"We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth, when we're not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic."---Gore Vidal on the modern United States
I note with sadness the passing of Gore Vidal the other day, at age 86. Not that I agreed with all his historic viewpoints, his stubborn belief that Franklin Roosevelt's embargo of oil and iron exports to Japan was an invitation for that Empire to destroy the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the reasons behind the rise of Christianity in the Ancient World to name two . But I found him to be that rare person who not only wrote interesting novels about American life and its checkered past, but also someone who was quite capable of speaking his mind in television and radio interviews in an entertaining and provocative way. His was a voice that allowed me to see the world in a different light.
I am also writing this little note to give the man his due---his views from the 1960's to the 90s were pretty much correct--the USA was an empire, both parties were controlled by giant corporations, especially the Republicans but too often the Democrats, that the war on drugs was un-winnable, that Ronald Reagan was a corporate shill and he would bring worse shills to follow his path, that religion could be used as an instrument of hatred and intolerance, that it didn't matter a hoot in hell who people choose to sleep with, etc.
And that Mr. Vidal could make all these statements in his interviews and highly cogent essays with a big dollop of wry and sharp humor. If he was a Jeremiah issuing warnings against the inflated hopes of American Exceptional-ism, he did it with panache and satiric skill. He was as much an entertainer in the best sense as he was a pundit and that former attribute had to be the ONLY reason he had such a high--profile platform in America's mainstream media.
There wasn't much Gore Vidal didn't do in that major media. He started out as one of many promising post-war novelists (after spending three years in the US Navy) and had the family connections to pursue a career in politics. According to Vidal in his first volume of memoirs, he had a god shot at an open seat for Congress in the state of New Mexico, where he had attended prep school. But his novel "The City and the Pillar" about two male gay lovers, published in 1948, put an end to those chances. Homosexuality was a no-go and even a hint of it could kill a political career, as Vidal himself showed in his most famous play, "The Best Man" (1963) about political in-fighting at an American party convention.
A television and Hollywood screenwriter in the 1950's, he left America often to write his novels in the more tranquil old-world vistas of central Italy. Starting with "Julian" (1964) , a novel of the last non-Christian emperor of Rome, most of his novels were popular, despite the fact that he broke taboos and smashed icons that others had tried and failed to make pay either form a lack of talent or censorship. It was no matter if he was writing about a transvestite hero in 1940's Hollywood, "Myra Breckinbridge" (1968) or revealing the warts-and-all biographies of our sacred Founding Fathers in his favorite novel of mine, "Burr" (1973) or writing a more sympathetic novel of the trials of the Civil War, "Lincoln" (1985), Vidal's books were entertaining and subtle subversive.
Each of his historic novels took him about a year of research and it paid off in my view. He also was a prolific contributor to "The New York Review of Books" "Time", "Smithsonian" , "The Nation", et al, and his book tours always gave his fans plenty of vigor and vitriol even before they bought the book. I still recall how, in an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in the mid-80s', how he blithely predicted that the United States would overtly invade Mexico because "we've done it before for land and now we need their oil." Carson's look of faux-stoicism and quick cut to a commercial was a priceless moment.
The Mexican invasion didn't quite happen of course, although the prophecy came all too true in the Middle East first with Bush I and then Bush II in Iraq and Kuwait on behalf of Big Oil and Big Military Contractors like Vice President Cheney's own boys club at Haliburton.
His feuds with his contemporaries like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and his old friend Tennessee Williams were also famous. Indeed I don't think we will ever see his like again---the writer-figure as a personage in him or herself, known to anyone interested in his nation or in politcal ideas. Vidal was right again--the value of the profession writer was ebbing in American mainstream society , he noted lamentedly several times in interviews. I see nothing today to dispute that.