In 2010 Rep. Michele Bachmann, the intense Republican Congressional member from Minnesota then running for president, explained an important moment in her political development:
Until I was reading this snotty novel called ‘Burr,’ by Gore Vidal, and read how he mocked our Founding Fathers. And as a reasonable, decent, fair-minded person who happened to be a Democrat, I thought, ‘You know what? What he’s writing about, this mocking of people that I revere — I knew that that was not representative of my country.
And at that point I put the book down and I laughed. I was riding a train. I looked out the window and I said, “You know what? I think I must be a Republican. I don’t think I’m a Democrat.”
And so she became a Republican. Burr, while a novel, was heavily researched and essentially historically accurate. A better scenario couldn’t have been invented by Vidal himself. Look, a woman becomes Republican ideologue wacko because she doesn’t want to deal with real history. Bachmann is rather the sort of figure—attractive, politically powerful, opinionated, and stridently ignorant—who might fit in well in Duluth, Vidal’s 1983 satirical, surreal, science fiction novel loosely based on the Minnesota city.
Gore Vidal, 86, died Tuesday after a long career in politics and literature that took him from DC to Minnesota to Italy to Los Angeles, and back again.
Vidal was born October 3, 1925 in the Cadet Hospital of the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY, where his father then worked as the school’s first aeronautics instructor. His mother was the daughter of Thomas Pryor Gore, Democratic senator from Oklahoma. His parents divorced before his 10th birthday and he grew up in Washington DC, largely at the house of his grandfather, the senator. His mother sent him to boarding school at 15 and, upon graduation from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943, he joined the Army. He was eventually deployed to the Aleutian Islands.
At 19 he published his first book, Williwaw, a plainly written novel loosely based upon his time in Alaska during the war. It was America’s first World War II novel and it was a success. He was one of America’s emerging new writers, the first to come out of the war. There was talk of a political career in the Southwest where his grandfather might have been able to set him up.
And then, in 1948, Vidal wrote The City and the Pillar, a frank treatment of a homosexual relationship between two otherwise ordinary young men. The New York Times found the book obscene and refused to review it (and, at least for awhile, anything else by Vidal). There would be no more fawning reviews, no more expectations of a conventional writing career, and no political office.
For a time he wrote mystery novels and screenplays for Hollywood, he ran for congress unsuccessfully, but eventually he returned to the novel, particularly political and historical novels. The next three he published under his own name were Julian (1964), Washington, D.C. (1967), and Myra Breckinridge (1968). And that established his style pretty much from then on. There were three distinct Vidal books. The historical one, the political one, and the weird one. Myra Breckinridge was a comedic portrait of a transsexual figure out to dominate the world.
He followed that up with Burr (1973), the novel about the vice president that a young Michelle Bachmann found so objectionable. Vidal was a man of, well, diverse talents.
I first came to his work through Washington, D.C., which I bought in a used bookstore when I was 15. It told the story of a political family from 1937 to 1952. There are congressmen, press barons, drunken socialites, cameos from President Franklin Roosevelt, and those emotionless sex scenes that are so utterly characteristic of Vidal novels.
There was something about that book, its whole take on a world that was both glamorous and mundane, beautiful and boring, significant and at the same time utterly meaningless, that seemed fascinating to me at the time. And I eventually read almost everything else he had ever written.
Washington, D.C. was also part of a seven-book historical saga that takes the United States, through a single family, from the revolution through the Clinton Administration. This is the series that includes Burr and Lincoln. The actual family matters much more in some books than in others. Washington, D.C. is about a political family; the real political figures of the time merely have cameo appearances. Lincoln, however, concentrates on the real statesmen of the time; the fictional characters are incidental, bit players.
In the meantime, he also wrote articles and continued his involvement in polices. He was most useful, and perceptive, in his journalistic endeavors. He was published by The Nation, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, among other places. He observed astutely the transitions across the centuries, how the United States became a global power and how the policies, and particularly the presidency, evolved during that time.
