Death of a cynic: The death of Gore Vidal

Some people are blessed with wealth, some with access to power, some with literary ability and some with an acerbic tongue. Gore Vidal had all four, but now he is gone

Gore Vidal, 1925 - 2012
Dr. James Boys
On 1 August 2012 12:30

Some people are blessed with wealth, some with access to power, some with literary ability and some with an acerbic tongue. Gore Vidal had all four, but now he is gone, one wonders quite what good it did him? Or rather, what good he did with these gifts?

Gore Vidal led a life well lived, hovering between the worlds of power and art in the United States throughout much of the twentieth century. He was born Eugene Louis Vidal at West Point, the son of a star athlete and a socialite. His mother’s subsequent marriages led to Vidal becoming stepbrother to a young Jacqueline Bouvier, the future First Lady, through whom Vidal gained access to the Kennedy White House.

Born to power and privilege, Vidal was not one to approach his subjects as equals, but as a superior; intellectually, morally and politically. Accordingly, Gore wrote from a position of superiority and appeared to judge his subjects. Few measured up to his standards and it is this judgemental approach that is most troubling in his work.

From an early age Vidal made little effort to conceal his homosexuality, a bold stance in the post World War Two era. His literary work was replete with references to gay relationships, most notably in The City and the Pillar published in 1948. It was this novel that did so much to elevate his status in the United States.

Dealing forthrightly with homosexuality, and in a way that didn’t doom the protagonist for defying socially accepted norms of the time, the book caused a scandal, being published at a time of conservatism and long before the swinging sixties.

The reaction in some circles to The City and the Pillar forced Vidal to adopt a series of pen names to ensure his continued ability to publish. However, the scandal surrounding the book led to further success in a range of outlets; on Broadway, in Hollywood and in his wide range of books and published works. His input can be seen in the screenplays for Ben-Hur and Caligula, and in The Best Man and Visit to a Small Planet.

Vidal was not content to remain in the world of fiction and throughout his life produced a series of polemical articles that ranged from the acerbic to the downright obtuse to lance the egos of those charged with running the United States.

It is, therefore, for his engagement with the world of politics that Vidal will perhaps be best remembered. He sought to blend the world of art and political intrigue, a world into which he had a window, and attempted to imbue his work with political themes and settings. Ranging from works dealing with Roman emperors to the American presidency, Vidal was interested in power and the powerful and in the private lives of those in charge.

As a member by marriage of the extended Kennedy family, Vidal was afforded a rare glimpse of the power and glamour of Camelot in the early 1960s. Yet this did not motivate a sense of empathy with those at the apex of power, in fact quite the opposite.

Vidal appeared to be content to provide insight into the flaws of leaders rather than into their more positive attributes, and as such commenced a career as a professional cynic; content to stand on the side-lines and observe with a cutting analysis as opposed to being in the arena and seeking to implement change through the democratic process.

He made two half-hearted forays to challenge this perception as a spectator, in 1960 and in 1982, both times seeking office in vain.

He had an uncanny ability to draw ire from a wide range of individuals, united it would seem, only in their common disdain for Vidal. Robert Kennedy, Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley, Jr. all had altercations with Vidal, promoted in part by the latter’s apparent self-righteousness and desire to provoke.

It is in this that the least attractive element of Vidal’s legacy can be distilled. He appeared content to criticise and highlight failings in others. All too often he presented simplistic assessments of people, whilst lamenting such a simplistic approach in others.

In later life he began to ascribe conspiracy theory to the events of September 11th, 2001, sought to impeach President George W. Bush and stated that eventually the United States would become a dictatorship.

He suggested that Roosevelt provoked the attack on Pearl Harbour, was aware that such an attack was imminent and that Truman ignored Japanese offers to surrender so that the US could demonstrate its nuclear arsenal and therefore intimidate Stalin.

Whilst such stances became identified with a revisionist interpretation of history, Vidal advocated such positions in a manner that sought to highlight a petty and cruel streak in American leadership, rather than to advocate a realist approach to international relations. 

Gore Vidal noted that modern day America was The United States of Amnesia; that the nation paid far too little attention to what was going on and forgot its past at its peril.

If we are to remember Vidal at this time, let it be for this sage piece of advice, echoing the Founding Fathers, that “what is past is prologue,” than for his sanctimonious critique of those who failed to live up to his own expectations.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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