Uncompromising critic of America’s rulers

August 9, 2012

Bill Crane remembers the life of one of U.S. society's most powerful critics.

GORE VIDAL, one of the country's greatest contemporary authors and best-known left-wing commentators, died on July 31.

The scion of a ruling class political family, Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C., as one of the people who destined to run the United States. This was a decisive fact that would influence his writing, his politics and his personal life, even after he had become a definite renegade to that class.

As a commentator, Vidal was to find his home on the left end of the American political spectrum. About the two-party system in the U.S., for example, he wrote:

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party...and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat...the Democrats are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt...and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the Black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

His uncompromising stances were fully on display during the feud between him and right-wing commentator William F. Buckley Jr. in 1968. In a legendary televised debate, Vidal and Buckley almost came to blows in a discussion on the violent suppression of the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. While Buckley resorted to homophobic slurs against Vidal, the latter rightly called him a racist and a warmonger.

Gore Vidal in 1948
Gore Vidal in 1948 (Carl Van Vechten)

This was the start of a lifelong battle that included libel suits filed by both sides. After Buckley's death, Vidal infamously commented that he hoped his onetime rival was burning in hell. Though he was condemned by the mainstream media, his refusal to self-censor in condemning Buckley's thoroughly reactionary views was a breath of fresh air in a political atmosphere long constrained by the bounds of insincere "good taste" and bipartisanship.

Toward the end of his life, Vidal was an unceasing antagonist of the Bush-Cheney regime as it prosecuted imperialist war abroad and the class war against the majority at home. Vidal's essays on American politics during this era, especially those contained in his books Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War, had a deep impact on me personally. His voice of sanity in a climate of war, racist fear-mongering and jingoism reminded me, as a politically aware high school student who was deeply uncomfortable with both Bush and his Democratic rivals, that I was not alone.

Vidal's politics were not without their flaws. An exile from the American ruling elite, Vidal had an ambiguous relationship to the Democratic Party, on whose ticket he once ran for Congress. Even as an outspoken critic, he claimed to support the Democrats, who were, he said, "slightly more intelligent, corrupt and politically conciliatory." Long after he abandoned any political ambitions for himself, he continued to refer fondly to his old friends John and Jackie Kennedy, even while recognizing the catastrophic policies of the former that led to the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.

VIDAL WILL probably be best remembered as a writer. Even here, however, it would be impossible to separate his literary efforts from his politics.

He first achieved notoriety for his second novel, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948. A semi-autobiographical account of a gay affair with a dedication to his onetime lover, the book was practically calculated to provoke hostility in the intensely conservative political and moral climate of the time. Reviews of his next five books were banned from the pages of the New York Times.

Vidal was one of the earliest prominent figures in the U.S. to speak openly and courageously about his homosexuality. In the 1960s, with the advent of the gay liberation movement, he wrote, "[R]egardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition, and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime...despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality."

Vidal's historical novels remain some of the best radical fiction--in fact, among the best fiction, period--in contemporary American literature. Throughout his career as a writer, he was intensely sympathetic to the plight of history's outsiders. His 1964 novel Julian, for instance, rehabilitated the reputation of the last pagan Roman emperor, long reviled by Christianity as "Julian the Apostate."

His writing in the next decades mined the rich history of U.S. politics. The first of these, Burr (1973), was a rare sympathetic account of Aaron Burr, the second vice president of the U.S., who today is only known for killing Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel.

In Vidal's account, Burr is revealed as one of the great figures produced by the radical democratic upsurge of the American Revolution, the founder of the democratic political system of New York state. The revered Hamilton, on the other hand, is seen as one of the most disgusting and elitist men among a very poor cast of characters, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton's way of dealing with opponents was cowardly slander, and the duel was an outcome of this.

In high school, I devoured Burr and all the rest of Vidal's novels on U.S. history. Throughout, he pulled no punches in mocking the oppressiveness and hypocrisy of the American ruling class, even when he took as his subject the liberal icons Benjamin Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (in Washington, D.C.).

VIDAL'S DEATH has appropriately inspired a host of tributes from liberals and the left--and even the mainstream media, which has been forced to recognize his writing skills and strength of character, even if they despised him politically. It should be unsurprising that the right has been just as ungracious to him as he was to their icon, Buckley--he would have hoped for nothing else.

However, one obituary at Slate by David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor, joined in the slanders of the right by attacking Vidal for supposedly being an elitist, a conservative and an anti-Semite.

No one familiar with Vidal's writing would deny that his politics were often compromised by a strain of elitism--such was his upbringing. His anti-imperialist views, in particular, were probably more inspired by the isolationism of the right than the internationalism of the left. He expressed sentiments opposed to immigration from Mexico and Latin America, which he claimed were merely "protective" of his country, but which were racist.

But the idea that Vidal was an anti-Semite is beyond the pale. Greenberg, having no real evidence of this, is forced to disguise Vidal's many hostile comments regarding Israel as anti-Semitism, a tactic long recognized as the last resort of Zionist scoundrels.

Similarly, Vidal's opinions on America's venture into the Second World War are on the record, and can register as anti-Semitic only by a very deliberate misreading. In fact, he was doing us a great service as one of the only prominent figures to point out the hypocrisy of a war effort that was waged not to save European Jewry or the rest of humanity from Nazi barbarism, but to extend American dominance across Europe and Asia, while stigmatizing thousands of Japanese-Americans in the process. Of course, Greenberg also neglects to mention that Vidal spent the last 40 years of his life as the loving partner of Howard Austen, who was Jewish.

A literary and political titan of contemporary America, Gore Vidal deserves much better than this half-baked slander. We can and should criticize the limits of his politics. Not doing so would be to do him a great disservice.

But in the end, each one of the thousands of pages he wrote, whether fiction, theater or essays, radiate contempt for a corrupt and dictatorial elite, the American ruling class. He knew them intimately and therefore hated them with a fervor even most revolutionaries can hardly match. By their very nature, his works point toward the need for an alternative way of organizing society. Even if Vidal himself was silent on what that alternative way might be, his writing has contributed to the struggle that lies ahead.

An earlier version of this article was published at That Faint Light.