Gore Vidal: a belated obituary

On 31 July Gore Vidal died at his home in Los Angeles from complications arising from pneumonia. He was 86 and had been ill for some time. As I was away on holiday at the time, I did not find out about this till later. The comrades in charge of Marxist.com decided to republish an article I had written in July 2002 with the title The decline and fall of the American empire, based on a television interview with the American writer.

Having re-read the article, I think it provides a fairly good general idea of Gore Vidal and his ideas. But I think it would be appropriate at this time to pay tribute to a man who, apart from being probably the greatest American writer of his day, was also a rebel who did a lot to expose the evils of what many people now call the Empire. Who was Gore Vidal, and what did he really stand for?

Early life

Born in 1925, Eugene Luther Vidal was the scion of one of America's grandest political dynasties. His grandfather, TP Gore, was a senator and his father a one-time Secretary of Aviation under President Franklin D Roosevelt. For reasons best known to himself he took his mother's maiden name Gore and used it as his first name. In his own words: “My family helped start [this country], we've been in political life ... since the 1690s, and I have a very possessive sense about this country.” (Gore Vidal – Sexually Speaking, 1999)

His maternal grandfather was the senator Thomas Gore, a commanding figure in Washington politics for many decades. His mother, Nina Gore Vidal, divorced his father in 1935, then married the financier Hugh D Auchincloss, who in turn divorced her and married Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, thus establishing a connection between Vidal and the Kennedy clan that persisted through the presidency of John F Kennedy. He was also a distant cousin of former Vice President Al Gore.

Gore Vidal’s public career spanned seven decades and included 25 novels, numerous collections of essays on literature and politics (more than 200), a volume of short stories, five Broadway plays, dozens of television plays and film scripts, including the screenplay for Ben Hur (1959). He wrote his first book aged 19 and later went on to become one of America's most distinguished authors.

In 1940, he entered the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he seems to have been rather a poor student. After leaving in 1943, he joined the Army Transportation Corps as an officer, whereupon he was sent to the Aleutian Islands. In December 1944 he began his first novel, Williwaw, based on his wartime experiences. Suffering a bad case of frostbite, Vidal was invalided back to the US, where he finished the novel in less than a year. It was well received.

1946 Gore Vidal at the age of 211946 - Gore Vidal at the age of 21The success of Williwaw encouraged him to continue his literary work. He published eight novels between 1946 and 1954, including The City and the Pillar (1948), an explicitly gay novel that challenged the homophobia in American culture. It was a bestseller, but the consequences for the young author were severe.

These were the years of the Cold War and reaction was hardening in the USA. Vidal's literary career was brought to an abrupt halt. His next five novels had a hostile reception in the mainstream press. The critic John W Aldridge was typical: "His writing after Williwaw is one long record of stylistic breakdown and spiritual exhaustion. It is confused and fragmentary, pulled in every direction by the shifting winds of impressionism. It is always reacting, always feeling and seeing; but it never signifies because it never believes."

In the years of McCarthyite reaction everybody was supposed to believe... in the joys of American capitalism. There was no room for doubters and sceptics. But Gore Vidal was always the sceptic par excellence. Ignored by book critics for the next several years, he turned his attention to television writing dramas, often under a pseudonym. His name did not even appear in the credits of Ben Hur. In this way the dead hand of McCarthyism blighted the careers and blotted out the names of America’s best and most talented intellectuals.

Politics and literature

“My father had a deep and lifelong contempt for politicians in general ‘They tell lies,’ he used to say with wonder, ‘even when they don't have to’". (On Flying, 1985)

Gore Vidal said he had always really wanted to be a politician. He ran for a seat in Congress in 1960 and again in 1982, but lost both times. Since he stood as a Democrat in New York's traditionally Republican 29th District, advocating, among other things, the recognition of China, a reduction of the Pentagon's budget and increasing federal aid to education, this was perhaps not surprising. After these setbacks he seems to have given up any idea of life as a professional politician, dedicating himself wholly to his writing.

