Empire and enmity: the legacy of Gore Vidal

Text Umi Perkins

Above: Gore Vidal (right) debates William F. Buckley (left) in 1968 on national television.

History seems to have caught up with Gore Vidal. He was the last of a kind of renaissance intellectual and writer that seems to have been replaced by the narrow specialists of today. Several recent releases reflect a growing interest with Vidal. Jay Parini's biography Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, (reviewed, mostly unflatteringly, in The New Yorker) eulogizes the writer. The documentary Best of Enemies focuses on Vidal's 1968 series of debates with conservative pundit and flag bearer William F. Buckley. Leo Robson's article in The New Yorker, ”Delusions of Candor,” shows Vidal's versatility:

... almost by accident, virtually without sweat, and for the simple reason that he could - [Vidal] became a novelist (Julian, Myra Breckenridge, Burr, Creation), essayist (“Homage to Daniel Shays,” “The Hacks of Academe”), playwright (Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man), screenwriter (Ben Hur), politician (valiant failed campaigns for Congress, in New York, and for the Senate, in California [Vidal seemed to lack “the common touch”], actor (Bob Roberts, Gattaca, Igby Goes Down), steel-chinned prime-time brawler (victories over Buckley in 1968 and [Norman] Mailer in 1971), and friend to everyone worth knowing (Greta [Garbo], Tennessee [Williams], Eleanor [Roosevelt], Orson [Wells], Mick [Jagger], Sting).

Vidal was born at West Point because his father, a former Olympian in the decathlon, was the track and football coach at the academy. Vidal's maternal grandfather was the blind Senator Thomas Gore. Born Eugene Louis Vidal, he dropped the first two names and took on his mother's surname Gore after his Christening. After the Phillips Exeter Academy, Parini recounts, Vidal chose not to go to college:

ʻAfter Exeter, I didn't want to go to Harvard, as I might have,’ he recalled. ʻMy father had saved some money for my education, but I wanted the money. I’d have a small but tidy sum to launch me in the world.’ He would actually receive about $10,000 from his father, a substantial amount in those days worth roughly $120,000 today.

Perhaps ironically, Vidal left his $37 million estate to Harvard upon his death in 2012, a strange act that Parini interprets as a desire to connect himself with a great institution, despite not having attended it.

Vidal was a fairly frequent visitor to the White House because he was a step brother of Jackie Kennedy, but he soon had a falling out with Robert Kennedy, who he called “a self-righteous little prick.” Before his death Vidal released a book of photos of his days in Camelot, suggesting he may have regretted cutting off such an historic association. And this is the topic of Parini's book and Robson's review: Vidal's ambivalent and constant self-reflection. The New Yorker article suggests Parini was too biased from his close friendship with Vidal to be an impartial chronicler, and it's true that he saw Vidal as a kind of father figure. Parini describes their meeting in Italy:

We [Parini and his wife] had a rooftop terrace, above ... limestone cliffs. A massive villa—alabaster white, clinging to the rocks, like a swallow's nest—loomed above us, and we wondered who lived there in such opulence. Some Italian nobleman? A local mafia don? A film star? When I asked the tobacconist in town about its resident, he said “Ah, lo scritore! Gore Vidal. Americano.”

He sent a note and Vidal was soon pounding on his door inviting them to dinner. “A friendship blossomed ...we both loved Henry James, Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and Henry Adams—and we invariably found we had more to talk about than time allowed.”

Parini was not blind to Vidal's flaws but intersperses them with fawning praise:

He was both angel and monster, even at the same time. For all this, he was an astonishing man, inventive and shimmering, with a superb linguistic facility and capacious memory. If he could be petty and difficult, that was part of his total being. He was an alcoholic, no doubt ... He fought bravely against the stereotypes of gays, of course, coming out publicly in The City and the Pillar ... As late as 2011, he told me ... “I would have liked a son” ... But this was just the old imperial self again, never wrote happy with territorial limits.

