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"It's all a gorgeous deception'

Rubbing shoulders with the stars at a Hollywood party, Gore Vidal and Timothy Leary sat on some stone steps and discussed the fine art of being a social outcast.

"God forbid they ever admit that anything you write actually means something," Vidal said, sipping his glass of wine. "So, they try to ignore you, then they try to trivialize you, and when that doesn't work, they demonize you."

Leary, every bit the iconoclast as the reclusive novelist, agreed. "And once you're a demon," Leary added. "It's much easier to throw you in jail."

"Jail?" Vidal laughed. "They want to burn me at the stake."

The Vatican, the author explained, was upset with his 23rd novel, Live from Golgotha. The book, released last month, chronicles the exploits of an NBC television crew which, through a breakthrough in computer software, races back in time to film the Crucifixion.

"I rewrote the Gospel," Vidal confessed. "It's a comedy . . . comedy, comedy, comedy. And although nobody has read it, they call me a blasphemer. Oh well, faith."

Vidal, once called the "most underestimated writer in America," didn't seem concerned. After 40 years, the man of letters has grown quite comfortable going against the grain. The Vatican, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., nothing is sacred.

"It's all a gorgeous deception," Vidal later continued during a phone interview from his villa in Italy where he lives in self-imposed exile. "Politics. They haven't changed since a railroad lawyer named Abraham Lincoln pretended to be a log splitter and won the election."

Vidal has an unsatiable taste for politics. He's run for office twice. In 1960, encouraged by his mentor Eleanor Roosevelt, he ran for Congress. He lost, but received more votes in the traditionally Republican stronghold than any other Democrat since 1910, including then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

"Jack said to me at the time, "Gore, the House of Representatives is a can of worms,' " Vidal recalled in the voice of the late president. "And I knew I didn't want to be a worm."

So, putting politics aside for a while, Vidal set out to chronicle American history . . . Washington D.C. (1967), Burr (1973), 1876 (1976).

In 1982, he returned to the political arena and ran in the Democratic primary for the Senate in California and came in second in a field of 11 with close to a half-million votes.

Vidal wrote three more novels . . . Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987) and Hollywood (1990), before he finally got his coveted Senate seat in the new movie Bob Roberts.

"I play a Senator Brickley Paiste, a Kennedy era liberal who loses his seat to a conservative challenger played by Tim Robbins," he explained. "But the character is not me. Gore Vidal in defeat after 30 years in the Senate would raise a third party and start a revolution in the street."

But Vidal said he doesn't expect any work of art, be it Live from Golgotha or Bob Roberts, to actually change anything.

"The only work of "art' that ever had any effect on public life in the United States was Uncle Tom's Cabin," Vidal said. "Movies, they are just for fun."

Vidal said he feels no remorse poking fun at sacred texts.

"What is history, but somebody's opinion of what happened," he said. "The history peddled by people like Pat Robertson is so sick, Jesus would rise up and strike him down with a bolt of lighting."

If he could, Vidal would like to destroy the power of organized religion in the United States.

"Tax the Mormon, Protestant, Baptist and Catholic churches," he said. "That would be the end to the mischief they cause. Use the money to develop a real educational system."

To accomplish his goal, Vidal said he may have to throw his hat in the political arena once again.

"President? No, not president," he said. "I think the papacy is my only choice. Why not Pope Gore the First?"

Terry Tomalin is a Times staff writer.