Vidal left the USA for Italy, where he would spend most of his time until 2003, when he moved to a large home in the Hollywood Hills. It was in Rome, where he wrote Julian (1964), a bestselling novel about the Roman emperor who rejected Christianity and embraced paganism. This novel showed a remarkable talent for bringing history alive in the form of a novel. The same talent was revealed in another great novel set in the ancient world, Creation, written in 1981.

Steeped in classical learning, Vidal had a profound sense of history and was able to project this into his novels. Part of the reason why his writings about the ancient world are so vivid is that he treats the ancient world not as one would a lifeless fossil, but as a reflection of the modern world, an anticipation of later developments, including the class struggle. In an essay about the fall of Constantinople, he writes:

"For it was at Thessalonica in the 1340's that the first recognizable class war of our era took place between aristocrats on the one hand and a well-organized communist-minded working class on the other, while a divided but powerful middle class representing 'democratic' virtues vacillated between extremes. Significantly, the Palaeologi sided with the middle class, put down the revolution, and so maintained their dynasty for another century." (Gore Vidal, Byzantium’s Fall in Homage to Daniel Shays. Collected Essays 1952-1972, p.208)

Gore Vidal was to become a writer of global stature. But he was in permanent conflict with the literary and political establishment in the USA. This made him into a virtual outcast in his native land. A ferocious critic of the Bush administration, he was an outspoken opponent of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One way or another, politics always entered into his work – whether that was essays on the contemporary political scene or American history. This fact permeates his prose, his historical novels and especially in his political essays. He was the author of a series of blistering pamphlets and articles attacking what he called the Empire.

His waspishness was particularly harmful to right-wing reactionaries like Ronald Reagan whom he memorably described as "a triumph of the embalmer's art", and George W Bush, for whom he entertained a particular loathing. He once referred to the “silent majority” – a phrase beloved of the American Right – thus: “a phrase which that underestimated wit Richard Nixon took from Homer who used it to describe the dead.”

He was also famous for his controversial interviews. I remember one interview on British television, where he was asked by the interviewer if he could name anybody who would be a better President. With a look of mingled scorn and disbelief he retorted: “Could I name anybody that would be better? Why, you would be better. I would be better. The hall-porter of this studio would be better!”

Gore Vidal’s humour

Gore Vidal had a waspish sense of humour and a great gift for epigrams that remind one of the barbed witticisms of Oscar Wilde. Here are a few examples:

On freedom of the press: “The media in America exist only to serve the financial interests of their owners. That is the way things are and have always been.” (An American Press Lord, April 9, 1970)

“The alternative to a planned society is no society.” (Manifesto and Dialogue, Esquire, October, 1968)

“Our poor, needless to say, are quite as enslaved as they were when their ancestors built the pyramids.” (ibid.)

Women: “It is certainly true that women are half-citizens even in the relatively liberated West. From birth they are programmed by the tribalists to serve men, raise children, and be [...] geishas.” (Doc Reuben, June 4, 1970)

Marriage: “as long as marriage [is] central to our capitalism (and its depressing Soviet counterpart) neither man nor woman can be regarded as free to be human.” (July 22, 1971)

Drugs: “The American people are as devoted to the idea of sin and its punishment as they are to making money – and fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them. Since the combination of sin and money is irresistible (particularly to the professional politicians), the situation will only grow worse.” Drugs, September 26, 1970)

Rich and poor: "The right wing in America has always believed that those who have money are good people and those who lack it are bad people. At a deeper lever, our conservatives are true Darwinians and think that the weak and the poor ought to die off, leaving the spoils to the fit." (Eleanor Roosevelt, November, 1971)

Politics in the USA: “If you want to rise in politics in the United States, there is one subject you must stay away from, and that is politics.”

Politicians: “Today's public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can't read them either.”

The police: “We must always remember that the police are recruited from the criminal classes.”

One time, he remarked: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." When he was informed of the death of Truman Capote, a novelist he did not hold in high regard, his response was: “A smart career move.” Needless to say, this kind of thing did not win him many friends, but this did not seem to have bothered him in the slightest degree.

