Although Vidal failed in his attempts at public offices in the two times that he ran - first in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and again in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate - his powerful pen skewered the shakers and makers of American foreign policy for decades. With his passing, Henry Kissinger is undoubtedly feeling relieved.
But Vidal did not spare the mainstream literary heavyweights either. He was the quintessential intellectual gadfly. Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Truman Capote, William F. Buckley, to name only a few, felt the sharp sting of his criticism. He considered their work pretentious and sophomoric. His fiery rejection of what he considered trite and transient was something he shared with Vladimir Nabokov.
Vidal was too negative and extreme for most peoples’ taste. Comedian Bob Hope used to make fun of his cotrariness in his skits. But Vidal’s pungent wit and biting one-liners made him a sought-after guest on TV and campuses around the country. No shades of gray for him; he knew exactly what he thought and felt and expressed himself memorably and forthrightly. “Style is knowing who you are,” he explained, “what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” He had a matching ego to go with his talent. “There is not one human problem that could not be solved,” he once said, “if people would simply do as I advise.”
When asked during an interview where the young Vidals, the young Mailers, the young Millers were in contemporary America, Vidal alluded to Eisenhower. “Eisenhower, in a rather great speech when he left office – he warned against the military-industrial complex which he said was taking over too much of this nation’s money and life. A part of it is that is never quoted – he said, in effect, that the universities and learning will be hurt the most because when place of learning and knowledge are dependent upon government bounty and subsidies for their very lives … we have a whole generation of teachers and they are not very good teachers. Some of them are very talented writers, but they’re quiet. They don’t want to rock the boat. They want to keep their jobs … They saw what happened if you got associated with radical movements … Now, they’re quiet as could be.”
Vidal was being unfair to many talented writers and teachers who took on (and continue to take on) the establishment (the late David Foster Wallace, to name only one) without fear but his larger point that we have become a politically partisan nation, indifferent to the essence of our constitution, is on the mark.
I did not read Vidal’s novels – somehow, I could not find them compelling reads - but his essays were something else. “Brilliant” is too small a word to describe them. Incisive, witty, universal, fresh, all delivered with incomparable verve, imagination and style. Just two of the thousands of quotable snippets that I recall off the top of my head now are “drones in their unchanging hives” and “presidents and paint manufacturers.”
Gore Vidal is gone but surely his essays will live on.