Political crank, lit’ry genius
- Last Updated: 12:50 AM, August 2, 2012
- Posted: 11:50 PM, August 1, 2012
Gore Vidal, who died Tuesday, would be insulted by sugary encomia and blathery reverence, so let’s do him the dual service of considering him the way he examined others, and considering him, period.
If Oscar Wilde hadn’t beaten him to it, Vidal would’ve surely observed that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Vidal, typically, did battle with the shade of his fellow novelist-playwright-dandy-wit and member of the Gay Hall of Fame in a 1987 essay that, like many another Vidal piece, managed to impress upon us its author’s impeccable breeding (he bragged, apropos of little, that his grandfather had met Wilde in 1882), devise a naughty irreverence (“the AIDSy eighties”) and diminish an icon with an unfair but not completely amiss one-liner: “He plays no word games other than that most mechanical of verbal tricks, the paradox.”
When Wilde was earnest, Vidal was pitiless: “Must one have a heart of stone to read ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ without laughing? (In life, practically no one ever gets to kill the thing he hates, much less loves.)”
Perceptive and puckish as he was, Vidal had a Wilde-sized blind spot: He never knew that his greatest vice was not “Myra Breckinridge” (his epic of transsexualism, made into a legendarily bad film starring, or at least containing, Rex Reed).
No, his crime lay in his earnestness, his dogma, his unshakable faith in American culpability. When Vidal talked politics, oxygen fled the room and the paint burned off the walls. He was a creepy conspiracy crank who made Joe McCarthy look judicious.
A frustrated office-seeker rejected on both coasts, Political Gore said in 1986 (scant years before the USSR’s collapse), “The time has come for the United States to make common cause with the Soviet Union.”
On John McCain: “Who started this rumor that he was a war hero?” McCain’s well-documented POW status? “That’s what he tells us.”
On 9/11? The Bush administration was “probably” behind it. “That would certainly fit them to a T,” he averred.
His pen pal, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who wrote to him as a kindred spirit muttering darkly about American nefariousness? A “noble boy.”
Oh, and he blamed FDR for inciting Pearl Harbor.
Vidal was the contrarian other contrarians couldn’t stand. Norman Mailer once punched him; he momentarily turned William F. Buckley into Alec Baldwin: “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face,” Buckley said, on live TV. (Vidal had defamed Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi”; Buckley designated Vidal a “queer.”)
Christopher Hitchens, whom Vidal had once dubbed his successor, dismantled his onetime mentor in a 2010 Vanity Fair essay. Vidal would have spent his final years as a laughingstock, if anyone was still listening to his toxic gibberish.
But as we say of the defanged and deranged: That’s not him. It’s the disease talking. Vidal’s political self is a story of leftism metastasized. In memory, let’s surgically excise the tumors we can never forgive.
Literary Vidal was a figure of discernment and breadth and verve. His “hack work” included some of the script for “Ben-Hur,” his historical novels and plays were diverting and his cultural commentary galloped with life.
Dip into a collection such as his brick-sized “United States: Essays 1952-1992” — a book generous in its erudition and lustrous in its wit — and you may never dip out. “Who Makes the Movies?” is a merry look inside the sausage factory. “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”? A classic of perverseness. “The Top 10 Best Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of Jan. 7, 1973”? Hilarious.
As Vidal once said of Montaigne,: “Time and again, one finds in his self-portrait one’s own most brilliant aperçus (the ones that somehow we forgot to write down).”Follow @NYPostOpinion