Washington itself is a good example of quite how American power changes. When he was a child he used to go pick up his blind grandfather in the U.S. Senate by just running in to get him. On hot days in he wouldn’t even bother much to dress. He would run into the well of the Senate barefoot and shirtless, once apparently prompting one of Roosevelt’s vice presidents, John Nance Gardner, to look down from the podium and shout “that kid’s buck nekkid!” There was no indication that Texas politician attempted to do anything about this breach of etiquette.
It’s a charming story but it illustrates the difference between a provincial legislative house and the governing body of an empire. Today the U.S. capital is patrolled by armed guards and no one, even if he’s seven years old, can enter without a shirt.
Vidal once said that we were, essentially, living in the third Republic of the United States. The first were the country under the Articles of Confederation, a mere collection of states. The second ran from the Constitution through the Civil War. The Third Republic began at the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln assumed dictatorial power and made this, once and for all, a unified empire ruled from Washington. The increasingly power assumed by Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War arguably brought us to a new state of political development. Vidal’s separation of historical periods into distinct republics is merely a rhetorical device, but it’s a useful one nonetheless to understand how the country has changed.
His political articles were often marvelously astute and his novels were imaginative and often exciting. But his later work will surely be out of print soon and some of his novels are too shallow, too pretentious, and too transparently trashy to merit continuing attention. His 1987 novel, Empire, for instance, opens like this:
“The war ended last night, Caroline. Help me with these flowers.” Elizabeth Cameron stood in the open French window, holding a large blue-and-white china vase filled with roses, somewhat showily past their prime. Caroline helped her hostess carry the heavy vase into the long cool dim drawing room.
At forty, Mrs. Cameron was, to Caroline’s youthful eye, very old indeed; nevertheless, she was easily the handsomest of America’s great ladies and certainly the most serenely efficient, able to arrange a platoon of flower vases before breakfast with the same ease and briskness that her uncle, General Sherman, had devastated Georgia.
As the world turns…. This stuff is not Shakespeare. But the book explores America as a growing political power and paints a vivid portrait of the United States during the McKinley era. The women arraigning flowers are just icing.
But there’s still Julian, his 1964 novel about the fourth-century Roman emperor who attempted to remove Christianity and restore worship of the traditional gods in the empire, and Creation, his 1981 novel about a 5th century BC Persian diplomat who travels across the Eastern world meeting the period’s major philosophical figures. These are brilliant, astoundingly researched narratives of the ancient world. There is Burr, which tells a complicated unfamiliar tale of the founding of the United states (George Washington has hemorrhoids, by the way, and a huge ass) and Lincoln, which shows pretty effectively the 16th president’s knowledge that the world he ruled was changing. This is not just about the end of slavery. His own power was changing and he was attempting to maneuver politically in a world with many different interests and loyalties.
This is history, real history, and perhaps future generations will take a look at something he wrote and finally, if only for a moment, get an idea of how we actually lived back then, back when America was young, back when our politics were simple (relatively).
“I’m a lover of the old republic and I deeply resent the empire our Presidents put in its place,” he explained. But at least he showed us how it happened.
In his later years he became increasingly odd. Always irritable and unusual, he was also charming and witty as young man. But in the last decade he often seemed to be annoying merely for the sake of being annoying. When Deborah Solomon interviewed him in 2008 and asked him what he thought his best novel was he snarled “I don’t answer questions like that. Ever. And you ought not to ask them.” When she closed up the interview with the cheery, and conventional, “well, it was a great pleasure talking to you.” He responded, “I doubt that.”
Then again, sometimes his interviewers got back at him, too:
Did he deserve that? Perhaps. He was a consummately bitchy writer, truth be told. He once said of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, that he had “all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal.” In fact, in later years, the two of them increasingly came to resemble each other in appearance. Their fat, slovenly elderliness was familiar. Aged aristocrats, shuffling along with great shocks of white hair, dragging that vast weight around with them, rather disappointed by American politics.
Vidal liked to present himself like an old Roman patrician, at the end of the Republic. For years he lived in a villa above the Amalfi Coast. It was a good presentation but it became ever more difficult to take him seriously. Many of his later works were just rants. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or How We Came To Be So Hated and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta amounted to merely anti-Bush pamphlets.
