Why I Owed Gore Vidal an Apology
For years now I’ve felt a need to apologize to Gore Vidal. But a letter would not have sufficed, and I never ran into him, and now of course it is too late. I met Vidal once, when I was 25. We were at small cocktail party in Paris—at the apartment of my former stepmother and her beau, an American diplomat. I was trying to make points about the apparent alliance of the French communists and socialists, and Eurocommunism and related subjects—I was then early in the turn away from youthful leftism, a reader of Dissent and The New Leader and Raymond Aron’s columns in Le Figaro. Vidal said something to the effect that it was nice that someone had invited “a young rightist” to entertain the party. I laughed while protesting that he was wrong. I was a liberal, my most recent job had been with Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. I didn’t even know any “rightists.” But Vidal had read the signs correctly, I was headed in that direction. Later that year I would begin reading Commentary, and a few years after that writing for it.
Nearly a decade later, I was married with children, a graduate degree, a job, an identity of sorts as a neoconservative writer, and a new circle of friends and associates, many of them unabashedly conservative. Into my mailbox one day came Commentary, my favorite magazine—with its featured essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” In the elevator going up I tried to guess who or what Norman Podhoretz was attacking. Within a few moments, the answer was clear: an article by Gore Vidal and left-wing tolerance of his anti-Zionism overflowing into anti-Semitism.
I’m trying to recall what I felt about Commentary pieces like this. I remember thinking generally that Israel was a burden, or perhaps a cross, which my Jewish neoconservative friends had to bear. While I often admired their ingenuity and tenacity in defending the Jewish state—rather the way one might admire a mother who gives effective care to a child with special needs—I was glad their burden was not mine. Beyond that, I didn’t pay much attention; there were then many other subjects in Commentary and in the neoconservative universe to attend to. Perhaps too there was some sense that if I explored the Israel question too deeply, I would be forced to recognize I didn’t really agree with the Commentary line. And since the Commentary line, broadly speaking, served as my connection into an entire sustaining professional and social network, it was an issue best left unexamined.
Anyway, I think I probably skimmed the Podhoretz article without paying it much attention. Stay in your lane is usually good advice, and this subject was outside of mine.
Five years later, I worked at the New York Post. I wrote unsigned editorials and a weekly column. I often tried to push at the subject I considered most important at the time—so many of my columns dealt with city politics and the race-and-crime nexus; I and others at the Post editorial page then believed that the future of New York’s and perhaps American urban civilization hung in the balance.
But one couldn’t do this all the time. One Monday evening with a column to write, I noticed a press mention that Gore Vidal was an advisor to Jerry Brown, who was then involved in very competitive primary contest with Bill Clinton. The New York primary was perhaps three weeks away. Clinton was favored, but Brown had won some New England states and had a little momentum. Suddenly I recognized a subject for a column that could more or less write itself, and I could be home by 9:30 or 10, in time to see my kids and have dinner with my wife.
I’m grateful that 1992 New York Post columns are not on the internet, because what was produced is surely embarrassing. A copy of the Podhoretz Commentary piece was faxed to our office, and a column adducing that Vidal was the author of a vilely anti-Israel and anti-Semitic screed was duly produced, and questions of what does Jerry Brown think about this were raised. Of course, Vidal was soon summarily dumped from whatever advisory status he had with the Brown campaign. I proceeded on to a round of radio interviews, including a debate with Victor Navasky, who surely had better things to do than go through the Vidal-Podhoretz controversy once again.
My column was more or less solid. Vidal’s Nation piece attacking the Podhoretz’s was inflammatory, seasoned with anti-Semitic tropes. And I do think that it’s important, for extremely well-founded moral reasons as well as practical ones, to avoid anti-Semitism in polemical discourse. But it now seems clear there are other factors to be weighed in assessing the Vidal piece. The target of Vidal’s ire was plainly not Jews in any general sense, but the Podhoretzes and their loyalties to Israel and the problems such loyalties posed for America. It’s not as if, in 1986, there were an whole slew of Tony Judts and M.J. Rosenbergs and Philip Weisses writing about this subject with verve and passion and judiciousness and sensitivity. No leading political scientists had excavated the workings and explored the consequences of The Israel Lobby. The subject of the U.S.-Israel relationship, if not taboo, was kept far off the national radar screen.
By writing something over the top, and easily perceived as anti-Semitic, Vidal had fired an illumination flare at a subject which richly deserved his readers’ notice. How then to balance the torts in this case: accusing the Podhoretzes of not being real Americans because of their ties to Israel is reprehensible, but so too are Israel’s policies of occupation and ethnic cleansing. The Podhoretzes use of their considerable talents and cultural influence to defend these policies—and, more, to render debate about them out of bounds, is reprehensible as well.
In any case, Jerry Brown lost the New York primary and was deprived of Gore Vidal’s strategic advice. I had the lesson reinforced that it is seldom a bad career move for someone with a Mc in their surname to accuse someone of anti-Semitism, especially if there’s any basis for the charge. If Vidal deserved no credit for the tone of his polemic, he clearly does for its foresight, especially the insight that Israel’s belligerence, then seemingly a secondary or even tertiary factor in the determination of American foreign policy, would begin to weigh more heavily so long as we remained so closely tied to the country. Today this seems almost beyond dispute. In any case, had I the chance I would have told Vidal that my column was written out of conviction and at the time quite genuine affection for the Podhoretzes, but also some laziness and at least some subconscious sense that it would please those with a chance to favor my career. And for that I was sorry. I would tell him also that his piece, while still over the top, at least worked towards some important truths.