by Peter Byrne
"We may both be known in literary history for our feud rather than our works."
—Norman Mailer to Gore Vidal
(Swans - August 27, 2012) Gore Vidal died on July 31 at eighty-six. As the summer dust settles on the haystack of his obituaries, there's no need to read through to the bottom. The same points are touched on in different order. Our journalists aren't plagiarists. They know how to copy one another with enough surface variation to justify their pay.
The morgue is the right name for the obituary departments of big media. They freeze the corpse with a non-comital look on its face that reassures the community. Vidal's incisors don't show as we skip through his patrician beginnings, sexual pioneering, Kennedy connection, T.V. japes, celebrity detours, sub-Wilde one-liners, lawsuits, and real estate holdings until he's stowed away in the pigeon hole for grand old men, grumpy but lovable, whose distinction the nation at large takes credit for postmortem. Bent ears can just make out the sigh of relief on the summer breeze. The s.o.b. has finally left the stage.
Vidal looked after his image like some fussy Jeeves. His editing of his own existence didn't make things easier for the wordsmiths down there among the recently departed. Powdering the faces of new arrivals, accentuating the positive, doesn't leave much time for reading their books. With a slippery, one-step-ahead, super self-conscious performer like Vidal, this meant decking out the mummy in primary colors -- a cartoon R.I.P.
Consumed by ambition, determined to be king of the hill, Vidal was hard to fathom because he wasn't sure about which hill to climb. He disliked limiting himself to any one thing because that would exclude him from being everything. This could be disconcerting. In 1990 he presided over the jury at the Venice Film Festival and came down brutally in favor of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the movie that Tom Stoppard made of his own play. When jury members objected that Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Jane Campion's An Angel At My Table couldn't be so easily dismissed, Vidal shamed them with a harangue on the superiority of literary values. He even quoted Goethe. It was an impressive performance for anyone who hadn't heard him shortly before in Rome's Cinecittà. There he assured the moguls that as a Hollywood insider he would never gum up the scripts he sold them with literature.
Vidal had been driven up from Rome at a saunter in a Rolls Royce. It was typical of his connection to Italy, which no matter how long it lasted remained a tourist's. He never immersed himself in Italian life. Strange that for someone so political, he had nothing to say about Italian politics. When political violence erupted in the 1970s his first thought was to flee the country. Rumors that the Italian government might tax his income also made him consider leaving. In letters he liked to muse on how Henry James settled in England and eventually became a British subject. However, as Italo Calvino pointed out, Vidal himself "never left America for a second." His Italian dwellings were regularly full of guests and gossip from home, and he never stopped crossing the Atlantic. In Italy he wrote books about America or about antiquity from a decidedly New World point of view. The degree of his remoteness from Italian life showed as late as 1996. Struck with rectal hemorrhaging, he was rushed from Ravello to San Giovanni Hospital in Salerno. It was a run-of-the-mill Italian institution that served the general public. For Vidal, "It was a charnel house. I knew that the toilet could give you AIDS or a thousand other things."
Expatriate or tourist, littérateur or script doctor, Vidal felt diminished if pinned down. Truman Capote summed him up with a smirk: "Gore wants to be all things to all men. I mean, he wants to be Caesar and Cleopatra at the same time, and he isn't." Capote had Vidal's writing in mind, and it's striking how opinion on it differs still. Many see his essays as his best work despite his insistence that he was a novelist above all else. Jason Epstein, his long-term editor at Random House, said, "I always thought about Gore that he was not really a novelist, that he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn't subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist." Vidal had upset Epstein by not sticking exclusively to realistic historical novels (bestsellers) and alternating with fantasies that played games with gender (modest sellers). He was still doing Caesar and Cleopatra.
In politics too Vidal disliked facing in a single direction. It began in childhood when he was left in the care of his beloved grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore. Born in Mississippi, Gore was an old school Southern Democrat who served twenty years off and on in the senate for Oklahoma. He urged neutrality in both world wars, defended states' rights against the federal government, and thought welfare morally debilitating. After falling in line with the New Deal, Gore turned against FDR in 1936 and became his implacable enemy. Vidal never completely freed himself from the mindset of the Deep South. He looked back with a touch of irony at his attitude to Roosevelt's death in 1945. "I was delighted of course. He had got us into the war; he had established a dictatorship; he had defeated my grandfather in the election of 1936."
In 1960 Vidal nevertheless had the support of Roosevelt's widow, Eleanor, when he ran as a Democrat for the House of Representatives. He lived in a mansion on the Hudson and Eleanor was a regional neighbor. Vidal at thirty-five couldn't bring himself to write off a political career. His grandfather had brought him up as his heir in public life and the young man had always gloried in his Washington connections. His father, Gene, had been Director of Air Commerce under Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy was a relative. At the same time he knew that his homosexual-themed novel of 1948, The City And The Pillar, had gone some way to burn his bridges to office. Usually hardheaded in career decisions, the performance possibilities of politics were still too enticing to let go. The 29th District was solidly Republican and there was little chance of success, but the Kennedy candidature for president had apparently restored glamour to politics for him. Eleanor, distrusting the Kennedy family, backed Adlai Stevenson.
Vidal lost the election after standing slightly to the left of liberal Democrats. Divided Berlin was in turmoil and, exceptionally for him, he indulged in anti-Communism. It was the only time he ever proposed sending troops abroad. Democratic-machine politicians didn't bother to criticize his policies but told him that heaping sarcasm on his opponent had been the wrong way to campaign.
Much had changed by 1982 when Vidal's yen for office returned again. For one thing, he had made a lot of money and was not adverse to spending some of it on another exercise in seduction. Ronald Reagan was president and Barry Goldwater, Jr., would be the Republican Party candidate for the senate in California where Vidal had a home. He set about challenging Jerry Brown in the Democratic primary.
