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Gore Vidal: In memoriam

US Politics
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Gore Vidal3
Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal has quit this fallen world and completed the cycle of being and becoming. One might think death is the only thing in life about which surprise is impossible, but as with the winning national lotto numbers, it is always something which befalls the stranger. I have ransacked the interior of my cranium to locate my first memory of Gore. To find the earliest sighting of the man and the icon. No luck. It seems like somehow he’s always formed a part of the mental furniture.

Days like this make one think if there is not a cosmic plot afoot to knock off the higher order man. Two weeks ago it carried off Alexander Cockburn. Another week, another legend. In a saner world, the end of a calendar would be marked by the end of its greatest scribes. With the departure of Gore, an historic epoch is cremated.

He was rare among the post-war novelists in commanding a multi-generational appeal, winsome alike to a more literate age that festooned the gifted artist as well as those for whom the late night TV chat show is the modern novel. He liked to joke that he did not believe in Darwinian evolution because the quality of the American stock declined progressively with each passing generation. It was impossible to think of George Bush as an improvement upon Abraham Lincoln.

But he was no idoliser of the past. Among the finest of his novels, Lincoln, Gore fetched the Great Emancipator down from the seventh heaven, knocked the halo off the national myth, and converted him into a power grubbing mortal who, far removed from the high-flown speech of Gettysburg, never let the abolitionist cause impede his political aspirations for the top job.

His abiding theme was the manner by which false messiahs, past and present, went down the annals of history as redeemers, by the way sinners outfitted themselves in the white garb of the saint and made a killing. The court historians erected the idols of the age, and down Gore took them gleefully.

His victims were the guardians of orthodoxy, the politician, the clergyman, the courtiers of the state. Nothing so gratified his animal spirit than being reviled by the upholders of convention as a corrupter of the young. With his taboo defying books about same sex couplings, he never lacked for heresies to kindle and blood to stir.

He was sure that destructive criticism was good for the soul, reforming to the mind and kept one young. And if the crashing noise of his iconoclasm kept him out of the New York Times, then so much the worse for the Times.

Alone among the scribblers of his time and place he did more to set the national letters on a more honest course and guide the majestic currents of the culture high and low. It is said that he was an irreverent wit, that he warred against everything and venerated nothing, but it was really sham that he could not bear. Out of this same contempt for charlatans grew his deep respect for sound artificers. He celebrated the work of foreign novelists like Italo Calvino on whom he conferred the award of greatest fictioneer, and he gave praise and encouragement to many more.

In telling contrast to the false patriots that afflict the republic, Vidal served his country manfully in the Second World War from which he carried away a titanium knee that in later years wheelchaired him, and the hatred for war born of direct experience. In wit-kissed polemics after 9/11 he lobbed sticks of dynamite under the skirts of the architects of “perpetual wars for perpetual peace”. Was there not a way, he asked, to round up the hawkish draft dodgers and parachute them behind enemy lines?

Ronald Reagan was a cherished object of ridicule. He pioneered the witless presidency of the teleprompting know-nothing raised to an artform by Dubya. “Prepare yourself for some bad news” Gore announced on prime time TV. “Ronald Reagan’s library just burned down. Both books were destroyed. But the real horror: he hadn’t finished coloring either one of them.”

Decades before the onset of the professional atheist bores Gore denounced supernatural thinking for its anti-science foolery, its revolt against intelligence and its war on a secular ethic. The “Christers” were the bearers of Oriental despotism, and the beginning of civilisation was the end of monotheism. Yet he was not dead to the charms of the East. He cultivated a rich understanding of the history and culture of the non-Christian world and poured his learning with vast skill and beauty in Creation, the finest artistic rendering of comparative religion.

The old sinner did not permit his anti-Godism to be used as a weapon against the much hated Muslims, what with their religious frenzy and foreign habits. To the end he was a keen advocate of the Palestinian cause and enjoyed toying with degraded Zionists like John Podhoretz and his gaggle.

He was a friend of the high and mighty seen cavorting with Jack Kennedy and the Clintons, with Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac, and yet the trappings of power and pomp never conquered his undying scorn for the elected pawns of Wall Street and the arms industry. “The United States has one business party with two right-wing factions” he observed, “the Democrats and the Republicans”. Upon the Kennedy royals he fell with a meat cleaver as a gang of frauds unjustly venerated and declared JFK’s presidency a failure even as he cherished their personal friendship. There was no less partisan man.

If he made life troublesome for the establishment he was generous to the lower orders. Timothy McVeigh wrote him letters from death row and, in a culture that prefers to send the wicked prematurely to heaven, Gore went beyond the official cant that he was just a very naughty boy and dug up the reason why. Something to do with kids massacred in Waco by the FBI apparently. How odd. It’s almost as if terrorists have political motives.

