "Its not a very good angle, is it?" So here was a president who has established a rapport of a sort that has never been done since. Between the White House—television cannot allow it, because seven minutes is considered eternal on television. Also, they're advised to say nothing of any substance because it might be used against them. I have not heard any politician say anything intelligent in the United States in thirty years, at the Presidential level. Nothing, at least not at election time. So Roosevelt, first of all, drove his opposition mad because he had gone over their heads. Ninety percent of the newspaper editorials were against him, and ninety percent of the people were for him, and the newspapers were going mad. They would normally be able to just eliminate him by attacking him. No way. He just spoke over their heads. He was on a roll. Then, of course, war clouds loomed, and I have great demurs about the character of Franklin Roosevelt who was not a great character. He was rather flawed, but I think he was a superb president in the first term. He saved capitalism; whether this is a good thing or not I am not about to betray my sentiments. But he saved it.
** It could very well have gone under, and those who said, "He's a traitor to his class" didn't realize he was their savior.
Can you say anything about the NRA and how your grandfather felt about the NRA? [National Recovery Act]
My grandfather felt that any kind of government regulation was wrong,
** that the people within the states should determine—he believed in decentralized government. He remembered what it was like to be brought up after the Civil War under the bayonets of the Republican Party and of the Union Army. He knew what it was like to live under a dictatorship, as every Southerner did. All the nonsense that we think is nonsense that we hear from our Southern friends about states' rights, well it's in their bone. It goes back to being an occupied country. The election of 1876—the Democratic Party won it with Tilden by 250,000 votes, and the Republicans with their bayonets went in and changed the votes in the Southern states so that Rutherford B. Hayes would become their president. So it was an instinctive dislike of central government. Roosevelt was also taking a lot of leaves out of Mussolini's book, quite unconsciously. He was not studying to be a Fascist. But Mussolini was never able to explain fascism, but it was corporatism what Mussolini went in for. The state would control great entities. In fact, for years Italy was the only country where the Communist Party wanted to privatize everything. They did not want to...because too much had been taken over by the state. In a sense Franklin Roosevelt was doing the same thing, by setting up these various consortia within the government, to govern the economy, just to make the things work.
Can you say anything about his feelings about direct relief?
Direct relief. I do know that when Senator Gore was up for re-election in the primary of 1936 that they took around...these relief baskets were taken around to the houses of the poor with food in them. On each one there was a little slip of paper that said "If you vote for Senator Gore this is your last basket." [laughs] That's known as real politics, and Senator Gore lost to Josh Lee, as Mr. Roosevelt intended. That's the most immediate story I can tell you about direct relief.
Do you know if he felt differently say, in 1933 in the depths of the depression versus later after capitalism had been rescued?
I don't think he ever thought in those terms. I don't think he ever questioned capitalism. I think he questioned a mentality that would do nothing when things had gone so seriously wrong. In other words received opinion, conventional wisdom. He might have learned something from the Irish. In the 1840s during the famine, when Irishmen were just dying, or emigrating, or both, Ireland was producing enough food to have fed five times as many people—there must have been six million Irishmen. They could have all been fed by the food being grown in Ireland that was then sent for profit England. And nobody in Ireland would give the food to the people because it would destroy the whole mercantile system of loss and profit. The Irish immigrants were very lively. I mean, his political advisor, or fixer, James Aloysius Farley certainly knew about that, and Roosevelt was well-tuned in to Tammany Hall, which was largely Irish in those days. And I think the example of what happened in the famine, the potato famine, he was very much aware of. You don't stay with strict capitalism when people are starving. You just say, "All right, we're not going to export the food. We're going to use it here, and if we have to pay you half price or nothing, we'll do so."
What was Senator Gore's vision of how to get America out of the Depression?
Well, I'm afraid that he never came up with much of a plan. He was mostly negative. He feared dictatorship more than anything else. He feared centralized government. He hated the banks. I mean, he hated a lot of the same people Roosevelt did. In 1930, '32, my grandfather seconded him for President in the convention in Chicago that nominated Roosevelt, and was very pro, until—it was really the gold standard that did it, that he thought, "Now there is chaos."
Did he and other conservatives feel betrayed by President Roosevelt, since Roosevelt had run on a promise to balance the budget?
Well, senators are never surprised when you don't live up to your campaign promises. Actually if you do live up to them senators are apt to get very alarmed of what you're doing. No, it was the whole tendency. Then, you must remember, there were a lot of people around Roosevelt that gave them the Willies. One was Harry Hopkins, who was my father's closest friend in the government, and Hopkins was sort of an assistant president, as indeed was Eleanor Roosevelt. Well, they were both greatly resented because they were not accountable. You couldn't call Harry Hopkins before a Senate committee because he didn't hold any office. I think he was Secretary of Commerce for five minutes, but all the real work Harry Hopkins...he was a very creative man.
