Obituary

08.01.12

Gore Vidal, 1925-2012

Vidal's personality was his supreme production, David Frum says, and his theme was the wrong done to him personally.

"Peace" is the thing that Gore Vidal is least likely to rest in. He was an angry old man, whose anger led toward 9/11 Trutherism among many other conspiracy theories. He wrote that the Roosevelt administration had consciously provoked the Pearl Harbor attacks, and that Timothy McVeigh—with whom he maintained a long friendly correspondence—had acted from an "exaggerated sense of justice." His obituarist in the Nation wanly pleaded that Vidal upheld "the milder version [of 9/11 Trutherism]—that the Bush administration had advance warning, but let the attacks happen—rather than the view that the towers were blown up from the inside on Bush’s orders." But that's hardly an improvement.

The late-life Vidal presented himself as a national conscience, a vindicator of small r-republican ideals against imperial excess. But like one of his heroes and models, Henry Adams, Vidal seemed even more intensely animated by the defeat of his aristocratic expectations of an inherited role in the government of the country—although, unlike Adams, it was never clear with Vidal on what these expectations rested. One of his grandfathers was a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He shared a stepfather with the future Jacqueline Kennedy. He was distantly related to Al Gore. 

While Vidal was much admired by progressives, his politics (to the extent that he had politics as opposed to exasperations) were actually distinctly reactionary. Even as he ridiculed almost all the country's early heroes in his historical novels, he insisted that he preferred that old republic to the post-1865 iteration. On the one occasion I met him, a shared panel on the Bill Maher show, Vidal argued that 19th century elections were more honest than today's. (I answered that it took an enormous amount of ignorance of 19th century political history to say such a thing—an act of lese-majeste for which I was scolded by some viewers.)

I've never been sure how seriously to take the odor of anti-Semitism that pervaded so many of Vidal's public utterances. He was capable of calling American supporters of Israel a "fifth column." He wrote an introduction to a crackpot book of anti-Semitic propaganda, in which Vidal accused Jews of buying Harry Truman's support for the founding of Israel for $2 million in campaign cash.

On the other hand, as William F. Buckley shrewdly observed, there was always a lot of sham and play-acting with Vidal. Vidal may well have thought that expressions of anti-Semitism somehow distinguished him, validated his self-image as a truth-teller—and, incidentally, confirmed his claims of aristocratic distinction. Vidal did live much of his life with a Jewish man for his companion. He may have imagined this relationship immunized his words. Or—like Strom Thurmond fathering a child with a black woman—Vidal may have lived two lives without feeling any need for consistency between them.

Will the literary work live?

I'm inclined to guess no, with a few exceptions: his novel Lincoln, maybe. Vidal's personality was his supreme production, and minus fresh journalistic provocations, minus the tart malice of his television presence, the words on the printed page will not, most of them, summon new generations of readers by their own unaided strength. Too many of his writings have as their theme the great wrong done to him personally by a neglectful country. As his presence fades, so will his aggrieved theme—and then what will be left?