Goodbye to Gore Vidal

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and the author of “While Europe Slept” and “Surrender.” His book "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" is just out from Broadside / Harper Collins.


He was born at West Point to a prominent family, served his country in World War II, was made famous by his first novel (published at age twenty), and a couple of years later alienated book-review editors with his third novel, which, for 1948, was that most scandalous of things – a gay love story.  Unwelcome in the New York publishing world, he proceeded to bang out TV plays, tinker with scripts at MGM, churn out pseudonymous potboilers, and get a couple of plays produced on Broadway – the grating, now impossibly dated Visit to a Small Planet and the well-made but preachy The Best Man (which, as it happens, is at this very moment back on The Great White Way for the third time).

His series of novels about American history – from Washington, D.C. (1967) to The Golden Age (2000) – help make him rich and led him to brag that he was America’s foremost historian, but these bulky, inert productions might fairly be described by borrowing a few words of criticism that his nemesis, Truman Capote, once directed at the work of one of Vidal’s sometime bedmates, Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”  Even worse, perhaps, than his history novels were his more off-beat fictional works, notably Myra Breckenridge (1968), which at the time passed for naughty and sensational but which has long since come to be recognized as an embarrassing, godawful bore.

If Vidal the novelist seems almost surely destined for the ash-heap of literary history, his essays were – very often – instant classics.  He had two principal topics: literature and politics.  If his novels (especially the history ones) often seemed the work of an industrious, indifferent hack who had happened upon a money-making formula, his essays were inspired and learned, crackling with conviction and sizzling with a wit that often shaded into withering sarcasm.  On literature, Vidal – who never went to college – proved to be a supremely well-read arbiter who had exquisite taste and was gifted with rare powers of discrimination.  “When he writes about literature,” I observed in a review a thousand or so years ago, “Vidal can be wonderfully sane and astute, scorning academic mumbo-jumbo and defending high aesthetic standards.”  His literary essays, briefly put, were marvels of elegance, models of first-rate critical prose – and always a delight to read.

But the political essays were another matter entirely.  Let me put them, briefly, in context.  Vidal never tired of telling the same old stories – either in essays or in the guest chair on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – about his grandfather, a distinguished senator from Oklahoma; his father, a top aviation official in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration; and his family connection to the Kennedys (he and Jackie shared a stepfather).  Why was he so preoccupied with this family history?  Partly just because he was an egomaniac who liked to brag on himself.  But partly, too, because he felt compelled to remind everyone, at every opportunity, that he was a scion of the American aristocracy, born, like one of his heroes, Henry Adams, into a family whose members (in his view) were destined to guide the course of the republic.  Vidal twice ran for Congress, and if he lost both times, it was, in his view, one gathered, precisely because the electorate was too undiscerning to recognize its natural leaders when they offered themselves up for public service.

Deprived of public office, Vidal had his political essays (most of them published in the New York Review of Books), in which he made clear his contempt for – well, for pretty much everything and everybody, aside from himself, his family, and his handful of literary, cultural, and political heroes (such as Lincoln).  He despised capitalism; he ridiculed what he considered Americans’ naïve enthusiasm for a freedom he regarded as a chimera; and he mercilessly mocked religion, Christianity above all (although the way in which he wrote about Israel and about certain Jewish authors led many to peg him, not unfairly, as an anti-Semite).  To the supremely cynical Vidal, America was a “national-security state” run by power-mad oligarchs whose perfidious designs, obvious to him, escaped the notice of the moronic, mouth-breathing multitudes.  (One of the paradoxes of Vidal is that even as he professed to be deeply concerned about the life circumstances and prospects of the American people, his prose dripped with condescension toward them.)

At first (in his JFK days) a Democratic booster, Vidal soon morphed into a left-liberal gadfly who rejected both major political parties as equally implicated in a mass deception and betrayal of founding American values; in his dotage, he bloomed from a reliable contrarian into a full-fledged crank who actually befriended Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh and argued that Bush was responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers.  In 2002 (is it already ten years ago that he published this?) he attained the very apotheosis of crackpottery with Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, a cornucopia of the most inane of post-9/11 conspiracy theories – a book that only made one shake one’s head at the sad decline of a mind that had once, at its best, been (at least) reliably sharp and amusing.  In his final TV appearances, he seemed a shadow of his old self, recycling now tattered old JFK and Eleanor Roosevelt anecdotes for the thousandth time and struggling to keep up the façade of the wry, all-knowing pontificator, even as he spun out theories that no sane person could credit.  His career is a cautionary tale of a considerable intellect in thrall to an ego that, more and more, commanded him to shock and sneer as if from an imperial height – the consequence being that, increasingly, he merely captured attention and caused bemusement where he might, instead, have delivered insight, illumination, and wisdom.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.