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I think that the, one of the things that conservative, or even indeed liberal, politicians disliked about Roosevelt was not only the centralizing of all power, but this vast bureaucracy. He kept all those acronyms, he kept setting up NRA and this and that, and they wondered, "Where will this end?" Now Roosevelt said something very interesting to my father about it. He said, Roosevelt said, "You know I've been around Washington quite a lot", because he'd been Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson during the war. He was in and out, he understood the government. He said, "A government bureau is only good for the first two or three years. Then it gets filled up with people's nephews and dead wood, and it doesn't do anything more. Now you can't get rid of it, because too many people are dependent upon it, particularly members of the Senate, who've got their relatives in it." So he said, "You have to start a new one." By the end of it he had about a thousand different agencies, one on top of the other. But each new agency would propel the ship of state a bit forward, so he thought that was worth the risk of ending up with a huge bureaucracy, which nobody much liked. Then people like Harry Hopkins, who was a charming man—I remember my father became forty years old as Director of Air Commerce, and they gave a little party for him. It had cabinet rank at that time. It didn't exist when my father left in '36. But I remember Harry Hopkins' gift for my father's fortieth birthday was a box of dirt, which rather summed their view of politics, since neither one was really a very serious politician. But both were, my father into aviation and Harry Hopkins into good works. So they were unaccountable. Then of course Eleanor drove everybody mad. My grandfather would absolutely become livid. My grandmother would read to him, "My Day," and the old man's face would just set. The snarls that would come out of him every time, 'cause she was the master of the sort of "nice old Granny style." "It was a wonderful day today. We were able to defeat the Republicans four to one in Cook County. After that I opened a bazaar, and saw handicrafts made by little children." By then my grandfather was ready to strangle her had she been in the room, but she was a very effective politician and recognized that. They were real pros. I used to, my role in all of this, I would not say that I made any great contribution to the New Deal. I did fly an airplane at the age of ten for the Pathe Newsreels, and my father as Director of Air Commerce was promoting a flivver plane for every American citizen. We had the cheap automobile that Henry Ford had given us, so my father was working out prototypes of very cheap planes that anybody could afford. So he found one called the Hannon Flivver Plane that any child could fly. So I took it off, flew it around, landed it. Hit all the newsreels. My mother nearly moved out of the family when she found out I'd been flying this. My father was in great trouble over that. That was, my role was in mostly aviation. Senatorially, my role was to take my grandfather down to the Senate and take him onto the floor or hand him over to one of the page boys. One day, one hot summer day...in those days the Congress rose around June and didn't come back 'till September. That's why we had such a nice country; there was no government in the summer. Then came air-conditioning in 1939 and the government sat all year long, and we haven't had a good moment since. But in those days everybody left town. The president would go up to Hyde Park and senators would go home, mind their own business, and the government would shut down. But this was a hot day, and in those days in Washington boys took off their shoes in June, didn't put them on again until September. So, I wearing nothing but a bathing suit and barefoot, get into the family car, and the driver, and go down to the Capitol to get my grandfather to bring him home for lunch, and I remember coming down the Senate aisle. All the senators are chuckling. The guards had let me through. Washington was an open city then. I remember Huey Long was making a speech. He stopped in his speech and looked at me, and then went on. I went, "Come on, come on, you've got to go to lunch." So my grandfather took my arm. Now being blind he couldn't see that I didn't have anything on except a bathing suit. So as we start up the isle there's all this laughing and suddenly the vice-president comes down from his throne, John Nance Garner, can still remember that red face, smelling of whiskey, of the tufty eyebrows, and teeth like black pearls. And he said, "Senator, this boy is naked on the floor of the Senate." My grandfather felt up my arm, and then we flew up that aisle with such speed. So that was my main experience in the well, as it were, of the Senate.
Do you have any recollections of conversations at home or between Senators about the First Hundred Days, or about early New Deal years?
Yes, I do remember people like Jim Reed of Missouri, who's a great friend, and he'd come over to the house. Huey Long would come over. They really thought that Roosevelt was going to declare himself Lord Protectorate of the Realm. They really thought that we weren't going to get a Hitler, we were going to get something like Cromwell. And they saw their powers going. You see, there's always been an oscillation in Washington between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House and the Capitol, and they're always at odds. Sometimes one is dominant, sometimes the other. With the murder of Lincoln, who was a total dictator, it went all the other way, and the Senate was all important. The Senate governed the United States, plus the Speaker of the House, whoever he might be. The government was run from Capitol Hill, and they were the great players. First World War...that's between Ulysses Grant and Woodrow Wilson. The First World War again concentrated power in the hands, of the hands of the president. So, the power began to slip away a little bit. Then Wilson gets sick, the Senate grabs the power back again, kills the League of Nations, and holds onto it through a series of very dim presidents, until FDR. FDR makes it very clear that the Senate is going to do what he wants them to do, or he will purge them, those of his own party. And his big purge was in '36, over the "packing the court" plan. I don't know how many senators he got then. I know, well, he got my grandfather then. It was two years later he tried another purge, which blew up in his face, and of course he lost the battle to pack the Supreme Court. By then even the people at large were getting very nervous of a president that thought if the Supreme Court did not obey him, he would add another four or five members. He's very funny. There's some wonderful footage of Roosevelt saying, "I believe the Constitution gives me the right, I think it's right here. I can make four more, maybe it's five more. Perhaps ten more justices." They were shaking. But the people thought by then that he was getting a little too arrogant, and the people rebuffed him on that one. But they re-elected him in '36 very handily.