The election of Obama was greeted with elation by him. Having had thrown his support behind the presidential run of Jesse Jackson a generation earlier, and defended the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties from the onslaught of Bill Buckley’s National Review which maintained a fondness for segregation, the reaction was understandable. But Gore had met one too many smooth talking mountebanks before to be long fooled by the windbag-in-chief.

The obits say that he nursed a great talent for the public feud. He was too severe on the lovable Truman Capote true enough, and he was surely wrong to say that he had no talent. Even so, much of this taste for invective came from a good place, his moral sense of incorruptibility: He gave no quarter even to friends who misbehaved, assailing Mailer for his book length attack on the feminist movement for which Norman repaid him with a punch and a headbutt.

He warned that, being the younger man, he would outlive the pugilist and write viciously about him. As any schoolboy could tell, however, the two iconoclasts, whatever misgivings they might have had, were much too fond of each other, and Gore waxed affectionately about the older writer when he died a few years back.

As the years took their toll on his health and ancient friends and foes snoozed below the damp soil, I think he felt increasingly out of place, out of time and out of step with a race so eager to stampede off the cliff. He pressed for a new constitutional convention to repair the ailing political system in keeping with Jefferson’s dream, and said that it was the only cure for our one party dictatorship.

His populism notwithstanding, he never could shake off the patrician doubt that perhaps afterall the masses, with their brimless capacity for cajoling and manipulation, are too stupid for reform.

We have had more popular novelists. But as a model of the true stylist, and among the practitioners of the English essay, Gore outruns them all. Good writing, if it aspires to graduate into art, makes for easy reading, and his bore the stamp of the aristocrat. It is reassuring to note a man could write so feelingly who never went to college, and it is some comfort that he left a vast body of work behind to be enjoyed by his admirers.

He will not be missed. For it is impossible to miss the omnipresent. Gore’s monuments are everywhere about us. He lived through scores of triumphs in the feeling and thought of the republic. And for this tall legacy, I give my affection to a monarch without a kingdom and a prophet without a creed.

Theodore Sayeed
About Theodore Sayeed

Theodore Sayeed is a contributor to Mondoweiss. He may be reached at: [email protected]

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37 Responses

  1. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    August 3, 2012, 5:57 pm

    thank you Theo. Loved listening to and reading what Gore Vidal had to say. He really knew how to cut through the bull. Knew he stood against the invasion of Iraq. As you said a man who had been to war knew what it meant how permanently devastating it could be. Thank you for bringing up Cockburn and Vidal in one piece. Truth tellers passing.

  2. Ellen
    Ellen
    August 3, 2012, 6:15 pm

    From Vidal’s collection of essays:

    For some years I have been haunted by a story of Howells and that most civilized of all our presidents, James A. Garfield. In the early 1870s Howells and his father paid a visit to Garfield. As they sat on Garfield’s veranda, young Howells began to talk about poetry and about the poets that he had met in Boston and New York. Suddenly, Garfield told him to stop. Then Garfield went to the edge of the veranda and shouted to his Ohio neighbors, ‘Come over here! He’s telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!’ So the neighbors gathered around in the dusk; then Garfield said to Howells, ‘Now go on.’

    Today we take it for granted that no living president will ever have heard the name of any living poet. This is not, necessarily, an unbearable loss. But it is unbearable to have lost those Ohio neighbors who actually read books of poetry and wanted to know about the poets.


    Salon published a strange essay on Vidal calling him the misnomer anti-Semite, without giving a basis of that assertion, other than he was aloof and and from a social background of WASPY privilege class that no longer exists. Or perhaps because he distainded what monotheism has wrought civilization. According to the essay, as I understood it, writers such as Norah Ephron is more worthy of a eulogy.

    One may not be more worthy than another, but Vidal’s books and essays were rich, very rich and not about himself and a little world of narcissistic concerns. I will re-read, and read what I missed reading. I think his books will be read for a long time.

    Thanks for your essay on Vidal.

    • MLE
      MLE
      August 3, 2012, 11:20 pm

      I saw something on slate regarding his antisemitism too.

      • Ellen
        Ellen
        August 4, 2012, 3:36 am

        Did Slate just name call or was there a real basis. So far, I’ve read only name calling and repeated memes.

        But wonder why….what is the background for what seems to be a campaign against the man?

    • MRW
      MRW
      August 4, 2012, 4:11 am

      They called him an anti-semite because Podhoretz did, and no one can find the article that precipitated Podhoretz’s venom.

