Moving on From Gore Vidal
How could a writer so attuned to some values be ignorant of so many others?
It is always a dicey proposition to imagine what well-known wits of the past would have to say about the present. Who hasn’t pondered what William F. Buckley Jr. would say about the current Republican Party, or what Christopher Hitchens would say about cancel culture? Alas, the wisest course of action is usually to let such intellectual daydreams pass. The world has changed too rapidly, and in too many ways, for us to speculate with any credibility.
Yet sometimes there are long-gone figures who do not merely reflect their own time but meaningfully anticipate our own. In such cases, the parlor game of “what would so-and-so have said about such-and-such” can be a bit more fruitful.
During his lifetime, Gore Vidal (1925–2012) commended homegrown populists, including William Jennings Bryan and his own maternal grandfather, Oklahoma senator Thomas P. Gore; regretted America’s entrance into World War II, though he served honorably in it and used the experience for his first and best novel, 1946’s Williwaw; opposed America’s various post–World War II military expeditions; worried over the state of civil liberties following the terrorist attacks of September 11; and, despite this portfolio of rather old-line conservative causes, was himself something of a libertine.
Given such a record, does it not profit us to wonder aloud what Vidal might have made of the rekindling of populism during the era of Donald Trump? The increasingly invasive intrusion of Big Tech into our lives? The restrictions on individual liberty enacted at the altar of slowing the spread of a respiratory virus?
When Vidal died in 2012, at the age of 86, Barack Obama had not yet completed his first term and Trump had not yet made the journey down the escalator at Trump Tower. To state the obvious, we can’t know what Vidal would have thought about the political legacies of either man.
By the same token, we must not assume that Vidal, who had two failed runs for political office as a Democrat (for the House of Representatives, from New York, in 1960; and for the Senate, from California, in 1982), would have actually thrown in with the standard bearer of the GOP. And we should caution those on the right against embracing a man who expressed his share of vile sentiments, including an outrageous enmity towards the state of Israel and an indulgence in pernicious conspiracy theories (among them the whopper that FDR permitted the attack on Pearl Harbor to take place).
At the same time, Vidal’s congested worldview has enough links to the Old Right, and sufficiently anticipates some priorities in the Trump-era right, to warrant reexamination. It’s not difficult to imagine Vidal sympathizing with the issues that catapulted Trump to the White House in 2016 or even with Trump’s combative, intemperate character. Vidal himself was not above Trump-style low blows against those whom he thought deserved it, as when he, in a 2008 New York Times Magazine interview, raised the sort of questions about John McCain that eerily anticipate comments from the future forty-fifth president. “Who started this rumor that he was a war hero?” Vidal asked. “Where does that come from, aside from himself?”
What was good and sensible in Gore Vidal came to him in youth. Born in 1925 as Eugene Louis Vidal, his parents were erstwhile Midwesterners: his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, a South Dakotan who became a sports star at West Point and was later tapped to run the Bureau of Air Commerce; his mother, the former Nina S. Gore, an Oklahoman and the daughter of Senator Gore, whose loss of sight in both eyes in childhood led him to be referred to as “the blind senator” during his terms in that body (1907–21, 1931–37).
Vidal’s parents, who divorced in 1935, dispatched him to all the right schools—St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, Phillips Exeter—and gave him an entrée to a world of splendor and opportunity. In a 1936 Pathe News segment, young Eugene Louis can be seen helping to pilot a plane. “It’s easier than learning how to ride a bicycle!” the boy with the recognizably waspish grin says at the end.
Vidal’s biggest advantage was his closeness to his grandfather, Senator Gore, for whom he acted as a kind of aide de camp. “I always say that I was the only nine-year-old in the United States who knew the concept of bimetallism,” he told author Jay Parini, author of Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal (2015). In hours of reading to the senator, he inherited his grandfather’s hearty isolationism, which included opposition to America’s participation in World War I and the League of Nations.
Vidal remained true to his grandfather’s opposition to foreign entanglements. He returned again and again to the case of one Jimmy Trimble, a marine who lost his life at Iwo Jima with whom Vidal had had a personal and sexual relationship when both attended St. Albans. It was for him something like the definitive metaphor for the human toll of sending young men to fight overseas, even for reasons as necessary as those that prompted America’s involvement in World War II.
Paging through Vidal’s various books of essays, it is easy enough to find utterances that would appeal to conservatives. In the Times Literary Supplement in 1976, Vidal did a demolition job on academic literary criticism. In The New Yorker in 1997, he described the inadequacies of American schooling in language that is sure to resonate today: “Since there is no longer any possibility of actual American history ever being taught in the public schools—and not all that much penetrates the private ones—the only way our history will get to us is through movies and television.”
Vidal even bemoaned what was then called political correctness, which he considered “this decade’s Silly Putty or Hula Hoop.” He wrote in Newsweek in 1993. “Could anything be better calculated to divert everyone from what the management is up to in recently appropriating, say, $3.8 billion for SDI than to put sex against sex, race against race, religion against religion?”