Going back to say, work relief programs, do you know how your grandfather and other conservatives felt about WPA, or Civil Works Administration?
Oh, it was very simple. They thought the government should not be doing any of this. Government had never done it before. They immediately equated it with "Godless Communism" or with "Godless Nazism" and thought that this was un-American, that Americans...we'd had a lot of depressions before. The Depression of 1907 was in many ways more devastating, particularly in the South and the West, than 1929 to '32-'33. On the other hand, they had no solutions, and he had a lot of improvisations. Always remember one thing, in a sense my grandfather was absolutely right. It didn't work. The New Deal did not work. We still had almost thirty percent, or twenty-five percent unemployed at the time the Japanese blew up Pearl Harbor. It was only with the Second War that we had full employment for the first time in heaven knows how long. So for all the improvisation tinkering it was mostly distracting. It helped some people, didn't help others, and the country was still down. And with the Second World War, and that is why we got the national security state, which Harry Truman legacied to us, was to keep us on a wartime footing at all times to keep employment up. This proved to be a fatal step, but that is another program.
From my reading it seems that Senator Gore also had a "pay as you go" kind of philosophy toward government spending. Can you say anything about that, any particular examples?
Well, he believed that you never spent more than you took in. He always said that it was criminal, the amount that his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have to pay, to pay off the debts being incurred by the New Deal. If he could have seen what has been done in the last eight years, he would have gone quite mad. No, they thought that a budget was a budget. A budget would be made by the Congress, and the President would execute it. And I remember the first moment Senator Gore said when he realized that the Congress, that the Constitution was basically at an end was under Woodrow Wilson, when an important budget bill was drafted in the White House and sent down to the Capitol, when it should have been the other way around. And he said, "At that moment, I realized our powers were at an end." And Roosevelt finally put the tombstone on it.
In 1935 the great debate, the first political debate I really remember, was over social security. And the Republican Party, and/or other conservatives, said that if you get social security, you will lose your name and you will only have a number. You will be known only by a number in the future, and people really believed this. And I just looked up the Congressional Record, see what my grandfather was up to on that vote, and very funny, he and Huey Long got up and they did a sort of comedy routine. They were both very witty men. Then my grandfather called for the Senate vote. Huey Long voted for Social Security, and Senator Gore voted to abstain. So once again he was not going to spend public money on anybody. Roosevelt's famed vindictiveness, which was to remove Senator Gore from the Senate, was matched by that of Robert Moses in New York. Robert Moses, thanks to the support of the New York Times, which has—how to put this tactfully—done a great deal of damage at different times to different useful causes, supported Moses in his totally re-designing New York City to accommodate not people but the automobile. If ever Henry Ford had a spiritual son it was Robert Moses. Moses was autonomous, and Roosevelt hated him as a governor. He couldn't control Moses. Moses was just tearing down neighborhoods and then building up as a private empire Jones Beach. I mean he was very, very imperial, and Roosevelt was pretty imperial too. Finally, after Roosevelt became president, a piece of legislation came up, and Roosevelt was doing his best to make enormous trouble for Robert Moses.
I forget who it was, probably Harry Hopkins, said, "You know, Mr. President, aren't you being a little bit vindictive about Robert Moses? After all, he's just Parks Commissioner in New York and you're President of the United States." And Roosevelt said, "Cannot the President of the United States have at least one, petty, malicious vindictive response to someone?"
** So the war went on, but Moses outlived Roosevelt, so—
Mr. Vidal, excuse me, can I interrupt you for just a second. Believe it or not I can hear it—
Oh, no no.
And can you tell me that story again, but it was probably Harold Ickes that said that.
Was it Ickes?
So if you could do that again, just replace Hopkins with Ickes.
Finally a piece of legislation came up, or a ruling from the Department of the Interior, presided over by the dreaded, sharp-tounged Harold L. Ickes, who himself was a petty and vindictive man, but thought that President Roosevelt was being unusually petty and vindictive. And Roosevelt said, "Can't the President of the United States have at least petty, vindictive enemy?" And of course Moses won because he outlived the President. A lot to be said for outliving your enemies.
