Gore Vidal, one of America’s greatest contemporary authors and perhaps our best-known leftwing commentator, died this past week, leaving American letters and politics much poorer.
The grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore and the scion of a ruling class political family, Vidal was raised in Washington, D.C. as one of the people who were destined to run the United States. This was a decisive fact that would influence his writing, his politics and his personal life even after he had become a definite outsider to that class.
As a commentator, Vidal was to find his home on the extreme left of American politics. He famously said that America had a one-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans being two wings of the “Property Party,” which existed to preserve the domination and profits of the rulers at the expense of the people.
His uncompromising left-wing stances were fully on display throughout the feud between him and the right wing commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. In a legendary televised debate, Vidal and Buckley almost came to blows in a discussion on the violent suppression of the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. While Buckley resorted to homophobic slurs against Vidal, the latter (rightly) called him a racist and a warmonger.
This was the start of a lifetime dispute that went up to and included libel suits from both sides. After Buckley’s death, Vidal infamously commented that he hoped his onetime rival was burning in hell. While he was condemned for bad taste by the mainstream media, his refusal to self-censor in condemning Buckley’s thoroughly reactionary views were a breath of fresh air in a political atmosphere long constrained by the bounds of insincere “good taste” and bipartisanship.
Toward the end of his life, Vidal was an unceasing antagonist of the Bush-Cheney regime as it prosecuted imperialist war abroad and the class war against the majority at home. His essays on American politics during this era, especially those contained in his books Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War, had a deep impact on myself personally. His voice of sanity in a climate of war, racist fear mongering and jingoism reminded me as a high school student who was deeply uncomfortable with both Bush and his Democratic rivals that I was not alone.
His politics were not without their flaws. An exile from the American ruling elite, Vidal had an ambiguous relationship to the Democratic Party, on whose ticket he once ran for Congress. Even as a leftist, he claimed to support the Democrats, who were “slightly more intelligent, corrupt, and politically conciliatory” than their rivals. Long after he had abandoned any political ambitions for himself, he continued to refer fondly to his old friends John and Jackie Kennedy, even while recognizing the catastrophic policies of the former that led to the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.
Vidal will probably be best remembered as a writer. Even here, however, it would be impossible to separate his literary efforts from his politics. He first achieved notoriety for his second novel, The City and the Pillar, published in 1948. A semi-autobiographical account of a homosexual affair with a dedication to Vidal’s ex-lover, Jimmy Trimble, the book was practically calculated to provoke hostility in the intensely conservative political and moral climate in the United States – and reviews of his next five books were all banned from the pages of the New York Times. In this era, he was one of the few writers to speak openly and courageously about his homosexuality (William Burroughs being an interesting parallel.)
After a brief interlude in theater and pseudonymous mystery writing, Vidal would return to fiction under his own name in the mid-sixties. His historical novels remain some of the best radical fiction, in fact among the best fiction period, in contemporary American literature. Throughout his career as a writer, he was intensely sympathetic to the plight of history’s outsiders. His 1964 novel Julian, for instance, rehabilitated the reputation of the last pagan Roman emperor, long reviled by Christians as Julian the Apostate.
His writing in the next decades mined the rich strain of American history. The first of these, Burr (1973) was a rare sympathetic account of Aaron Burr, the second Vice President of the U.S., who today is only known for killing Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel. In Vidal’s account, Burr is revealed as one of the great figures produced by the radical democratic upsurge of the American Revolution, the founder of the democratic political system of New York state. The revered Hamilton, on the other hand, is seen as one of the most disgusting and elitist men among a very poor cast of characters including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s way of dealing with opponents was cowardly slander.
In high school, I devoured Burr and all the rest of Vidal’s novels on American history. Throughout, he pulled no punches in mocking the oppressiveness and hypocrisy of the American ruling class, even when he took as his subject the liberal icons Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (in Washington, D.C.)
The death of Vidal has appropriately inspired a host of tributes from the left and from the mainstream media, which is forced to recognize his writing and strength of character even if they despise him politically. It should be unsurprising that the Right has been just as ungracious to him as he was to their icon, Buckley – he would have hoped for nothing else.
However one obituary from Slate magazine, a liberal publication, has joined in the chorus of slander from the right. Written by David Greenberg, a Rutgers history professor, the column takes Vidal to task for supposedly being an elitist, a conservative, and an anti-Semite.
No one familiar with Vidal’s writing would deny that his politics were often compromised by a strain of elitism – such was his upbringing. His anti-imperialist stances, for example, owe more to the isolationism of the right (from his grandfather, U.S. Senator Thomas Gore, whose name he adopted) than to the internationalism of the left. In the later years of his life, he expressed racist sentiments about immigration from Latin America which were hardly in keeping with a consistent opposition to the policies of the US ruling class. This can also be seen in his wavering and contradictory stances on the Democratic Party, opposing its policies yet thinking of it as the lesser evil at a certain point.
This was true in art as much as politics. His historical novels, from Julian to Burr and beyond all are case studies, in some way, of his political landscape. While they showed a fidelity toward uncovering the hidden truths of history that has been rewritten by the powerful to suit their own interests – a quality that is rare indeed in contemporary literature and history alike – they remain what they are on the titles: biographies of Great Men of History. This is in contrast to other great historical writing, which places the masses at the center of history. The struggles of the popular masses, while he sympathized with them, never entered into his political calculus in a significant way.
But the idea that Vidal was an anti-Semite is beyond the pale. Greenberg, having no real evidence of this, is forced to disguise Vidal’s many hostile comments regarding the imperialist and genocidal policy of Israel as anti-Semitism, a tactic long recognized as the last resort of Zionist scoundrels.
Similarly, Vidal’s opinions on America’s venture into the Second World War are on the record, and can register as anti-Semitic only by a very deliberate misreading. In fact, he was doing us a great service as one of the only prominent figures (besides, once again, his fellow leftist and WW2 veteran Howard Zinn) to point out the hypocrisy of a war effort that was waged not to save European Jewry or the rest of humanity from Nazi barbarism, but to extend American dominance across Europe and Asia while stigmatizing thousands of Japanese-Americans in the process. Of course, Greenberg also neglects to mention that Vidal spent the last forty years of his life as the loving partner of Howard Austen, a Jewish man.
A literary and political titan of contemporary America, Gore Vidal deserves much better than this half-baked slander. We can and should, in fact, criticize the limits of his politics. Not doing so would be to do him a great disservice. But in the end, each one of the thousands of pages he wrote, whether fiction, theater or essays, radiate contempt for a corrupt and dictatorial elite, the American ruling class. He knew them from the inside, and because of this hated them much more than any revolutionary could express. By their very nature, his works point toward the need for an alternative way of organizing society, even if Vidal himself was silent on what that might be. His death is a great loss to the movement for that alternative.
(A version of this article has been published on August 9th in Socialist Worker).