Vidal obtained only fifteen percent of the vote, but running did allow him to air proposals he believed in. He wanted more funds for education, a stronger defense of civil liberties, increased taxes on corporations and, to top it off, a new Constitutional Convention. It seemed like winning had been less his objective than self-exposure. He enjoyed making speeches, especially at universities where the students adored him.
Vidal never threw off his yearning for a political role. From boyhood he thought of himself as a Washington insider, mocking idealists and the less savvy. It led him to assume he could outmaneuver any party hack. His personal differences with Bobby Kennedy in 1960 were inevitable. Bobby, a genuine machine politician, treated Vidal like a rank amateur. Jack Kennedy, above the fray, saw no reason not to let Vidal go on with his make-believe.
In the 1980s, Vidal still nursed his dream. One winey evening in Ravello he told his literary agent, Owen Laster, "how he had wanted to be President and how he had chosen to be a writer but never stopped wanting to be President." At the same time his suite of historical novels that dealt with the years from 1800 to his own lifetime pictured an America that would have shocked any electorate.
A practical politician would have kept such somber thoughts to himself. Vidal, an attitudinizer with grievances, used ideas as weapons to settle scores. He never had any aversion to making a splash. Along with his views of the nation's moral decline, there were personal bugbears that never left his mind.
One involved gay sex, an expression he abhorred. "Homosexual" seemed demeaning and inexact to him, and he declared there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts. Insisting that everyone was bisexual fit his need to have everything all ways. He added that sex was one thing, love another. For Vidal, reaching these conclusions was not enough. To the annoyance of his publishers he kept writing them into his books.
There was also the question of his beautiful and brilliant mother, Nina. The daughter of Senator Gore and his devoted wife, both paragons of steady virtue, Nina was superficial, flighty, and alcoholic. Tension always ran high between her and her son. Vidal believed she had neglected him as a child and afterwards was determined to ruin his adult life. He didn't simply keep out of Nina's way and closet their differences within the family. He preferred a state of open war and became something of an embarrassing bore harping on his hatred for his mother. This was too big a step and made him feel he had to demonstrate her vileness constantly to all comers. It also crept into his writing. The flouting of a tribal taboo and the obsessive promotion of his sexual philosophy were hardly the cornerstones for a public career.
In Vidal's dramatizing of American history, the founders were a mixed bag in ability and honor. The Federalists had the money while the Jeffersonians, on their small farms, fought off the government and defended civil rights. Andrew Jackson's democracy displaced the elite but put raw power and greed for land in its place. Slavery thrived and the push began to drive Native Americans off the map. Lincoln, whom Vidal gave star billing and a memorable volume to himself, wrote paid to Jeffersonian America. His Union was a nationalist behemoth that opened the way for industrialists. The south and the slaves would have fared better left to themselves. Like pus from a wound, the American Empire of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt flowed from Lincoln's monolith. First the Caribbean and then the Pacific were moored to North America. After stumbling into WWI, Woodrow Wilson redrew the map of Europe insuring WWII. Franklin Roosevelt gave the poor just enough to keep capitalism going. His heavily restructured federal government assumed international dominance, both military and economic. It was left to his successor Truman to set up the full security state in preparation for the long Cold War with the outgunned Soviet Union. Minor wars in Korea and Vietnam served to remind the public of the monsters that lurked out there beyond the imperial borders.
Vidal contended that from the end of WWII, anti-Communism had been the religion of America. The goods offered by various churches were only the illusory variety of competing supermarket chains. E pluribus unum, the unifying faith was hostility to the evil empire. For Vidal, as indeed it turned out, the USSR was not nearly so strong or dangerous as its enemies in Washington insisted. They were only serving their own careers tied to US military expansion in the world. Vidal never stopped repeating this view in his direct and bitter language.
Of course, his refusal of the anti-Soviet creed left the America-über-alles crowd aghast. He then goaded them on by suggesting a Soviet-U.S. alliance against a coming Chinese rapprochement with Japan. The more simple-minded kept asking what they considered the ultimate question, "Did Gore Vidal not love America?" They could forgive him his money, his life abroad, his libertarian uppercuts, even his intelligence and relentless mockery. The nation that created the commercial breakthrough of "Mother's Day" could overlook his reviling of boozy Nina. With the passing of years, the patrioteers could even accept his sexual preferences. But his part of the bargain would have to be love for God's country en bloc, as if the nation's opposing currents of opinion were simply play-acting at election time while the reality was Us against Them, America against the world.
Telling the patriots to stick their ultimate question where Dick Cavett said the moon doesn't shine, Vidal continued on his merry way. The disappearance of the Soviet Union did not change his criticism of the federal government's overreach in the wrong directions. He would not let his countrymen file away the ATF and FBI slaughter of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, in 1993. This military operation that cost the lives of seventy-six Americans was justified by a presumption of pedophilia and the principle that nonconformity must be crushed -- in other words, it was justified by everything that Vidal, for one reason or another, had fought against all his life.
That, moreover, was not the end of it. One Timothy McVeigh retaliated by blowing up, apparently single-handedly, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing a hundred sixty-eight. He had won a Bronze Star in the Gulf War and was strong on gun rights. Vidal would not simply dismiss the young man as a psychopath and look the other way until he was put to death. While the flag-wavers gulped in horror, only able to dispel their confusion by riffing on the new coinage, "domestic terrorism," Vidal probed the case, which was full of holes on both sides. When McVeigh wrote him he replied and tried to understand the former infantryman. Vidal's treatment of the confessed killer as a human being was his final grimace of disgust at the professional patriots. Forget his vanity, his preening, his poor little rich boy's whining. It was Gore Vidal's finest hour.
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