October 23, 1925 – July 31, 2012
Time out to add my two cents to the hullabaloo surrounding the life of Gore Vidal, playwright, screenwriter, activist, politician, iconoclast, and generally caring human being. Many respected and admired him, and have said so in the countless tributes and obituaries subsequent to his death last week. Yet has there been an American literary figure in my lifetime who has been so widely reviled, and so relentlessly reviling?
Vidal was never an easy man to listen to. To the bitter end (literally), he remained pessimistic about America’s future, calling his country “the most ignorant first world country on earth.” He called us “the United States of Amnesia,” saying “we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” He warned us repeatedly that we were on a one-way path to economic collapse and depression. He decried the state of our educational system, exclaiming, “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper; half never voted for president. … One hopes it is the same half.” The list of quotes demonstrating his acidic observations of American society and politics goes on and on.
Clearly, there was the sting of truth in every witticism he uttered. Vidal said a great many things during his 86 years that we should have been listening to more carefully. The man dedicated his entire life to challenging hypocrisy and misguided political leadership, and regrettably he lived to see the whole scene get worse and worse.
Many of us are old enough to remember his heated exchange with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic convention. The topic was the Vietnam War, causing Vidal to label Buckley a crypto-nazi, and the notoriously reserved Buckley to respond by calling Vidal a queer and threatening to punch him in the face. Yet behind all the sensationalism it aroused in the media, the episode (which can be seen on YouTube) revealed Vidal’s rational habit of truth-telling despite all possible consequences. The success of a democracy depends on the open and full exchange of opinions, from which viewers and listeners may make their own clear preferences. How long has it been since we’ve seen that happen in our contemporary media? The son of a senator, and a distant cousin of Al Gore, Vidal would have loved to be a politician himself, although he made a clear distinction between the politician’s language (avoidance of truth) and the writer’s language (truth).
This gifted and witty linguist was indeed a writer. He wrote twenty-five novels, including one of the best fictional biographies of Lincoln out there. Michele Bachmann allegedly claimed she converted to the Republican party after being so disturbed by Vidal’s Burr. That ought to be worth something! He also wrote five hit plays, including The Best Man, currently still playing on Broadway (See the discussion in my April 14 post.) And he is the author of a number of screenplays, countless essays and opinion pieces.
Way back in 1948, Vidal wrote a novel called The City and the Pillar, suggesting that two normal men could love each other. For that radical position at the time, the New York Times book editor swore never to review any of his books – ever! Vidal was known to have relationships with both men and women, but ironically, he never supported gay marriage rights, “…since heterosexual marriage is such a disaster.” Nonetheless, attitudes have changed, at least in part because of his writings: Two days before he died, the Democratic Party agreed to add equal marriage rights to their 2012 platform.
For that matter, Vidal never claimed to be a spokesman for any movement or party or position. By choice, he stood alone on a high podium, equally critical of social, political, religious, and sexual hypocrisy in any of its many forms and from whatever direction, left or right.
In the end, beyond the bile and the vehemence, perhaps it was his stubborn self-righteousness that truly drove his critics nuts. It was that he insisted on being so damn right all the time, and that there was not a trace of the self-doubt to which most of us confess, and which goes along with being a fallible mere human being.
Just this morning, I stumbled across a quotation from Gandhi somewhat closer to my own view on self-righteousness: “To find Truth completely is to realize oneself and one’s destiny, i.e., to become perfect. I am painfully conscious of my imperfections, and therein lay all the strength I possess.” To the best of my knowledge, such humility was rarely present in Gore Vidal’s bag of tricks.
Nonetheless “attention must be paid” … to a man with such a clear window on human fallibility. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear him for so much of my life, and I will miss him. Thank you, Mr. Vidal, for courageously setting the example of telling the truth as you see it, consequences be damned. You have been an inspiration for us all, and while I’m quite certain you don’t believe it, our country is the better for you.