Moments after his infamous televised dust-up with Gore Vidal during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, William F. Buckley Jr. encountered a livid Paul Newman. Newman told Buckley that his calling Vidal a “queer” on national television was the most disgraceful thing he’d ever seen. The actor’s rage was not lessened even when Buckley reminded him that Vidal had started the incident by calling him a “crypto-Nazi.”
“That was political,” Newman replied. “Yours was personal.”
In the years that followed, both Vidal and Buckley would frequently defy their political labels. Buckley, the supposed reactionary, would often display a surprising openness. He would generously state that even though he did not like Vidal, he would “never call him a bad writer.” In the 1990s, Buckley would conclude that he should have supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And in the 2000s, while neo-conservatives were beating the drums for the war in Iraq, Buckley opposed it.
Meanwhile, Vidal, the supposed progressive, would behave as a reactionary. To him, Buckley’s politics were disgusting, which made his writings disgusting too. Around the time of their televised exchange, Vidal had the epiphany that America was a “fascist security state.” He claimed that the military–industrial complex had kicked into high gear during the presidency of Harry Truman, whose Cold War containment policies he saw as part of an effort to bolster the economy by maintaining a permanent state of war.
Vidal would cling to this worldview no matter the counter-evidence. Like Oliver Stone, Vidal would argue that the very lack of proof of a military–industrial cabal was evidence enough of its existence and its control over American lives. Vidal viewed every unpredictable event through this prism. The Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan was the result of the American military–industrial complex’s goading them into this venture in order to bleed them dry and, by doing so, remove them from the running for the military–industrial-complex sweepstakes. Vidal believed that these maneuverings, not ordinary people’s desire for freedom, led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Jay Parini’s new biography, Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, doesn’t shy away from reporting such open paranoia or any of the other unsavory aspects of Vidal. It is advertised as a look “behind the scenes at the man and his work in ways never possible before his death.” And the book lives up to the hype of being very different from previous biographical efforts. Fred Kaplan was so nervous about offending Vidal that one can practically feel the eggs he was tip-toeing around. There were certainly good, although not admirable, reasons for such timidity. Vidal was as lawsuit-happy as Tom Cruise; he responded to every slight and reveled in hateful feuds, the longer the better.
Unlike the one with Buckley, these feuds did not always have a basis in political antagonism. And the bi-partisan nature of them reveals just how ego-driven and petty Vidal could be. He responded to fellow leftist Norman Mailer’s assertion that he was intellectually dishonest by reminding readers that Mailer had once stabbed his wife. But in the light of his own comments about women, Vidal was a hypocrite. When asked about the attacks on director Roman Polanski for raping an under-age girl in the 1970s, Vidal asked, “Am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”
With Vidal safely buried, Parini pulls no punches. For a figure who always proclaimed he didn’t care what people thought of him, Vidal spent considerable time and energy constructing a “Rosebud”-like explanation for his sexual coldness (he had a penchant for anonymous sex to the point that he didn’t want to know his partner’s name or history). Parini is part of a growing consensus that disputes Vidal’s stories to the effect that this was traceable to the death of his only love, Jimmie Trimble, during the Pacific campaign in World War II. (Parini even disputes that Vidal had a homosexual relationship with Trimble.) But these tales do double duty in accounting for Vidal’s dislike of Asians (with the Soviet Union near to imploding in 1986, Vidal urged that the Soviets and the U.S. link up to fight the Japanese empire) and his belief that FDR maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to let him take the U.S. into World War II. Like Christopher Isherwood, Vidal believed that the war was not worth the life of a true love.
Nor does Parini accept Vidal’s oft-repeated assertion that he was bisexual. For Parini, Vidal was strictly homosexual and displayed a detectable self-loathing about this.
Parini still regards Vidal, in spite of his flaws, as one of the best essayists of the 20th century. He had a lively wit and could combine personal anecdote — it seems as if Vidal knew everybody worth knowing, from Amelia Earhart to Orson Welles — with literary and historical themes. This was especially remarkable given that Vidal did not go the Ivy League route to becoming a writer: Once upon a time he was so patriotic that he enlisted in the army rather than attend Harvard or Yale. However, by reading to his grandfather, a U.S. senator who had gone blind, Vidal had got a kind of education that was too rare even then. And his connections — his father was the director of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Air Commerce under FDR — assured that he would not have to pay his dues as a writer.
In later years, Vidal was the epitome of the limousine liberal. He lamented the plight of the poor while enjoying all the creature comforts an Italian villa could provide.
In later years, Vidal was the epitome of the limousine liberal. He lamented the plight of the poor while enjoying all the creature comforts an Italian villa could provide, and he lived up to his belief that one should never pass up the opportunity to “have sex or appear on television.” He thundered on Larry King’s show that the U.S. was a fascist security state, but he remained unmolested by the all-powerful U.S. “gestapo,” all the while being feted by its media “mouthpiece.”
There is a moment in a documentary on him that shows just how unashamed he was of being a parlor — actually villa — radical. He sits at an impressive dinner table, waited on by his servants, in the company of Hollywood liberals Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. The actors have the good sense to look embarrassed in such opulent surroundings. Vidal, however, expresses nothing of the sort.
#share#And any praise he received as a writer he regarded as deserved. Conservatives, whom he loathed almost as much as he did conventional liberals, often bypassed his Bizarro World politics and were able, unlike himself, to appreciate talent. Thomas Mallon published in National Review a paean to Vidal’s writing — another example of Bill Buckley’s generosity. Despite Vidal’s hoping after Buckley’s death that his deceased antagonist would “burn in hell,” Buckley’s son still praised Vidal’s talent as an essayist. Newt Gingrich, the kind of inside-the-Beltway politician Vidal saw as rotting the country, would not allow any criticism in his presence of the author of Lincoln; when this was reported to Vidal by Christopher Hitchens (who would jettison his early admiration of him because of his opposition to the War on Terror), Vidal responded, “That is how it should be.”
Like Hemingway, Vidal was a great writer in spite of being a bastard. Parini shows him warts and all. Empire of Self is an excellent biography.