      So, here for your reading enjoyment is what caused Podhoretz to sputter in 1986 that Vidal was an anti-semite.

      “The Empire Lovers Strike Back”
      http://peoplesgeography.com/2009/10/21/the-empire-lovers-strike-back/

      • Shmuel
        Shmuel
        August 4, 2012, 4:22 am

        So, here for your reading enjoyment …

        Thanks, MRW. Duly enjoyed :-)

      • MRW
        MRW
        August 4, 2012, 5:07 am

        You’re such an Italian. ;-)

      • Ellen
        Ellen
        August 4, 2012, 8:29 am

        Thanks, MRW,

        25 years ago Vidal wrote this:

        Over the years, Poddy has, like his employers, the A.J.C., moved from those liberal positions traditionally occupied by American Jews (and me) to the far right of American politics. The reason for that is simple. In
        order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $5 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.

        The whole essay is a great read.

        And that uncomfortable reality makes him A Judeophobe? He wrote about the fear mongering in the US for Israel. Nothing about Jews there.

        And they are still attacking him about that in his death. Looks like some are afraid this will get out and it is better to keep trying to destroy the man before he has any chance of greater post mortum adulation.

      • optimax
        optimax
        August 4, 2012, 11:23 am

        According to yesterdays obit in Antiwar b;og by Justin Raimondo, Vidal called Podhoretz and his wife “Israeli fifth columnists.” Thank you, Gore, for your laser perception and brilliant wit.

      • Kathleen
        Kathleen
        August 5, 2012, 11:33 am

        He was calling the I lobby out early on it seems. Waiting for someone to show us just where and what was said for the New York Times to basically ban him or others to label him an “anti semite” . Vidal was clearly telling the truth early about U.S. aid to Israel.

      • Kathleen
        Kathleen
        August 5, 2012, 1:16 am

        On the Charlie Rose show on Saturday evening he went over several different interviews with Gore Vidal. Vidal talked about how the New York Bloody (my name for them) Times would not allow anything he had to say in their newspapers and would not review his books. Basically that there was a war between Vidal and the Times. Will be trying to find out more about that. Vidal probably said something about the power of the I lobby or about illegal settlements. Back thne what would you get for saying the truth. BANNED. Would like to know what the New York Bloody Times based their banning on?

  3. Kathleen
    Kathleen
    August 3, 2012, 6:22 pm

    During an interview with Gore on the Rehm show or somewhere I remember him mentioning that he had contacted McVeigh first and they continued to write

  4. eGuard
    eGuard
    August 3, 2012, 6:35 pm

    Vidal was jewish?

    • straightline
      straightline
      August 4, 2012, 6:11 pm

      With a forename of “Luther” I doubt it. But his partner, Howard Austin, was.

      Great obituary!

  5. iamuglow
    iamuglow
    August 3, 2012, 7:35 pm

    Fantastic writing. Thanks.

  6. Miura
    Miura
    August 3, 2012, 10:57 pm

    Gore wrote a foreword for Israel Shahak’s book.

    • Ellen
      Ellen
      August 4, 2012, 4:28 pm

      And in that forward, wrote:

      Needless to say, Israel’s authorities deplore Shahak. But there is not much to be done with a retired professor of chemistry who was born in Warsaw in 1933 and spent his childhood in the concentration camp at Belsen. In 1945, he came to Israel; served in the Israeli military; did not become a Marxist in the years when it was fashionable. He was – and still is – a humanist who detests imperialism whether in the names of the God of Abraham or of George Bush. Equally, he opposes with great wit and learning the totalitarian strain in Judaism. Like a highly learned Thomas Paine, Shahak illustrates the prospect before us, as well as the long history behind us, and thus he continues to reason, year after year. Those who heed him will certainly be wiser and – dare I say? – better. He is the latest, if not the last, of the great prophets.

      That is why the man is branded in forums and the likes of Salon and Slate and other groovy “liberal” outlets a Jew phobe?

      If those are the words and thoughts of what is called an anti Semite, then it is good and honorable to be one.

  7. Vacy
    Vacy
    August 3, 2012, 11:17 pm

    Beautifully and buoyantly written. Thank you.

  8. DaveS
    DaveS
    August 4, 2012, 12:57 am

    I doubt there is a better obit on this great man available anywhere. Thanks TS

  9. Brewer
    Brewer
    August 4, 2012, 3:06 am

    Nice essay yourself, Theodore Sayeed.
    Literature’s loss is Biology’s gain.

  10. CloakAndDagger
    CloakAndDagger
    August 4, 2012, 12:09 pm

    Let me join in the laudatory chorus for this work of literary art. Very well done!

