President Vidal himself comes to the door.

"I didn't want to be president," he sputters in mock dudgeon. "But so be it. Will you join my administration? Yes, yes." This is the Abraham Lincoln Suite at the Willard Hotel, and the sitting room is oval-shaped, and the occupant writes about presidents, so the riff needs no introduction.

He paces around the cerise velvet furnishings that made some decorator think of Lincoln. His left hand is tucked -- presidentially? imperially? -- between the front buttons of his suit coat. The suit is wide and blue, and Gore Vidal's corporal self fills every cubic foot of it.

Vidal seems to be on automatic pilot. He's been on a book tour ("Empire," Random House) for so long, he says, "it seems like all of the '80s, but it's been about 10 days." This is his last obligation before flying home to Ravello, Italy.

"Empire," which covers the period 1898-1906 and stars Theodore Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst, is the fifth novel in the historical cycle composed also of "Washington, D.C.," "Burr," "1876" and "Lincoln." Its author has one thing to say about the new novel, the wisdom distilled from a zillion talk shows, pronounced in the fulsome baritone of announcer school.

"He who reads this book," Vidal says, "will never die."

Now that that's settled, on to important business.

The last time Vidal was here, saying unpleasant things about his country, his theme was the end of the American empire. The end, he says, came on a day in September 1985 that Vidal alone was percipient enough to notice, when "power shifted from New York to Tokyo, as it had shifted from London in 1914 to New York."

This time around, he is promoting a solution that satisfies the two most important criteria of a Vidalian pronouncement: It is childishly simple, and it will provoke apoplexy in the maximum number of his fellow Americans.

He unveiled the idea, he notes with unveiled pride, last February in Moscow, where he was in the intellectual contingent attending Mikhail Gorbachev's conference on nuclear disarmament.

"I proposed that in order to survive economically in a world dominated by Asia, specifically Japan, and eventually Japan and China ... it's inevitable the United States and the Soviet Union, as the last vestiges of the white race ..."

(He interrupts himself: "This is not racist. This is not yellow peril time. The white race is a minority race with many well-deserved enemies. Everybody hates us for due cause.")

"... it is highly meet that the two klutzes of the Northern Hemisphere, the Soviet Union and the United States ..."

(Another aside: "... neither of whom can make an automobile anybody would want to drive ...")

"... that we make some sort of loose federation."

Vidal sits back, smiling a smile of perverse triumph.

"The Russians were delighted with this," he says. "The Americans were horrified. Horrified." He mimes a shudder.

"Two years ago, when I spoke about the end of the American empire, nobody believed it. Now, of course, they know it's true." By way of evidence, he cites the concurrence of Pete Peterson and Felix Rohatyn, two pillars of the American financial establishment. Such people are useful to Vidal, today as objects of his contempt, tomorrow as tribunes of his sagacity.

"Now I'm talking about the necessity of this particular alliance. The Russians are dying to join us. But we've so poisoned the minds of our poor citizens through education and the media that they can't conceive of anything so practical."

A weary sigh comes next, the philosophical exhalation of the prophet without honor.

"I don't mind never being credited for these things," he says, though he minds very much.

"But just remember. I have been thinking about it, and I get around more than most people. And I'm also not paid to tell lies. I'm a free operator."

Vidal is having a friend tape the Iran-contra hearings for his delayed consumption in Italy. He describes himself "an addict" already, and his favorite witness to date is "Woody Allen, who's pretending to be Midge Decter's son-in-law."

He means Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and the choice is not surprising. Last year, Vidal and Norman Podhoretz -- Decter's husband, Abrams' father-in-law, the editor of Commentary magazine -- got into a very public hissing match. To be mercifully succinct: Vidal suggested in print that Podhoretz was more loyal to Israel than to the United States; Podhoretz accused Vidal of anti-Semitism.

"Poor Poddy," Vidal says, with a pucker of unfelt sympathy. "I still like him. The height of my anti-Semitism was calling him a 'silly billy.' " Now Vidal downshifts to satire. "Anyone who does that is thinking of Auschwitz, you know. They know code when they see it. 'Silly billy.' Okay -- that's it! That's the Dachau word!"

But we were talking about Elliott Abrams. Vidal laments the timidity of the congressional interrogators, and relishes the thought of "having a crack" at Abrams himself. But he dons a why-bother look almost immediately. "The noose is around his neck," he says. "I assume they will send him off to Lewisburg federal pen in due course."