One of the things that aroused the greatest controversy was his attitude to religion (“I'm a born-again atheist”). In a scathing remark about the prohibition of birth control by the Catholic Church, he wrote: "But now that half the world lives with famine – and all the world by the year 2000, if Pope Paul's as yet unborn guests are allowed to attend (in this unhappy phrase) the 'banquet of life', the old equation has been changed to read: man plus woman equals baby equals famine." (Pornography, March 1966)

In the course of the aforementioned interview, the TV presenter raised the question of the writer’s well-known hostility to religion. He asked him whether he really thought that Christianity had never contributed anything to human progress. By way of reply, Gore Vidal recalled that the emperor Nero had ordered Christians to be burned as torches in the streets of Rome. “That was the only time in 2,000 years Christianity ever illuminated anything,” he said, leaving the interviewer visibly aghast.

Needless to say, such statements did not win him many friends among the religious Right in the USA – or among respectable liberals either, for that matter. But it reflected his view that in an interview, “one should speak one’s mind and don’t give a damn.”

His criticism of American society, its values and politics, was equally uncompromising. Let us quote one example, from an article entitled Edmund Wilson, tax-dodger. Written in November 1961, the article is a defence of the progressive writer Edmund Wilson, who justified his non-payment of taxes on the grounds that the US government misused taxpayers’ money.

"Mr. Wilson then asks a simple question: Why must we pay so much? He notes the conventional answer: Since the cold war, foreign aid, and defense account for seventy-nine per cent of all Federal expenditures, putting the nation in permanent hock to that economic military complex President Eisenhower so movingly warned us against after a lifetime's loyal service to it. There is of course some consolation in the fact that we are not wasting our billions weakening the moral fiber of the American yeoman by building him roads and schools, or by giving him medical care and decent housing. In public services, we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West, preferring that the public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich." (Gore Vidal, Homage to Daniel Shays. Collected Essays 1952-1972, p.153.)

These words were written long before the US government developed a habit of handing out trillions of taxpayers’ money to bail out private banks, while wealthy congressmen and women squabble over a bill to provide healthcare to the sick.

Despite his controversial pronouncements, eventually, his colossal talent had to be recognised – however grudgingly – by the US literary establishment. In 1993, his volume Essays, United States 1951-91, received the National Book award. But he was always looked upon with suspicion and treated at best as an eccentric, at worst as a traitor to his class and his country. Vidal was an insider as a result of his family background and connections in Washington, Hollywood and literary salons around the world. But he behaved as the ultimate outsider and was treated as such by the US literary and political establishment.

History as a novel

Although Vidal was in the line of descent of older American authors, notably Mark Twain, he was a genuinely original writer. His unique literary achievement was his series of historical novels based on the lives of US figures such as Abraham Lincoln. I would go so far as to say that for anyone who wishes to understand American history these books are obligatory reading.

This remarkable series of novels began when he published Washington, DC (1967), which deals with politics during the era of FD Roosevelt. The series contains vivid pen-portraits of the main dramatis personae, which reappear in subsequent novels as the plots and sub-plots of American history are seamlessly woven together with the skill of a Persian carpet-maker. On the eve of America's centennial year in 1976 the next novel 1876 was published.

Already in the Roosevelt era, Vidal was on the scene as a young man in Washington. Six years later Vidal's American chronicle began to unfold in all its glory. His personal experience and family connections provided him with a unique insight into American history, its characters, their psychology and motivations.

The series begins, chronologically, with Burr, based on the events of the American Revolution and its aftermath. He portrays George Washington (accurately) as an incompetent general who lost most of his battles. By contrast, Gore presents Aaron Burr as an honourable gentleman and a tragic figure. Burr, the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and who, two years later, initiated a secessionist conspiracy.

It was John L. O'Sullivan, the editor of the "Democratic Review", who coined the phrase manifest destiny, stating that it must be "Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In his novels, Vidal traces the development of America’s “manifest destiny”, its thrust towards foreign conquest, beginning with the seizure of territory from Mexico.

Burr includes an imaginary conversation between the narrator and a colonel Williamson concerning plans to annex Mexican territory:

“I was cautious. ‘You know my interest in the liberation of Mexico. Everybody’s interest. I think I can even speak for the President when I say that he, too, would like Mexico liberated...

‘So I’ve heard! Williamson was as impressed as I had intended him to be.

‘But one cannot make such a move unless there is war between Spain and the United States’.

‘There is always trouble....’

