A Writer and a Bomber Talk Their Way Through Terre Haute
Edmund White's Take on Gore Vidal and Timothy McVeigh's Real-Life Relationship
A few days before 9/11, Gore Vidal outraged America with his essay "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," which was published in Vanity Fair. Vidal argued that the Oklahoma City bomber wasn't just another incomprehensible American monster like Jeffrey Dahmer. McVeigh was not, Vidal argued, "Iago... with a bomb, not a handkerchief," but a decorated veteran who believed the US government had gone to war with its own people, shredding the Bill of Rights and lawlessly killing people at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Because Vidal had articulated similar ideas over the years, he and McVeigh struck up a correspondence that became the source material for his 2001 essay. "No one was interested in why he had done what he had done," Vidal wrote. "But then 'why' is a question the Media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful."
That correspondence between Vidal and McVeigh also became source material for Edmund White's 2007 play Terre Haute, which imagines a series of conversations between lightly fictionalized versions of the two in the prison at Terre Haute, Indiana, just days before the bomber is executed. Actors Robert Bergin (as McVeigh's stand-in) and Norman Newkirk (as Vidal's) talk to each other from either side of a giant plastic window, their voices lightly amplified by two microphones. These microphones aren't in the script, but were a clever choice by director Aaron Levin—they give the actors' voices an ever-so-slightly buzzing, trebly quality that reflects their harshly lit surroundings and draws our attention a little bit closer to the exact language of their courtship.
And what a courtship! Newkirk, with his hair slicked back and his veined hands making flourishes in the air, is convincingly arch (and, at times, repulsively arrogant), while Bergin is sincere, uneducated but not unintelligent, and driven. They flatter, commiserate, joke, have one blowout fight, and—though each wants something from the other—develop what you might even call a glimmer of friendship. It sounds like America talking to itself.