With the death of Gore Vidal, America has lost one of its wittiest naysayers. Gore seemed a throwback to the time of the founders. In several of his novels, he showed them as flawed but visionary patricians who could found a nation, engage in politics, write literate prose, and design a Monticello or a Constitution. But then, as always with Vidal, came the kicker: “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country—and we haven’t seen them since.” He became like Henry Adams, the historian of his country’s declension, in his scrupulously researched “American Chronicle” novels, which were a readable and informative remedy for Americans’ historical illiteracy.
Although Vidal’s own forays into the political arena (running for the House of Representatives from New York and the Senate from California) were unsuccessful, he did surprisingly well, demonstrating at the very least that a candidate can speak honestly to voters. But he played his most useful public role at his writing desk, as a one-man shadow cabinet firing off scolding open letters.
Why did he bother? If we could answer that question, we would have found Rosebud. Certainly he made a lucrative living off his plays, novels and film scripts. In an essay on H.L. Mencken that appeared here, he quotes the Sage of Baltimore’s reply when asked why, if he found so much to criticize about America, he continued to live here: “Why do men go to zoos?” Although more politically engagé than Mencken ever was, the mercurial Vidal sometimes despaired of his slower-witted countrymen: “For several decades I have been trying to convince Europeans that Americans are not innately stupid but merely ignorant and that with a proper educational system, et cetera. But the more one reads Mencken the more one eyes suspiciously the knuckles of his countrymen, looking to see calluses from too constant a contact with the greensward.”
Probably Gore’s willingness to become a public figure had something to do with heredity. Controversy and contrarianism were in his DNA. And nurture played a role as well. He was born to a prominent father—Eugene Vidal, star athlete at West Point, flier and aviation industry pioneer—and a socially connected mother, Nina (whom he detested), who divorced Eugene and married an Auchincloss, later Jackie Kennedy’s stepfather. There was a sense of entitlement, but it was blended with a sense of political service aroused by reading to his blind grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore. One wonders if all those sessions gave him a literal taste for speaking truth to power, up close and personal. Anyhow, he never stopped.
To those of us who knew his works, his person and his generosity, Gore’s philippics against his native land were not the sneers of an Eastern snob; they were the cries of a disappointed lover. His coping strategy was to hector, remonstrate and satirize, in hopes of making the wayward adored one worthy of its heritage.
Gore started life as a cosseted golden boy, but he soon jumped the track. After serving with the Army in World War II, he came home apparently changed, like a lot of young men. His first two novels were followed by his great breakthrough, The City and the Pillar (1948), a realistic treatment of a young man experiencing a homosexual crush on his best boyhood friend (a situation derived from Vidal’s own life). This coming-out novel shocked the fuddy-duddies who dominated book reviewing at the New York Times and kindred establishment organs. Vidal was blackballed by the literary clubmen. Critics to the left charged that he was concentrating on issues of sexuality rather than critiquing American society, while on the right the McCarthyites demonized homosexuals as security risks, drowning out all sane discussion. Perhaps Gore imbibed from the cold war polemicists a distaste for the politicization of private behavior. He was not one to flaunt, so to speak, his identity as a gay man; in fact, he despised all identity politics. He considered himself bisexual and said there were no “homosexuals,” only “homosexual acts,” which were normal and widely engaged in.
All this probably led up to a 1981 Nation essay, “Some Jews & the Gays,” a full-throated attack on the national sport of gay-baiting. It took the form of a bruising, informed polemic deconstructing a bigoted article by Midge Decter about the gay scene on Fire Island, which she used to derogate all gays. Vidal’s central point—that “Jews and homosexualists are in the same fragile boat” with blacks and other out-groups—got lost in the ensuing furor. In the New York Post, Decter’s husband, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, called The Nation an anti-Semitic rag.
The Nation survived Podhoretz’s worst, and Vidal continued to contribute elegant, prophetic articles to our pages. As an essayist he had no peer, which literary-prize juries later confirmed. Among his best in this magazine (which can be found at thenation.com) were “Requiem for the American Empire,” “How to Take Back Our Country” and “Notes on Our Patriarchal State.” His January 2001 essay “Democratic Vistas,” which excoriated “the Supreme Court’s dedication to the 1 percent that own the country,” was eerily prescient in warning us to “expect a small war or two,” that “there will also be tax relief for the very rich” and that “terrorism is everywhere on the march.” America, he frequently said, would be best advised to civilize and humanize itself and abandon its pretensions to police the world.
Vidal used the elegant but tricky weapons of satire and irony, which was often what got him in trouble with the literal-minded. “Few Americans have ever been able to cope with wit or irony,” he observed in his Mencken essay. But satirical novels like Myra Breckinridge were a scintillating part of his oeuvre.
In his very first piece for this magazine, written in 1958, Vidal called for a revival of satire as an antidote to the navel-gazing novels of the time. What American literature needed was “more engagement in the outer world,” he wrote, adding that satirists “are needed as truth is needed, for is not satire, simply, truth grinning in a solemn canting world?”
Gore’s last years were darkened by pain and his own decline. One might say, with great sadness, that for him death was the best retirement plan. Passion spent, old enemies outlived, the rapier blunted, he had earned his rest. But oh, how the Republic misses its persistent suitor!