What can you say about LaGuardia?
I can't say much about him. I met him once or twice. He and Gene Vidal, my father, had a big row over the airport. I forget the details of it, but I do remember reading a headline, "Fiorello LaGuardia says Vidal knows as much about aviation as his boss Jim Farley", which was news to all of us. Actually, Fiorello La Guardia's experiences as a flier in the First War had gone to his head. He was apparently as...my father returned the compliment. He said he thought it most unlikely that the mayor of New York could even fit into an airplane, much less fly one [laughs].
What kind of character was LaGuardia?
I don't know, just what he seemed to be. Squeaking away. He was very clever. I mean, he was Jewish one day, he was Italian another day. I suppose he had Irish days. I mean, he was really a polyglot mayor of a polyglot city. I assume more good than bad.
Could you say anything about his role in transforming New York City during that first administration?
I lived in Washington.
OK. So, I'll go back to that earlier question about—we're in 1936. FDR has just been renominated. Where has the country been, and where is it now?
Well, we come to the summer of 1936. Roosevelt is renominated. There's a terrible moment at the convention. As you know he had metal braces on his legs and he couldn't move them. He pretended that he could, but he couldn't. So he was sort of like the Frankenstein Monster. His legs would go like that, and he had to grip onto usually his son James' arm as he clanked, and he always wanted to be seen standing when he accepted nominations or on any great public occasion. So he was walking out of the wings to accept the nomination and suddenly, like a tree, fell, and they said it was the most awful sight. He fell like this, and the pages of his acceptance speech were all over the stage. Luckily nobody saw. It was backstage. So they got the pages together, and they were out of order. So if you'd listen to the tape of the Second Inaugural, Second Acceptance Speech, there are moments of slight confusion as he is desperately trying to get page twelve in front of page thirteen. That was a rather startling moment. It was always startling to think that the man could not walk, that he really was paralyzed, and had a terrible fear of fire, as anybody who can't move around might very well have. So the summer of '36 I remember Alfred M. Landon. My whole family was of course for Landon by then, since Senator Gore had been done in. My father was leaving as Director of Air Commerce. It was sort of a triumphal coronation, really, of Franklin Roosevelt. He was still suffering from the Supreme Court battle, and there were certain doubts about him, but again he had the camera. He had the radio. He was the president. And I remembered, I was overseas in the hospital in the Aleutian Islands when Roosevelt died, and I realized that these kids around, nobody had ever known another president. And for my generation you say the president you mean Roosevelt. The others have made hardly an impression on us. And with '36 things seemed to be looking up. It wasn't whether the programs had worked. It was that something had been done, confidence had been restored in the banking system. Money is nothing but fiat for labor. It isn't as my grandfather, I think naively, thought, "It's to be redeemed in gold." All right, what does gold mean? What do you redeem that gold in? Labor, or potatoes? I mean, money has to be based upon something. What is it based on? Confidence in the government. So when you have nothing to fear but fear itself you remove the fear, and your currency is solid.
What's FDR's legacy?
Confusion. I see no legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. He was a one-time political operator. Had there not been the Second War I think we might have had two political parties instead of the one party with two wings, one called Democratic, one called Republican. We have no political system at all. We have a sort of corporate party with two wings, both financed by a national security state, both financed by this constantly being at war, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] with somebody. Most of the revenues for forty-five years have gone to what we've euphemistically called defense. I have seen nobody at all like the Roosevelt of '33-'36, no one on the horizon who's able to define what it is that fear—possibly because we've not yet had that large a crisis. But as I suspect, as the depression, and I use the word depression, not recession, in which we now find ourselves, we may suddenly have on the horizon, if we are lucky, a Franklin Roosevelt. And if we're not lucky, Oliver Cromwell. I'm giving you endings [laughs]. I can only give so many endings.
The legacy of Roosevelt, the war president, I'm afraid, has outlived the legacy of Roosevelt the social ameliorist who brought us together. I'll give a visible for somebody who was brought up in Washington at the time, was the change of the city at the war. I can remember the building of the Pentagon, a building that we all hated. We just didn't like the look of it. I can remember the guards that started around 1940, and after '41. You used to be able to wander into the White House whenever you wanted to. You could wander into the Capitol whenever you wanted to. Then came the guards. Then came the tanks out in front of the White House. And now, the president, as he moves around, is moving like Augustus Caesar. The empire is underway, and Roosevelt was our Emperor Augustus, and there was the Pentagon and these vast entities, hiring millions and millions of people. Inclusive, regardless of race, creed, religion, or whatever. He was ecumenical in his bureaucracy but the bureaucracy was a choking thing, and has done us no good nor indeed has the empire whose symbol is the Pentagon which should be torn down.