There are greater issues at stake than the fate of the knave du jour. "This is a constitutional crisis," Vidal says. "Various folks across the great land of ours are amazed when I say that Reagan and Bush have to go. It's perfectly simple. The laws of the land are there. They have been broken. Either you have a constitutional government ... or you have Paraguay.

"They have elected for Paraguay, on the grounds that {Reagan} is so popular. They seem to think that that's an argument. First, he isn't popular. There isn't anything about his policies anybody likes. The pollsters' questions are so dumb: 'Do you find him a nice old thing who makes you feel good when he honks away on the box?' 'Yes, he's a nice old thing who makes me feel good when he honks away on the box.' Well, that isn't an endorsement of war in Nicaragua."

Conversation in the oval room is suspended for the ministrations of a photographer. Vidal is a pro. Without guidance, he moves to the window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, positions the chair just so, and slips into perfect photogenic light, arms folded, one hand thoughtfully on the chin. Gore Vidal: the pose.

The photographer is kneeling before the author, preparing his equipment.

"Do me a great favor," Vidal says from aloft, "and don't shoot from the floor up."

Without even looking, Vidal can sense other eyes in the room, drinking in this moment of fallibility. "You can now do narcissism," he says to those eyes. "Journalists always love to do that. But it's not narcissism. It's known as cutting the losses." He pronounces these last words carefully. "There is no reason to look entirely like Hubert Humphrey."

Vidal was asked once, perhaps a quarter-century ago, whom he would choose to impersonate him. He chose Pat Boone, Vidal says, "because of his wholesome warmth, and Americanism, and spiritualism so like my own. No one else could capture this."

This all came back to him the night before, when he and Boone happened to be featured guests on the same "Larry King Live" interview program on cable television.

"Now it's the portrait of Dorian Gray," he says. "We don't look the same age anymore." Then he pretends envy. "He was thin. He had muscles, and bright teeth, dark hair. Sickening looking."

A couple of times during the colloquy, without provocation, Vidal lapses into Lincoln. It is in his blood, the urge to power and title. His grandfather, as everybody who will listen has been told, was a United States senator from Oklahoma; Vidal and Jacqueline Bouvier had the same stepfather, at different times; Vidal himself ran for Congress from an Upstate New York district in 1960, and for the Senate from California in 1982.

This makes him an expert. "If you want to rise in politics in the United States, there is one subject you must stay away from, and that is politics."

And he didn't intend to win the Senate race anyway.

"I never played {the game} properly. If I'd wanted to win, I would have gone their way and tried to betray them, like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt," Vidal explains. "As it was, I came in number two {in the primary, to then-Gov. Jerry Brown}, a fact that is never mentioned -- nearly half a million votes ... I consider it a pretty good outing for having spent only $90,000."

Had he won the nomination, "the election would have been decided on just one issue: I have written, and they already had it as ammunition, that the greatest disaster ever to befall the West was Christianity." Doomed once again by the audacity of his pronouncements. "There goes Orange County, there goes San Diego, there goes Stockton. In younger days I would have delighted in that. But I was getting tired."

So why did he run at all? "I was curious about them. I wanted to see how they paid the candidates."

The bait is irresistible. Just who are "they," these powerful people Vidal keeps referring to?

He thought he'd never be asked.

" 'They' is a consortium" -- and he goes on to describe it, naming powerful newspaper publishers and network executives and financial institutions and aerospace companies. One hears echoes of the sentiments expressed in thousands of letters -- the densely argued, single-spaced, all-caps jobs delivered to congressional offices -- viewing with alarm the sinister activities of the Trilateral Commission, say, or the Rockefeller family. But Vidal is more sophisticated, and his irony is a shield against unbelievers.

"They" are not a conscious conspiracy, he observes. "If you all think alike, you don't have to conspire."

Vidal calls as his witness Robert Alphonso Taft, no wild-eyed anarchist. After his rejection by the Republican Party at the 1952 presidential nominating convention, Taft said, according to Vidal, "In my lifetime, every presidential candidate of the Republican Party has been selected by the Chase Manhattan Bank."

How to explain "outsider" Jimmy Carter, then?

Vidal cackles, showing his keyboard of teeth. He loves this question.

"You haven't fallen for that one, have you? They thought they had found in Nixon a very clever lawyer who would represent their interests. They didn't realize that he was a bit bats. They were then looking around for a liberal southerner -- it doesn't make any difference which party, it's the same party always ... It was between Carter and {former Florida governor Reubin} Askew. But Askew they thought was a little too dumb."