  • Kufar Dawg

    I saw a debate between Vidal and William F. Buckley in which Vidal accused Buckley of being a Nazi. Buckley got
    up out of his chair and was about to punch Vidal for that accusation.

  • trickyblain

    Love it when an expat writing virtually pro-bono for a joke website lectures us on "American values." Thanks, Hack. A truly tasteless, contemptible and bitter piece of crap.

    • Banastre tarleton

      But also an accurate and fair minded description of a talented author who became a conspiracy creep and national embarrassment

    • https://www.facebook.com/flynn.mcmahon Flynn McMahon

      I'd love to hear one of your lectures on "American values". I bet it would start out with something along the lines of "racist, fascist, misogynist, homophobic,…yada yada" But you can't get enough of your TMZ, video games, and porn. Isn't that about right, Tricky?

      • trickyblain

        I love it when posters make stuff up about other folks and post it as if they have the first clue.

        None of the attributes you list are found in our founding documents (racism, fascism, etc), so, no, they are definitely not American values. They are values more likely to be found in Magic Books. And although all the items you slanderously accuse me of indulging are all products monetized here in the states, they in themselves, are not American values (they are products — values are intangible). But I guess you could say that porn, video games and TMZ are "reflective" of some profoundly American values — ingenuity, creativity and entrepreneurship

        • HoR_Emperor

          Pretentious and incoherent blather.

          • trickyblain

            Odd that someone who pathetically refers to him/herself as "Emperor" calls someone pretentious.

    • mlcblog

      What's your rib?

      • Gigi

        Vitriolic!!!

    • Chris Nichols

      What kind of gutless, spiteful, moron continues to visit a website everyday that he calls "a joke" and hates. Then after disparaging said website and the people who frequent it, without a hint of irony, calls them hateful, intolerant bigots, etc. You get you a$$ handed to you hear on a regular basis tricky, and yet you still don't still don't have to foresight or intelligence to rethink your positions on which you are constantly wrong. Dogs have more cognitive ability than you do. Yuri Bezmenov was right about people like you.

      • trickyblain

        Where did I call anyone "intolerent bigots" on this thread. My vitriol is aimed at this classless, click-seeking, article about a man who just died (written by Bruce "Brevik was wrong in killing all those kids, but…" Bawer) .

        This website, and many (but not all) of the people who visit it makes me laugh — yourself included.It's they one place I can find so much hate and crazy in one place, and it provides solace that it's a very isolated underbelly of our culture. That's why I spend, maybe, 20 minutes a week here

        • Chris Nichols

          "Where did I call anyone "intolerent bigots" on this thread. "

          right here

          "….It's they one place I can find so much hate and crazy in one place,"

          You are a poor liar tricky, and you can put yourself into the class click-seeking category yourself. Your vitriol is aimed at the people who believe in limited government and self-defense and you spend more than 20 minutes a week here getting yourself some "laughs". What you call hate and crazy are people that want to rights don't come from government and that government is meant to secure those rights, not redistribute wealth or plant an economy. To you, that is crazy. If it weren't for us crazy hate-filled people you would be standing in a rice field, with your basket looking at the rest of your prog buddies wondering how you got there.

          • trickyblain

            I have actually had interesting debates/discussions with folks here regarding government limitations, I'd never argue against the concept of natural law/rights. I do take issue with you — like the poster above — creating a strawman regarding my views. To help you attack my "actual" positions, let me help you by identifying some fringe-right positions that I find crazy and/or hateful and/or willfully ignorant:

            - Inserting the subhead "A crackpot bites the dust" above an article that attacks a harmless octogenarian who just died (while previously attacking lefty hate-sites for doing the exact same thing).
            - The idea that Obama:
            —is the Anti-Christ
            —a clandestine Muslim
            —hates America
            - The idea that all people who vote Democrat are on the public dole and/or evil and/or sheep
            - People who want to nuke Mecca
            - People who mock blacks as stupid criminals

          • HoR_Emperor

            You are now yourself attacking straw men.

