The Contradiction of Being Gore Vidal
Bill Buckley called him a “queer” on national television.
Rep. Michele Bachmann declared his novel Burr to have been “snotty” toward the Founding Fathers.
To Norman Mailer, though, he was a “rightwing snob.”
Everyone had a reason to dislike Gore Vidal, who died yesterday at 86.
But you could not ignore him.
After World War II, during which he was deployed by the Army to the Aleutian Islands, Vidal bestrode American letters. This was a time when public intellectuals regularly appeared on The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show.
Dwight Macdonald’s midcult, whatever its faults, died long before Gore Vidal did.
I first encountered him onscreen, in the satirical Tim Robbins movie Bob Roberts (1992), in which Vidal played a U.S. senator who wearily hated the same things the actual Vidal hated: war, imperialism, empire. I read the novels Burr, Lincoln, and Creation, and periodically dipped into his magisterial essay collection United States. I found his fluency in history, literature, and politics immediately enviable, and bracing. To hear politicians like Thomas Jefferson characterized as members of the “Virginia junto” — well, they don’t talk like that in elementary school, do they?
It was clear to me, however, that I had discovered a writer who had begun his decline phase. By the late 1990s and early Aughts, it should have been clear to everyone. The paranoid fantasy about an oil pipeline through the Caucasus being the real reason for the invasion of Afghanistan. Worse, the embrace of Timothy McVeigh, whom Vidal called a “noble boy.” This was indefensible stuff.
At the Washington Times I reviewed the 2003 PBS documentary The Education of Gore Vidal. One of the things that continually bugged me about Vidal was in sharp relief there: Vidal says Truman “replaced the old republic with the permanent national security state” and an “imperial military machine.” Yet in the space of the same documentary, he claimed it was Lincoln who “smashed up the old republic and reinvented it as a highly centralized militaristic state.”
It seems to me the event Vidal describes is not something that can happen twice.
Locating the precise moment of the fall of the American republic was the wrong way to approach Vidal, I concluded:
For Mr. Vidal, a polity’s morality is measured not so much along a spectrum between Athens and Rome — between republic and empire — as it is along a spectrum between Rome and Rome: at one end, the Rome of the bathhouse and the bacchanalia, which Mr. Vidal loves; at the other, the seat of global emperors, whom Mr. Vidal abhors.
Vidal was nothing if not idiosyncratic. There is much to learn from him — and nearly as much to avoid.