Vidal seems to savor a private memory. "I happen to have been around when they were doing this," he says with a knowing look. "David Rockefeller {of Chase Manhattan} takes {Carter} to Japan, shows him Europe, shows him the dominion of this earth." The teeth are bared again, as Vidal puts the coda on his tale. "Like Lucifer."

The point, one of many, is this: "Individuals don't make any difference." The exception, for Vidal, proves the rule -- Jesse Jackson in 1984. "They had to get rid of him. It was done with anti-Semitism. Next time, they'll say he has AIDS, if he's climbing. Just at the last minute, to do him damage. He's too outside. He's too liable to connect with the great public which doesn't vote, which is about 50 percent, and with a lot of those who do vote but with despair.

"It's a very tightly run ship, you know, our country."

"In 'Empire,' " Vidal declares, "I throw into doubt the veracity of history itself. What is history? There is no history. There is no objective truth. There is a Platonic essence." Historians are in trouble, he says, because they must rely on the "inventions" of journalism. In "Empire," the case in point is Theodore Roosevelt, portrayed as the "invention" of William Randolph Hearst.

This business brings to mind a remark made to him, Vidal says, by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. about a year after he'd started working in President Kennedy's White House.

"Since the 18th century the primary sources {for historians} have been essentially newspapers," Schlesinger told Vidal, "and if The New York Times' description of this administration were history, it's all wrong. I think back when I'm doing the 'Age of Jackson' or I'm writing about Franklin Roosevelt and I'm relying on newspaper accounts -- between malice, incompetence and misprints, it's chaos."

Historians and journalists, felled in one anecdote. "I think a novelist, at least in my case, is a bit more honest," he says. "I'm disinterested." Certainly.

Vidal has been struggling with journalists for what seems like a lifetime. "I am so used to being recreated by bad fiction writers in the press {that} I almost never give print interviews," he says, fibbing. The media "discredit" him, at the tacit behest of -- who else? -- "them," because of "what I say about politics in this country, and the ownership of it and so on."

Does he have an example of mistreatment by the press? He is ready with an elaborate tale.

"I went on with Tom Brokaw, when he was doing the morning show {"Today"}, and very badly, too. But he's a nice kid. Carter was president. Just before I went on there was a shot of Jimmy Carter in Brazil being received by the military dictatorship."

Vidal warms to the subject, eyes flashing and rolling mischievously about.

"Then I'm on, and Tom is sitting there with his notes, gulping away. He starts in." Vidal's voice drops down into the solemn announcer-school octaves to find Brokaw's timbre. " 'You've written a great deal about bisexuality.' And I said, 'Well, I've never written anything about it I can think of. I said everybody was {bisexual}, which is what Freud said.' "

Vidal apes Brokaw trying to press the point. "I said, 'Tom, it's too early in the morning. Don't you know about the morning show? It's the one show no one wants to hear about sex on. People are hung over, they're shaving, they're getting the coffee.' "

Brokaw, trying to tough it out, starts in on bisexuality yet again.

"I said, 'We're going to talk about Carter and the Brazilian dictatorship, okay?' I just took it away from him." The triumph evidently was sweet.

Now the infamy of reversal: "A story which is in my favor is reversed to be used against me." Brokaw later tells an interviewer, in Vidal's version, "Yes, I've had some difficult times over the years on television. For instance, I had Gore Vidal on and I wanted to talk about politics but he wanted to talk about bisexuality."

Next up for Vidal is another historical book, this one about the League of Nations struggle, featuring Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge the elder. Then, "if I survive," the last of the series, to be called "The Golden Age," about the period 1945-1950.

"That's when we were triumphant all over the world economically, militarily. There was a great explosion in the arts. Obviously I would think so, since I was just out of the Army, young. It was pretty good to have "A Streetcar Named Desire" open in one week and "Death of a Salesman" the next week, the best of Bernstein and Jerry Robbins ..."

Vidal seems genuinely absorbed by this memory, his voice shrinking to a whisper.

"... and Bellow. And Mailer. And me."

He brightens again. He has a plan.

"I'll write it as myself from the present time in the first person," he says, "and I'll write about myself in old age with a valetudinarian tone. So it will be my summing up of the Republic, me and life itself. And on that note I shall depart to a higher strand," there to lay waste, no doubt, to another realm of the venal and the second rate.