Like many reasonably healthy men, toward the end of his life most of his friends and acquaintances, and even his enemies, had died. His longtime companion Howard Austen went in 2003. He also lost Paul Newman (2008), Louis Auchincloss (2010), and Princess Margaret (2002). Even Normal Mailer (2007) and William Buckley (2008) and were gone.
One wonders if he had anyone left to talk to, who would talk back and contradict him.
He became increasingly eccentric in the aftermath of September 11th, once declaring that the American experiment in Democracy could now be characterized as “a failure.” He said the George W. Bush administration was “probably” behind the 9/11 attacks, because that sort of behavior would “certainly fit them to a T.” He presented no evidence that the administration was actually involved, of course. He merely said he thought so because it would have been in character.
It’s not that such sentiments are necessarily entirely wrong; it’s just that it became hard to view him with respect by this point. This was a man who also said Timothy McVeigh was “a noble boy.” Again, perhaps in some highly creative sense he was, in that he had technically killed fewer people than many generals, but come on, he bombed a federal building .
He appeared, in some lights, to have something of a crush on McVeigh. Vidal was supremely unusual about the gay thing, insisting rather pedantically that homosexual was to be used an adverb, not a noun; there were no homosexual people, just homosexual acts. “Trust a nitwit society like this one to think that there are only two categories – fag and straight,” he grumbled.
He seemed to believe it was his apparent homosexuality or, rather, his writing about homosexuality, that prevented him from earning full acceptance in the highbrow, academic literary community. This view became hard to maintain as actual gay people became more or less respected in literature throughout the 90s and the 2000s, but then, if someone hasn’t achieved literary recognition by his 60s, it’s unlikely to suddenly occur in his 70s.
Harold Bloom maintained that it was just Vidal’s habit of writing historical fiction that was objectionable to academia. (Perhaps it was just his writing historical fiction that included lines like “she was easily the handsomest of America’s great ladies… able to arrange a platoon of flower vases with the same ease and briskness that her uncle, General Sherman, had devastated Georgia,” whatever.)
Another rather annoying habit of Vidal’s was the name dropping, which continued long after he ought to have been confident enough to kick the habit. “He counted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Al Gore among his relatives,” according to his Los Angeles Times obituary. He also counted President Jimmy Carter.
All of these people were rather unlikely to count him, however. Carter was a 5th cousin. He and Mrs. Onassis, at different times, shared a stepfather. The relationship with Vice President Gore is a matter of considerable debate among genealogists of the two Gore families.
“It is always a delicate matter,” Vidal once wrote of the Kennedy election, “when a friend or acquaintance becomes president.”
Yes, one can only imagine. His mother was married to the millionaire stockbroker Hugh D. Auchincloss (who became Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s stepfather) for less than 7 years, but Vidal milked that one for all it was worth. Those Kennedy/Auchincloss stories go on forever but readers never heard about his half sister who sold real estate in Boca Raton (no, really).
So what of all of this? Will we remember Vidal in the future? Will we understand what he saw coming for the Republic as it became this empire to which he so objected?
Strictly speaking, probably not. When Richard Nixon died in 1994 Vidal wrote for The Nation that in the long run the struggles of the 1960s and the Cold War might not be quite so important:
So Jack and Nixon … are now both gone – paladin and goblin, each put back in the theatrical box of discarded puppets and, to a future eye (or puppet-master), interchangeable. Why not a new drama starring Jack Goblin and Dick Paladin?’ In their political actions they were more alike than not if one takes the longest view and regard the national history their day as simply a classic laboratory example of entropy doing its merry chilly thing.
Children in 100 years probably won’t know the difference between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy or Joe McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. Indeed, teenagers today often have trouble differentiating one Kennedy from another.
His grandfather was said to have remarked, as Franklin Roosevelt went on a massive building spree that eventually resulted in grandiose Classical-inspired buildings like the Department of Agriculture, the Pentagon, and the United States Supreme Court Building, that eventually at least they’d make beautiful ruins.
Vidal, the grumpiness aside, appreciated that sort of thing. Politicians are shallow, narcissistic people who build to impress the people watching them and make policies to appeal to a narrow group of people. But their monuments live on. May a part of Vidal live on, too. May we come to appreciate his usefulness, all that he’s warned us about how power works, how policy is made, and how governance itself evolves and decays. [Image via]