In a world more to his liking, Gore Vidal might have been president, or even king. He had an aristocrat’s bearing — tall, handsome and composed — and an authoritative baritone ideal for summoning an aide or courtier.
But Vidal made his living — a very good living — from challenging power, not holding it. He was wealthy and famous and committed to exposing a system often led by men he knew firsthand. During the days of Franklin Roosevelt, one of the few leaders whom Vidal admired, he might have been called a “traitor to his class.” The real traitors, Vidal would respond, were the upholders of his class.
The author, playwright, politician and commentator whose vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks were stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, died Tuesday at age 86 in Los Angeles…
His works included hundreds of essays, the best-selling novels “Lincoln” and “Myra Breckenridge” and the Tony-nominated play “The Best Man,” a melodrama about a presidential convention revived on Broadway in 2012. Vidal appeared cold and cynical on the surface, dispassionately predicting the fall of democracy, the American empire’s decline or the destruction of the environment. But he bore a melancholy regard for lost worlds, for reason and the primacy of the written word, for “the ancient American sense that whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.”
But he was widely admired as an independent thinker — in the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken — about literature, culture, politics and, as he liked to call it, “the birds and the bees.” He picked apart politicians, living and dead; mocked religion and prudery; opposed wars from Vietnam to Iraq and insulted his peers like no other, once observing that the three saddest words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates.” (The happiest words: “I told you so”)….
He adored the wisdom of Montaigne, the imagination of Calvino, the erudition and insight of Henry James and Edith Wharton. He detested Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and other authors of “teachers’ novels.” He once likened Mailer’s views on women to those of Charles Manson’s. (From this the head-butting incident ensued, backstage at “The Dick Cavett Show.”) He derided Buckley, on television, as a “crypto Nazi.” He was accused of anti-Semitism after labeling conservative Norman Podhoretz a member of “the Israeli fifth column.” He labeled Ronald Reagan “The Acting President” and identified Reagan’s wife, Nancy, as a social climber “born with a silver ladder in her hand.”…
…[A]ge and illness did not bring Vidal closer to God. Wheelchair-bound in his 80s and saddened by the death of [long-term companion] Austen and many peers and close friends, the author still looked to no existence beyond this one.
“Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge,” he once wrote, “all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. “Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
Vidal, especially as he became older and lonelier, made quite a few indefensible statements — neither anti-Semitism nor 9/11 trutherism can be explained away as just a hardening of long-term positions against particular individual enemies. But he was pro-human-equality, anti-military-industrial-complex, and loudly suspicious of the literary world’s inordinate tendency towards courtierism at a time when just being an admitted “homosexualist” could have cost him his freedom, much less his career. He was probably as close to a Renaissance man as the second half of the twentieth century produced, and I suspect some of his work (“The Best Man”, some of his literary criticism, Lincoln) will be read long after his more self-controlled peers and opponents have been forgotten.
And while he would certainly have read his every obituary with close attention, I doubt he expected nil nisi bonum. This was how Vidal closed his gleeful shredding of William F. Buckley’s pious postmortem in 2008:
… The unique mess that our republic is in can be, in part, attributed to a corrupt press whose roots are in mendacious news (sic) magazines like Time and Newsweek, aided by tabloids that manufacture fictional stories about actual people. This mingling of opinion and fiction has undone a media never devoted to truth. Hence, the ease with which the Republican smear-machine goes into action when they realize that yet again the party’s permanent unpopularity with the American people will cause them defeat unless they smear individually those who question the junk that the media has put into so many heads. Anyone who says “We gotta fight ‘em over there or we’re gonna have to fight ‘em over here.” This absurdity has been pronounced by every Republican seeking high office. The habit of lying is now a national style that started with “news” magazines that was further developed by pathological liars that proved to be “good” Entertainment on TV. But a diet of poison that has done none of us any good.
I speak ex cathedra now, ad urbe et orbe, with a warning that no society so marinated in falsity can long survive in a real world.