          • guest

            you tricky are free to have your beliefs and opinions, but why visit a site that you hate so much especially when your remarks seem arrogant , haughty and condescending? why provoke and abuse others claiming superiority and elitist stature?
            either way its your problem and you do have something going on that is worthy of exploring.
            life is not all black nor all white and some realism and maturity will help negotiate life. finally your ill directed anger will not gain you any friends or sympathizers. better go vent your rage elsewhere and come here to "talk" and discuss like other folks without the chip. you seem like an intelligent fellow, but the items you list above reveal some real problems with reality testing on top of the pathological arrogance covering your perceived ego wounding.

          • trickyblain

            Thank you for your thoughtful reply, guest. I've visited this site for years and confess that is more out of habit, than anything.

            It may seem arrogant that I claim superiority over people that ascribe to the beliefs in my list. Nothing special, there are numerous lower mammalian species that can do the same. Nobody has ever called me an elitist before — silly considering my middle-class circumstances.

            The list is based on real, actual posts that I've seen over the years here. That's realism — immaturity is denying that t a fringe part of the right regularly shows up here tand posts that nonsense. All you have to do is look.

            As a dwindling number of regulars that have posted here over the years can and will attest, I'm not a bad guy and will discuss when a discussion is warranted.

            But an article that p!sses on the warm body of a old man — not a tyrant or murderer; just a political opponent — does not invite discussion. It warrants public scorn.

            Thanks and have a good night.

          • guest

            I notice that your sore point is insulting the memory of a recently deceased man. I agree with you on that one. but as time goes on historians will look at his ideas and judge him gently or harshly no difference ,with no regards to his death process or old age and pre death suffering .
            also note, elitist may mean thought elitism not socioeconomic as you understood that.

          • SCREW SOCIALISM

            trickyblame,

            Face it. Obama will LOSE to Romney.

            Are Americans better off today compared to 4 years ago?

            No.

            Your side blaming GWB for Obamas failure is as comical as blaming Herbert Hoover.

            Time for a change.

          • Kufar Dawg

            Do you have anything to say about the fact there are three holy hadeeths of pisslam that call for the worldwide extermination of Jews? Or is that beneath your notice?

        • HoR_Emperor

          The only "hate and crazy" here is you, troll.

    • HoR_Emperor

      Nope. But you are truly a bitter piece of crap yourself, Lefty troll.

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    Here is the Buckley vs Vidal video.

    Classic!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYymnxoQnf8

  • Ray Olson

    From what I know of Vidal, this is a fair assessment, though I enjoyed his political gadfly act more than Mr. Bawer did, perhaps because I paid only occasional, fleeting attention to it. His contretemps with Buckley was, alas, only silly and wide of the mark; at most, it was the confrontation of two grossly overrated egotists, a kind of Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee battle, sans rattle.

  • mlcblog

    I remember as a young adult watching him on late night TV, where the host would pump him as something interesting. In those days, I was trying to be a somewhat intellectual left (PC though we didn't have that word yet) person. I found Mr. Vidal entirely tedious, even irritating because he didn't make sense to me. Perhaps this was part of the beginning of my later change to becoming a complete conservative.

  • Schlomotion

    This is a clever eulogy as it is truthful all the way through until halfway through the last paragraph, where it is a pack of lies. Everything past the words "Twin Towers" is a fanatical slander and misportrayal of events. That is true also of American politics though.

    • HoR_Emperor

      Nope. But you're a hateful anti-Semitic scumbag.

  • Western Sspirit

    Gore's hubris was disgusting. No matter how "superior" we are we all join the grand parade to the grave.

    That's why hubris is unbecoming and humble is more appropriate to our situation. We're all programmed to exit this world and are weak vulnerable creatures whose time is fleeting.

  • kasandra

    He was a hateful boor who spoke of Jewish American citizens as "guests" in their "host country."

    • Kufar Dawg

      No wonder Schlo admires him.

  • Jeamar

    Many words spent on the obits of a "crackpot."

    • mlcblog

      He was a strong influence in our culture.

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    Alex COCKBURN – OUCH.
    Bore Vidal.

    Ahm-mad-bout-jihad, you're next.