What’s more, Vidal remained strikingly attuned to writers who emerged out of the heartland of his forebears, writing with keen appreciation of the novels of Sinclair Lewis and Dawn Powell. His time spent beside his grandfather certainly fueled his greatest fictions: the spot-on political-convention play The Best Man (1960) and his set of historical novels, the best of which are Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), and Empire (1987). He was willing to praise even so staunch a conservative as Clare Boothe Luce, whom he described, in The New Yorker in 1997, as, “after Eleanor Roosevelt…easily the most hated woman of her time,” for Vidal a compliment.
For right-minded men and women, reading Vidal is an act of cherry-picking. There are pearls of wisdom here and there, but other essays promulgate views of the most extreme sort, including a 1966 New York Review of Books piece in which he denounces parents who choose to procreate. “If the human race is to survive, population will have to be reduced drastically, if not by atomic war then by law, an unhappy prospect for civil liberties but better than starving.” In the same piece, he defends prostitution as a profession that exists “somewhere between that of masseur and psychiatrist.” Even Parini concedes that, when having imbibed too much alcohol, Vidal “could seem terribly racist and anti-Semitic,” Such insights confirm what a deeply flawed, profoundly troubled figure Vidal really was.
Even Vidal’s honorable isolationism was undermined by his shrill, predictably leftist Iraq War era pamphlets, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to be So Hated (2002) and Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004). Here one is apt to encounter sideswipes at those who kept alive Terri Schiavo (“the poor Florida lady linked to her lifeline”), a reference to Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia as “the Lord of Darkness,” and an exegesis on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, including details of their correspondence—the last a misjudgment on Vidal’s part so appalling that it must lead us to conclude that he had ceded whatever moral high ground he once held over Norman Mailer in their famous appearance on Dick Cavett’s talk show.
To spend time in the company of Vidal, then, is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. How could a writer so attuned to some values be ignorant of so many others? The same man who could evoke the lovely Ohio novels of Dawn Powell (whose reputation Vidal almost singlehandedly revived) also helped to pen Bob Guccione’s pornographic spectacular Caligula (1979). Vidal’s contradictions remained unresolved in his personal life, which saw him maintain a stable, long-term partnership with Howard Austen while admitting to Mike Wallace in 1975, “I’m devoted to promiscuity.”
In fact, what Vidal said of Mark Twain—“Oddly, for someone who had made his fortune out of being the American writer, as he once described himself, Twain lived seventeen years in Europe”—could be said of himself. Though reared in the nation’s capital, and rooted in the Midwest, Vidal arguably lived for far too long in Italy or Hollywood. Reviewing an earlier biography of Vidal in National Review in 1999, Christopher Caldwell zeroed in on Vidal’s estrangement from American life while assessing the author’s dumb novel Duluth (1983): “Duluth is a critique of Eighties suburban vapidity by one who hasn’t taken a fresh look at American suburbia since the 1950s.” Much of Vidal’s non-historical fiction—the turgid satire Kalki (1978), the trivial soufflé The Smithsonian Institution (1998)—fails to convince for similar reasons.
In a superb documentary on BBC, Vidal heads to Mississippi, home of ancestors and relatives, where he sits for a conversation with noted Jacksonian Eudora Welty. He expresses astonishment at the number of churches in town. “Is this something new? Did this start with the TV evangelicals and Billy Graham? Has this been consistent?” Welty replies, patiently: “I think it is part of the way of life. I don’t think it’s new.” Won over by this Southern gentlelady, Vidal becomes less contemptuous and more merely quizzical—an attitude he would have done well to adopt more often. After all, if Vidal really saw himself as a man of the people, shouldn’t he have accepted the fact that so many of them are God-fearing? This is a case of Vidal not following his instincts to their logical conclusion, the very accusation he made about John Updike in a famous essay: Updike’s proud Pennsylvania provincialism, Vidal wrote, should have given the author an “isolationist and antiwar” disposition (as opposed to Updike’s actual, and intriguing, pro-Vietnam War stance).
We can guess at what Vidal might think of America in 2021. His fulminations against what he called, in a 1992 Independent Magazine piece excoriating the legacy of Harry Truman, America’s “imperial expansion that has cost the lives of many millions of people all over the world,” suggests that he would not have dismissed Trump’s bring-home-the-troops instincts. His concern about post-9/11 civil liberties anticipates our own moment of trying to slough off pandemic-era restrictions.
Yet, if the Republican Party has arguably caught up with Gore Vidal in some areas, let us feel free to leave him behind, too. There is too much baggage with this man who was right some of the time and grievously wrong much of the rest of the time. One hopes that, upon entering the pearly gates, Vidal was reunited with the blind senator, who perhaps took his former protégé aside and reminded him of whence he came.
Peter Tonguette writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.