Robson faults Parini with missing the large archive of writings of Anais Nin, a close friend and critic of Vidal, who claimed he needed “to conquer, to shine, to dominate.” Never was this mania to build an “empire of self” seen more clearly than in his debates with William Buckley and their aftermath. The debate between the conservative pundit and editor of National Review and the liberal writer Vidal at the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions came at a moment when Americans had supreme confidence in TV news, which offered little controversy or diversity. The debate also seemed to mark the beginning of the polemical screeds that pass for debate today, and Americans' addiction to them. As Buckley observed of TV in one of his most cogent moments: “there is a conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is illuminating.” It was also the end of the moderate Republican.

The debate began, in a sense, as a publicity stunt to save ABC News, the “budget car rental of television news,” from its position at the bottom of TV ratings. The debate became a “confrontation about lifestyle ... [about] who is the better person.” Buckley held that people looked to government to provide goods that they should try to find in their religion, their culture and themselves. Vidal held that a party—the Republican—whose political platform was “entirely based on greed,” could not hope to attract sufficient voters to win. He was, of course, wrong—but the reasons for his error constitute the story of the conservative rise since that time. Where he was right—and even the brother of Buckley admitted this—was in calling America an empire. That this is not surprising to us today shows his prescience. Vidal reminds us of one of the protagonists of Saul Bellow's books Herzog and Humboldt's Gift: brilliant, aging, losing the sharp edge of his chin and his sex appeal.

A still from the 1968 debate. Vidal sits on the right.

Buckley kept referring to Vidal as “the author of Myra Breckenridge,” the risqué tale of sexual license, which Buckley and others viewed as pornographic. Vidal came out swinging in the first debate, citing a quote from National Review in which Buckley advised the nuclear bombing of North Vietnam to Ronald Reagan and Nixon. Later in the debates Buckley, clearly losing, dropped his own bombshell: an alleged letter from Bobby Kennedy lambasting Vidal. Vidal retained his composure, though clearly shaken, and in a witty comeback accused Buckley of forgery. It is this composure that The New Yorker calls his “delusion of candor.” His seeming unshakability was a “mask behind a mask.”

What strikes one, in fact, is how similar the two debaters were: merely two sides of the same social class. According to Columbia linguist John McWhorter, “America has always been anti-intellectual” and the two both represented the hated ruling class. Vidal's position on the side of the poor, thus, felt to Buckley like betrayal. Where they differed was on “law and order” (which, ironically, was the title of a film that starred Reagan).

Riots had begun to swell in Miami as the “lily white” Republican convention continued, and the shape of the future of the Republican Party of Nixon began to form. Vidal cited economic inequality statistics that sound positively egalitarian compared to today's extremes, and his description of the barricaded environs of Chicago during the Democratic convention as a police state resonates today.

By the seventh debate the gloves came off. Parini describes the scene:

[Vidal:] ʻAs far as I’m concerned, the only ... crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.’ It was a deadly assertion and Buckley curled his lip and sneered: ʻNow listen you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.’ Buckley added with a wicked glare: ʻGo back to your pornography.’

Buckley also reminded Vidal that he was a veteran—all this on national television in front of 10 million people. Unfazed, Vidal leaned over to Buckley after filming had ended, and said, “Well, we gave them their money’s worth.” Vidal later reflected that he had meant to call Buckley a crypto-fascist. Buckley wrote a twelve thousand-word essay examining the question of what constituted decent discourse on television in Esquire, which Vidal responded to, suggesting that Buckley himself was a closeted homosexual.

Buckley’s star soon rose with the Reagan revolution, just as Vidal's seemed to set. As the public began to forget Vidal, critics differed on whether he would be remembered for his historical novels or his essays. Meanwhile, Buckley swam shirtless with Reagan, who said publicly that National Review was his favorite magazine. His skill as a debater was never in question. When asked why he was always sitting when he spoke and whether that meant he couldn't think on his feet, Buckley responded, “It is difficult to stand with the weight of what I know.”

The resentments lingered for over 30 years, with suits and countersuits, and bitterness that seemed to break the men over decades. Vidal apparently spoke of Buckley everyday, even years later, and Buckley said on Charlie Rose at the end of his life that he was tired of living on. Upon Buckley's death, Vidal wrote in his journal that he hoped Buckley was with his masters in hell, continuing as servant of their greed. It was this disillusionment with American politics led Vidal to a self-imposed exile to the Amalfi coast of Italy: “the perfect place to oversee the decline of the West.”


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