Gore Vidal’s Fan Club: What, exactly, did they admire about the man? asks Andrew Ferguson
The most puzzling thing about the career of Gore Vidal, who went toes-up last week at 86, was the reverence in which he was held by people who might have known better. He was famous for announcing the “death of the novel” as an art form, and as if to prove the point he kept writing them. No one who survived a reading of Kalki or Myron or Creation or Duluth will recall the experience with anything other than revulsion and self-loathing.
. . . in 2009, at a humid dinner filled with our culture’s leading personages, he was presented with the lifetime National Book Award for his Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Was Danielle Steel busy that year? The Personages greeted him with a prolonged and affectionate standing ovation, a favor he returned by talking about himself, alternately cranky and befuddled, for nearly an hour. He figured no one would dare show signs of boredom as he lulled them inexorably into catalepsy, and he was right. The Personages had been programmed for reverence.
And they were endlessly forgiving. For decades Vidal had said that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and let the slaughter come anyway, and when 9/11 gave him the chance to make the same slander against another president, he went even further and speculated that George Bush had colluded with his vice president to encourage the terrorist attacks. At his death a critic at the Washington Post summarized the Vidalian view with an uncommon mildness: “He took an acerbic view of American leadership.”
The man must have felt bulletproof. With implausible romances like Lincoln and Burr he filled more readers’ heads with more historical crapola than anyone since Parson Weems. (“So powerful as to compel awe,” said Harold Bloom of Vidal’s make-believe histories.) He thought the Bilderbergers and members of the Bohemian Grove controlled world finance. (“He is a treasure of state,” said R.W.B. Lewis.) He befriended Timothy McVeigh and spoke warmly of him. (“Vidal did not lightly suffer fools,” said the obit writer in the New York Times.) He dished out anti-Semitism in a dozen different venues with imperturbable serenity. (“Both by temperament and by birth he was an aristocrat,” said the Times.)
He called William F. Buckley a crypto-Nazi. (“Vidal was known for his . . . scathing wit,” said Diane Sawyer on ABC.) He wanted to try Henry Kissinger for war crimes and suggested that John McCain had invented tales of his torture at the hands of the Vietnamese. (“A savvy analyst and glorious gadfly on the national conscience,” said the L.A. Times.) He was paid nearly a million dollars, adjusted for inflation, to collaborate with the pornographer Bob Guccione on Caligula, the most expensive stroke film ever made. (“An astonishingly versatile man of letters” — the Post again.)
It’s anybody’s guess how he got away with it all while maintaining a reputation as, at worst, “an acerbic gadfly,” and at the grandest, “one of the greatest essayists in the English language.” The Personages have their own reasons for choosing whom to revere.