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Monday, November 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Time-Traveling With Gore Vidal -- The Author Fantasizes About Past, Present, Future

Special To The Seattle Times

As a schoolboy in Washington, D.C., in the 1930s, Gore Vidal, now 75, often visited our national museum, the Smithsonian Institution, where he says "I used to daydream that the lifelike exhibits would come alive at night."

This childhood fantasy is the first conceit of Vidal's latest (and 23rd) novel, "The Smithsonian Institution," now out in paperback. Vidal will appear Friday in Seattle to promote the book; he answered questions about the book this month via fax from his home in Italy.

The novel's protagonist, a 13-year-old physics genius known only as "T.," is invited to the institution on Good Friday, 1939, to help with the creation of the atomic bomb. An added bonus? At night the exhibits come to life. T. is taken captive by Indians on the Great Plains. He converses with presidents and first ladies. He loses his virginity and cuckolds President Grover Cleveland.

He also messes about with time. T., in fact, stands for Time, and in his time-traveling there is an element of self-preservation, for he realizes that if the Second World War comes to pass, he will die. So the question: How to stop World War II? Smother Hitler in his crib?

"Too corny," T. tells Robert Oppenheimer, "and, I suspect, on this particular highway, there would be another one just like him, maybe even worse."

Instead, T. stops an American presidency in its tracks - a presidency, not surprisingly, with which Vidal was never thrilled.

Indeed, half the fun of "The Smithsonian Institution" is imagining the fun Vidal had writing it. Vidal has spent the last 30 years chronicling our history in novels such as "Burr," "Lincoln," "Duluth," "Empire" and "Hollywood" - not to mention tweaking our more contemporary history in his award-winning essays - and so letting Vidal loose in the Smithsonian is a little like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Things are going to get damaged.

We get some of the juicier gossip of history. Was President McKinley a morphine addict? Did Cleveland buy a replacement to serve in his stead in the Civil War? When time is skewed, Vidal's imagination lets loose. Douglas MacArthur winds up broadcasting propaganda for the Empire of Japan. Life magazine publisher Henry Luce is sent to prison.

"When I work on what I think of as my inventions (as opposed to meditations on history such as `Lincoln')," Vidal says, "I never know what is going to happen next. . . ."

Yet his earlier writing can give clues to the fate of his characters in "The Smithsonian Institution." Vidal has always been at odds with Lincoln's hagiographers, for example, and in a 1981 essay he socked it to Lincoln's most famous biographer. "In the course of several million clumsily arranged words," Vidal wrote, "(Carl) Sandburg managed to reduce one of the most interesting and subtle men in world history to a cornball Disneyland waxwork rather like . . . yes, Carl Sandburg himself."

So what happens in "The Smithsonian Institution"? Lincoln, bullet-stunned and brain-addled, becomes, in the end, a Disneyland waxwork, forever quoting Sandburg.

For all its political and historical knowledge, however, "The Smithsonian Institution" is a surprisingly personal novel. T. seems some combination of Vidal and his childhood friend, Jimmie Trimble, his "other half" who died at Iwo Jima, as he writes in his memoir, "Palimpsest." T. himself has a clone, who seems more Trimble and less Vidal, and who almost suffers a similar fate in the Pacific - but is saved at the last instant.

Thus Vidal, who was part of the "America First" movement to keep America out of World War II at Exeter in 1940, not only stops the European half of World War II from occurring, but rescues the great love of his life. One might say that the novel is his ultimate adolescent wish.

Of course Vidal would not say so.

"Surely the wish is adult, not adolescent," he responds.

An aristocratic icon

Gore Vidal has been part of our literary and political landscape for more than 50 years. In 1946, at the age of 20, he published "Williwaw," a World War II novel, but fell into disfavor two years later with "The City and the Pillar," an unapologetic novel about one boy's love for another. In the '50s he wrote for television ("A Visit to a Small Planet"), the theater ("The Best Man") and Hollywood ("Ben Hur"), before returning to the novel in the 1960s. All the while he wrote wonderfully acerbic essays, the brunt of which were collected in 1993's "United States," which won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

He grew up as part of the American aristocracy - his maternal grandfather, Thomas Gore, was a U.S. Senator, while his father, Eugene Vidal, was director of air commerce for President Franklin D. Roosevelt - but his politics have always been populist. Twice he ran for political office (for Congress and U.S. Senate), lost both times, but has remained one of the wittiest gadflies on the political scene. His cousin, Al Gore, is now running for president.

"Albert and I have carefully avoided one another," Vidal says, and then adds, "I did like his father personally."

As for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan parroting some of Vidal's isolationist views in his book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," Vidal finds the whole thing, "Very peculiar. The same thing happened eight years ago when Jerry Brown started giving my `We the People' speeches. Since I approved of Brown, I gave him more speeches to give."

He adds, "If (Buchanan) hadn't taken his stand for the fetus and the flag and against the Jew and the fag, he might be a useful formidable populist candidate."

In fact the vision Vidal offers from his safe perch in Italy is not a comforting one.

"Since all the candidates now on offer represent the 1 percent that owns most of the country's wealth," he says, "I wouldn't dream of voting for any of them. The system has broken down." ------------------------------- Vidal reading

Gore Vidal will discuss his life work and sign his latest book, "The Smithsonian Institution," at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Proceeds will benefit the Stanford Book Fund. Sponsored by the University Book Store. For ticket information, call the University Book Store at 206-634-3400.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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