The most puzzling thing about the career of Gore Vidal, who went toes-up last week at 86, was the reverence in which he was held by people who might have known better. He was famous for announcing the “death of the novel” as an art form, and as if to prove the point he kept writing them. No one who survived a reading of Kalki or Myron or Creation or Duluth will recall the experience with anything other than revulsion and self-loathing. It is true that, when sober, he could be good on television, and few talents nowadays are more highly prized. And it’s true that, as an essayist, he could sometimes impress the reader with a kind of goofball charm; I’ve just reread with pleasure half a dozen essays that I first enjoyed 30 years ago in the New York Review of Books. He single-handedly revived the reputation of the great novelist Dawn Powell, and he told funny stories in a winsome way about Hollywood old and new, and he was hell on the Kennedys. However you measure these achievements from a career spanning seven decades, they amount to no more than a handful, soon to turn to dust.
Yet in 2009, at a humid dinner filled with our culture’s leading personages, he was presented with the lifetime National Book Award for his Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Was Danielle Steel busy that year? The Personages greeted him with a prolonged and affectionate standing ovation, a favor he returned by talking about himself, alternately cranky and befuddled, for nearly an hour. He figured no one would dare show signs of boredom as he lulled them inexorably into catalepsy, and he was right. The Personages had been programmed for reverence.
And they were endlessly forgiving. For decades Vidal had said that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and let the slaughter come anyway, and when 9/11 gave him the chance to make the same slander against another president, he went even further and speculated that George Bush had colluded with his vice president to encourage the terrorist attacks. At his death a critic at the Washington Post summarized the Vidalian view with an uncommon mildness: “He took an acerbic view of American leadership.”
The man must have felt bulletproof. With implausible romances like Lincoln and Burr he filled more readers’ heads with more historical crapola than anyone since Parson Weems. (“So powerful as to compel awe,” said Harold Bloom of Vidal’s make-believe histories.) He thought the Bilderbergers and members of the Bohemian Grove controlled world finance. (“He is a treasure of state,” said R.W.B. Lewis.) He befriended Timothy McVeigh and spoke warmly of him. (“Vidal did not lightly suffer fools,” said the obit writer in the New York Times.) He dished out anti-Semitism in a dozen different venues with imperturbable serenity. (“Both by temperament and by birth he was an aristocrat,” said the Times.) He called William F. Buckley a crypto-Nazi. (“Vidal was known for his . . . scathing wit,” said Diane Sawyer on ABC.) He wanted to try Henry Kissinger for war crimes and suggested that John McCain had invented tales of his torture at the hands of the Vietnamese. (“A savvy analyst and glorious gadfly on the national conscience,” said the L.A. Times.) He was paid nearly a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, to collaborate with the pornographer Bob Guccione on Caligula, the most expensive stroke film ever made. (“An astonishingly versatile man of letters” —the Post again.)
It’s anybody’s guess how he got away with it all while maintaining a reputation as, at worst, “an acerbic gadfly,” and at the grandest, “one of the greatest essayists in the English language.” The Personages have their own reasons for choosing whom to revere. I was interested in Diane Sawyer’s brief obituary on her ABC evening news show. It centered on the notorious confrontation (on ABC TV) between Vidal and Buckley in 1968, in which Buckley countered Vidal’s accusation of Nazism with the vigorous insight that Vidal was “queer”—not high on the list of Buckley’s scathing witticisms either. In recalling the event, Sawyer identified Vidal as the “celebrity novelist,” while taking special care to tag Buckley as the “arch-conservative.”
Why arch? The two tags make for a curious imbalance. For 50 years Buckley’s views were safely on the rightward edge of the American popular consensus; Vidal’s were shared by a tiny minority—cranks and ignoramuses in Hollywood, Manhattan, Northwest Washington, D.C., various college towns, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Yet it is Buckley who earns the ideological intensifier “arch.”
How could such an inversion take place? The Personages might be working for a world-girding conspiracy run by the Mossad, I don’t know, but there’s a simpler explanation, too. Buckley was right, but in the wrong way; and Vidal was wrong, but in the right way. From the 1950s, before Ike had even left the White House, Vidal was announcing that the right-wingers had seized the Republican party from the sensible members of a generation before; a generation later, the right-wingers had seized the party from the sensible members of a generation before; and so on, for half a century. In his world “the generals” were always two ticks away from declaring war and imposing martial law; the theocracy would be arranged before the decade was out; he saw the dying embers of capitalism; and the dark curtain of fascism was falling even as you were reading his words.
Try keeping that up for 50 years! No wonder he was a hero to the Personages. For them too every day is Groundhog Day, bringing fresh news from the day before about what won’t happen tomorrow. His career must stand as a great reassurance. If you’re wrong in the right way, all will be forgiven, until everyone forgets that there was ever anything to forgive.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.