  11. manfromatlan
    manfromatlan
    August 4, 2012, 12:12 pm

    Thank you for your brill essay. Yes, we lost two great human beings, in Alexander Cockburn and Gore Vidal. Their work, as you say, will live beyond their passing.

  12. Linda J
    Linda J
    August 4, 2012, 8:07 pm

    Best I’ve read, Mr. Sayeed. And thanks to MRW for the link about empire lovers. Gore nailed it!

  13. ggg
    ggg
    August 4, 2012, 9:05 pm

    Just adding to the chorus: a very classy goodbye TS, to a classy guy.

  14. RoHa
    RoHa
    August 4, 2012, 11:38 pm

    Great writer. Great man.

  15. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    August 5, 2012, 12:32 am

    Leaving aside politics for a moment. I read “lincoln” this year and it was excellent. I read the first 200 pages of Julian thirty years ago and I was quite impressed. Myra
    Breckenridge didn’t leave much of an impression other than the sexual boundaries he was breaking.

    I saw the Buckley Vidal “debate” in ’68 when I was a kid and I thought it was some of the best television that I had ever seen.

    • Kathleen
      Kathleen
      August 5, 2012, 11:37 am

      Is that the one where they go a round or two and Buckley says he is going to pop Vidal in the nose? I believe that was the go around where Gore Vidal says that the two parties are essentially the same. Empire builders with no regard for human life and freedoms except when it comes to Israel and when we can benefit from pretending to care about human rights (Syria now)

      • Philip Munger
        Philip Munger
        August 5, 2012, 1:47 pm

        I posted the 1968 Democratic Convention Buckley – Vidal exchange, which Youtube erroneously called the GOP convention exchange, here:

        http://progressivealaska.blogspot.com/2012/08/gore-vidal-passes-1968-gore-vidal.html

        Never met Vidal, but I met Buckley in 1972, when he was in Seattle to debate Prof. Giovannni Costigan on whether or not the USA should recognize the PRC as the government of China. Guess which side Buckley took?

        I introduced Buckley in a radio interview on KRAB FM as “America’s master debater.” He barely flinched. After the radio program he and I talked about the stylistic differences between the first and second books of JS Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier.

        Great tribute, Teddy, along with informative comments.

      • Kathleen
        Kathleen
        August 6, 2012, 10:48 am

        As a young person would watch Buckley debate on what was it cross fire or one of those old talk news shows. Then heard him at Ohio University about five years before he passed. Have always related to what Gore Vidal had to say about U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. all about empire and that is what both parties feed. Corporations. I hope Phil Weiss or Phil Munger or one of the big heads around here dig into just why the New York Bloody Times banned Vidal’s writings and would not review his books? I think this issue is fascinating. Why? What did Gore Vidal say or do that gave the NYBT any real based to do this? Tell the truth? Is that why they banned him from their bloody pages?

    • Bumblebye
      Bumblebye
      August 6, 2012, 12:17 pm

      I was listening to bbcR4’s obituary prog, and on it they had someone reminiscing about that debate – afterwards, off air, Buckley did headbutt Gore, who took out his handkerchief, wiped away the blood and retorted that words had failed him (Buckley) again!

      • wondering jew
        wondering jew
        August 6, 2012, 3:50 pm

        Bumblebye- A brief perusal of the web yields: Norman Mailer butted Vidal before a show after Vidal had compared Mailer to Charles Manson. No head butt by Buckley on record.

      • Bumblebye
        Bumblebye
        August 6, 2012, 4:50 pm

        Sorry Yonah, it was Mailer, you’re correct! Apologies. It was well told though:
        http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01l8rbn
        from 7.30 to 15.50
        However, they do put the headbutt after the show – listen to the snippets from the show as well.

      • manfromatlan
        manfromatlan
        August 12, 2012, 12:51 pm

        That was Norman Mailer, but the Vidal Buckley exchanges were also, classic.

  16. LanceThruster
    LanceThruster
    August 5, 2012, 1:33 pm

    Gore Vidal has merged with the infinite.

  17. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    August 5, 2012, 4:38 pm

    Anyone who wants to seriously investigate Vidal’s animus towards Jews might wish to start with this piece in the young contrarian. http://youngcontrarian.tumblr.com/post/14914351170/gore-vidal-and-the-jewish-question

  18. anonymouscomments
    anonymouscomments
    August 5, 2012, 10:31 pm

    i guess my comment perhaps went through, then disappeared.
    then i will withhold comment.
    gore vidal at his best (2003)-
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLmGfv_fBuU&feature=relmfu
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBasTeX42n4&feature=relmfu

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