‘Not trouble – war.’

‘War might be arranged. General Wilkinson...’

He did not need to finish. We both knew that Wilkinson could arrange a border incident with the Spanish whenever he chose.” (Burr p. 370).

This scenario was later implemented in 1846-8, when the USA annexed a big chunk of Mexican territory. But the USA had designs on Mexican lands (Texas, California) long before that. He mentions John Adair, a hero of the American Revolution and famous Indian fighter from Kentucky:

“’Adair assured me of Kentucky’s good will because: “Our folks are as greedy as the old Romans when it comes to conquest: we want Mexico.’

‘We shall have it.’

‘But there must be war with Spain before we can move...’” (Burr, p. 403)

He further reveals the plot hatched by Andrew Jackson to further this end: “A harmless little republic of Texas would lay claim to the Pacific Coast of our continent. After a decent interval, that republic would join the United States, which would then claim all of Spanish California...” (Burr, p. 432)

In 1834, General Antonio López de Santa Anna became the centralist dictator of Mexico, abandoning the federal system. He decided to quash the semi-independence of Texas, having succeeded in doing so in Coahuila (in 1824, Mexico had merged Texas and Coahuila into the massive state of Coahuila y Tejas). Finally, Stephen F. Austin called Texans to arms; they declared independence from Mexico in 1836, and after Santa Anna defeated the Texans at the Alamo, he was defeated by the Texan Army commanded by General Sam Houston and captured at the Battle of San Jacinto and signed a treaty recognizing Texas' independence.

Texas consolidated its status as an independent republic and received official recognition from Britain, France, and the U.S., which all advised Mexico not to try to reconquer the new nation. Most Texans wanted to join the U.S. but annexation of Texas was contentious in the U.S. Congress, where Whigs were largely opposed. In 1845 Texas agreed to the offer of annexation by the U.S. Congress. Texas became the 28th state on December 29, 1845.

The last three instalments in the sequence are Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age. But it was Lincoln (1984) that perhaps represents his greatest masterpiece. It was a major bestseller. This was not merely an imaginative description of a period of titanic events but a compelling reconstruction of the character of Lincoln, his wife Mary and other major protagonists, even Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It is this marriage between the particular and the universal, showing how the workings of history are realised in and through real human beings, which makes Lincoln such a compelling and moving document.

Gore Vidal’s political criticism

Vidal’s caustic criticism of the US ruling class and its political system was so devastating precisely because he was an insider – a man who understood the US establishment and how it worked. He knew the ruling class intimately and his opinion of them is summed up in his own words: he believed that “the more money an American accumulates the less interesting he himself becomes.” (H. Hughes, April 20, 1972)

As a result of his intimate relationships with the US political elite, he understood very well the fraudulent, hypocritical and corrupt nature of so-called democracy in the USA. He concludes: “It is plain that only the very wealthy or those allied to the very wealthy can afford the top prizes.” This could have been written yesterday. In the recent primaries to decide the Republican candidate for the next presidential elections, loser Newt Gingrich explained the success of Romney thus:

“In the end, he [Romney] had, I think, sixteen billionaires and we had one." In an uncharacteristic display of altruism, Gingrich encouraged his lone billionaire Las Vegas casino owner to donate to the campaign of his rival Romney (whom he has described as a liar and a “Massachusetts moderate “). The casino mogul recently did just that, giving $10 million to the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future – the single largest contribution, by far, to the group.

Among Vidal’s personal friends was Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of the former President, FD Roosevelt. He knew both FD Roosevelt and John F Kennedy personally and among his relatives were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Al Gore. In an article ironically entitled The Holy Family (published in Esquire, April 1967), he laid bare the mechanism whereby the multi-millionaire founder of the Kennedy dynasty got his sons elected to the highest office in the land.

