Any appreciation of Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (1925-2012) must necessarily resemble the fable of the blind men and the elephant. He was so many things that the only term which can really be stretched to cover them all is the too-often used “man of letters,” and any individual fan in the spectator sport that was his life likely only had the time or inclination to really appreciate one or two of those things.
Of those many things, the two we’ll most likely see invoked over and over are “gadfly” and “cynic.” He was never afraid to speak the ugly truth to power, while simultaneously and impudently tweaking power’s nose.
Politically, he was the prototypical Old Right Leftie: Scion of a political family (his father was a New Deal bureaucrat before founding three airlines; his maternal grandfather a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma), raised in the imperial capital, a personal transmission belt connecting the “isolationism” and conflicting aristocratic/egalitarian mindsets of the 1930s political class to the 21st century’s remnant opposition movements of all types.
His long-running feud with the late William F. Buckley, Jr. encapsulated the politics of the last half of the 20th century in serial vignette form (the high point being Buckley’s meltdown, live on national television, as the two provided dueling commentary on the 1968 Democratic National Convention — “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered”). As Buckley moved to reconcile the conservative movement with the total state, Vidal in turn attempted to salvage such value as the dying (at Buckley’s, among others, hand) political right embodied and fuse it with his leftist analysis of decadence in the political status quo.
To my mind, Vidal’s greatest gift to his readers as a biographical and historical novelist (which is the part of the elephant that this particular blind man usually latches on to) was his ability to tear down power while, and by, humanizing the powerful. He single-handedly rehabilitated Aaron Burr (at the expense of, among others, Thomas Jefferson). His Lincoln brought America’s 16th president down from the pedestal, laying bare the hypocrisies of the Civil War era while simultaneously cutting Lincoln as a genuinely sympathetic figure.
Among his wholly fictional efforts, Kalki is arguably the human political comedy distilled to its essence, taking the will to power to its inevitable ends.
Vidal was no anarchist, nor arguably even a libertarian of other than the “civil” variety. His value as a critic of the existing system, however, was in no way lessened by that fact. If he failed to find the solution, he at least had a keen eye for the problem: “The genius of our ruling class,” he’s quoted in various places as saying, “is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequality of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”
I’ll miss Gore Vidal. And I’ll remain thankful that so many of his insights are immortalized in print.
• Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society.