The old fellow, incredibly, is as movie-star handsome as ever' even the lateral cleft that opens in his right cheek when he smiles or (more commonly) winces at the foulness of the world, only seems to enhance his glamour. The baritone voice remains robust and musical. Gore Vidal is not growing slack or fat or even particularly wrinkled in his old age, but instead seems to be taking on the quality of granite' taking up his place on Mount Rush-more even while still alive.
I meet him at the Casa della Letteratura just off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele in central Rome, where he has been holding court for most of the morning. He is in Rome to appear at the city's famous festival of literature, under the arches of the semi-ruined Basilica di Massenzio which dates from 4th century AD and stands next to the Colosseum. He is billed to give a pre-reading press conference here, but he has turned it into a series of interviews instead: with a keen awareness of what journalists want from him. He is parked at one side of the desk in his wheelchair, immensely dapper in a tawny suit and matching tie.
As everyone knows, Vidal for many years spent much of the time in Italy - then two years ago he moved out after losing both his long- time companion, Howard Austen, and the ability to walk. He moved back to southern California on a permanent basis. I asked him if he saw things in his homeland differently now that he no longer lived abroad.
"I was never an expatriate," he replies. "I was never considered to be that by anyone except for the far right. I had a house in southern Italy and another house in southern California -but in right-wing circles, that's enough to be considered an expat. America was what I always wrote about."
How is it, then, to live full-time in the United States?
"If you care about America it's dreadful," he said. "If you are making money you don't care.
"Benjamin Franklin was shown the new American constitution, and he said, 'I don't like it, but I will vote for it because we need something right now. But this constitution in time will fail, as all such efforts do. And it will fail because of the corruption of the people, in a general sense.' And that is what it has come to now, exactly as Franklin predicted."
We have arrived in short order at Vidal's core message. As he points out, he has "lived for three-quarters of the 20th century and a third of the history of the United States", and listening to him talk one feels in the presence of history as with few Americans.
Companion to his blind grandfather Thomas Gore, a prominent Democratic senator, when he was still a young boy, backgammon partner of John F Kennedy (to whom he was related), friend and screenplay writer to Fellini, brave pioneer in putting homosexuality at the centre of his fiction... Even now, aged 80 and though confined to his wheelchair, he refuses to give up his place centre stage.
He remains the Bush administration's most pugnacious and learned and contemptuous enemy. Nobody has put the case against the neocons with more passion or precision.
Why is it so dreadful to live in America, I asked.
"We have been deprived of our franchise," he says. "The election was stolen in both 2000 and 2004, because of electronic voting machinery which can be easily fixed. We've had two illegitimate elections in a row ...
"Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It's like having a war on dandruff, it's endless and pointless. We are in a dictatorship that has been totally militarised, everyone is spied on by the government itself. All three arms of the government are in the hands of this junta.
"Whatever you are," he goes on, "they say you are the reverse. …