Joseph Kennedy was an extreme right winger and a Nazi sympathiser. He also had a lot of money, which he invested in promoting his sons, as Vidal was bold enough to expose, even after the assassination of his son had given rise to the myth of  JF Kennedy the “liberal”. Gore Vidal wrote:

"It will probably never be known how much money Joe Kennedy has spent for the political promotion of his sons. At the moment, an estimated million dollars a year is being spent on Bobby's behalf and this sum can be matched year after year until 1972, and longer. Needless to say, the sons are sensitive to the charge that their elections are bought. As JFK said of his 1952 election to the Senate, 'People say "Kennedy bought the election. Kennedy could never have been elected if his father hadn't been a millionaire. Well, it wasn't the Kennedy name and the Kennedy money that won that election. I beat Lodge because I hustled for three years” (quoted in The founding Father). But of course without the Kennedy name and the Kennedy money, he would not even have been a contender. Not only was a vast amount of money spent for his election in the usual ways, but a great deal was spent in not so usual ways. For instance, according to Richard J. Whalen, right after the pro-Lodge Boston Post unexpectedly endorsed Jack Kennedy for the Senate, Joe Kennedy loaned the paper's publisher $500,000."

Gore Vidal wrote in the 1970s:

"There is only one party in the United States, the Property party… and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently… and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties." (Matters of fact and fiction)

That conveys very well the essence of the “two party system” in the USA, and over three decades later there is very little one could add to it. As he observed in a British television interview: “Everything is decided by the one percent of the population who own America. One percent owns everything." The emptiness of American politics today reflects the fact that the two main parties are both bourgeois parties representing the interests of the one percent.

Since there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats, politics is reduced to a vacuous contest between “personalities”. Genuine political debate is replaced by empty “sound bites” on television. Writing about a Republican Party Convention in 1968, Gore Vidal describes the appearance of Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller:

"Beside him stands his handsome wife, holding a large straw hat and looking as if she would like to be somewhere else, no loving Nancy Reagan or loyal Pat Nixon she. The convention is full of talk that there has been trouble between them. Apparently... One of the pleasures of American political life is that, finally, only personalities matter. Is he a nice man? Is she happy with him? What else should concern a sovereign people?" (Gore Vidal, Homage to Daniel Shays. Collected Essays 1952-1972, p.310)

It is only necessary to substitute Michele Obama for the above-named President’s wives to see that nothing much has changed.

Vidal pointed to the erosion of democracy and the U.S. Bill of Rights. He denounced the federal attack on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, when more than 80 cult members were killed, of whom 27 were children. But despite his generally sound political instinct, Gore Vidal occasionally made some bad errors of judgement. One of his most controversial actions was his defence of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001, apparently in retribution for the Waco massacre. This mistake provided more ammunition to his critics.

Such lapses of judgement should not surprise us, since Gore Vidal, despite his great insight and implacable honesty did not possess a consistent ideology. His conclusions were the result of a keen observation, made with an artist’s eye. But his analysis lacked a solid, scientific basis. He saw very clearly that a small group of super-rich people owned the United States, and manipulated its economic and foreign policies. He saw how members of Congress are bought, how presidential candidates are selected and financed. But to all of this he lacked a coherent response.

In his essay Eleanor Roosevelt, written on November 18, 1971, he wrote: “Now we live in a society which none of us much likes, all would like to change, but no-one knows how.” This is the central dilemma in the writings of Gore Vidal. He resembles a doctor who has arrived at a correct diagnosis, but is unable to prescribe a remedy. Yet at times he comes close to a revolutionary conclusion.

Long before the Occupy Movement raised the slogan “We are the 99 Percent” Vidal wrote:"The not-so-poor do outnumber the poor but if the not-so-poor who are nicked heavily by taxes were to join with the poor they would outnumber the elite by 99 to 1. The politician who can forge that alliance will find himself, at best, the maker of a new society; at worst, in a hole at Arlington." (Homage to Daniel Shays 1972)

In 2002 in one of his inimitable TV interviews, Gore Vidal said, with remarkable prescience:  "Our liberation from this system will come about as a result of an economic collapse... This is inevitable, on the basis of the colossal debts we have been building up. This must lead to monetary breakdown at some stage. The writing is on the wall."

Nobody else, except the Marxists, was saying these things in 2002. And yet, despite all his brilliance and insight, Gore Vidal offers no real solution. His voice is that of a doomed class, ruminating over the inevitability of the fall: a latter-day Cassandra uttering prophetic words to which nobody listened.

[Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, born 3 October 1925; died 31 July 2012]

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