“Is Howard R Hughes the most boring American? Admittedly, the field is large: over 200 million of us are in competition” – Gore Vidal, The New York Review of Books, 1972
If you had a mind to create an ideal hate-figure for the hard right in America, you might well come up with someone like Gore Vidal: liberal, witty, bisexual and East Coast. International enough to live in Italy, but earning his bread and wine by books about his country of origin; insider enough to tell you what the Kennedys were really like; and distanced enough to distinguish which topics were distractions and which crucial; a patrician satirist writing novels, plays, films and essays, frequently appearing on TV and radio to poke fun at every clod, from reactionary politician to conservative writer, and, for this correspondent at least, a trusted guide to the US – its shameless right and timid left – these last 40 years.
Gore Vidal was born a political insider. In 2007 he said: “I’ve been around the ruling class all my life and I’ve been quite aware of their total contempt for the people of this country.”1 Born in 1925 at West Point military academy, son of Eugene Vidal, the academy’s first aeronautics instructor, and Nina Gore, who had appeared on Broadway and was later a delegate to the 1940 Democrat convention (Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Gore, was Democratic senator for Oklahoma). His father, to whom he was close, went on to become general manager of the first transcontinental airline, which eventually became TWA.
At the height of the depression, the young Vidal lived in a house with white servants – “a sign of wealth unique for Washington in those years”.2 In World War II he served as first mate of an army freight-supply ship and in 1946 wrote his first novel Williwaw. His third novel, The city and the pillar (1948), was notorious for its story of two gay athletes (and reminiscent of the film Brokeback mountain). Undeterred by the hostile reaction, Vidal went on to write more novels, as well as plays like The best man (1960) – later made into a film with Henry Fonda. In this, two candidates for the presidential nomination of an unspecified party cancel each other out, leaving the field open for what both consider a third-place mediocrity to have a crack at the most powerful post on earth.
In 1960 Vidal entered electoral politics himself – he stood as an “unconventional Democrat” for New York state’s 29th District. In this safe Republican seat, he polled 20,000 votes. He got to know another young candidate that year, John Kennedy, as Vidal shared a stepfather with Jackie. As can be seen, he was very much involved with the Democratic Party, but not above aiming his wit at its leaders: Lyndon Johnson was the “great Khan”3 and the Clintons “lawyers from the moderately well-off middle class … with little knowledge of how the ruling class operates.”4 He did not even spare Franklin Roosevelt, closest to his liberal politics, whose sanctions against Japan, Vidal argues, provoked Pearl Harbour.
Vidal’s later novels are either historical or social satire, showing a particular interest in the role of religion (as in Messiah). His novels, Washington DC (1967), Burr (1974) and the bestseller Lincoln (1984), explore the submerging of a federal isolationist confederation into a state striving for empire (or “new frontiers”).
Some of Vidal’s last remarks – made in a video interview on http://www.therealnews.com – specify Abe Lincoln, the imperial president, as the model for a constitutional dictatorship which could be looming over current conditions of bankruptcy and depression. It was Lincoln who declared that the confederacy had no right to leave the union (regardless of the slavery issue) and so, as he had the right as president to “defend the constitution”, he could proclaim martial law.
“When I was a boy, I lived in somewhere called the United States,” Vidal has said – not in a fascist-sounding “homeland”.5 He has suggested culprits for this change of state, like the federal expansion in World War II. But, as Hegel remarked, the “limitations of the finite do not merely come from without; that its own nature is the cause of its abrogation, and that by its own act it passes into its counterpart”.6 It is in his US historical novels that Vidal shows the corruption has been a long time growing.
He has also written a wide range of other fiction, including the gender-satire Myra Breckinridge (1968), the new-religion satire Kalki (1978) and the shamefully ignored Julien (1964) on the clash of paganism and Christianity. He was as interested in movies as books, having worked on screenplays like Ben-Hur (1959) and Caligula (1979).
Sex is politics
As well as profiling writers and politicians (and even examining French literary theory as early as 1967), Vidal’s essays have consistently dealt with sexual obsession: that is, the obsession of quite a few Americans with what is the ‘right sort’ of love-making. Whether reviewing popular novels, sex advice books or the campaigns of the religious right (Save the family!), Vidal has always argued that, as the title of one of his most famous pieces puts it, ‘Sex is politics’7: “Although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behaviour are usually based on religious texts, those are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled.”8 He was fond too of arguing that most human beings are bisexual and used references to classical texts like The twelve Caesars by Suetonius to show that nobody then worried who you did it with: just how.
Later in the same essay, he avows that sexual correctitude is not the only way to keep voters excited about the wrong things. There is also the hot issue of the (costly) criminalisation of narcotics: “It is good politics to talk against sin – and don’t worry about non-sequiturs. In fact it is positively un-American – even communist – to discuss a real issue such as unemployment or who is stealing all that money at Pentagon.”9
Of course, the right does get round to talking about money too, especially taxation. Vidal, and the PR people he is quoting, refer to all these as ‘hot buttons’. In this code, ‘welfare’ means poor people, mostly of colour, while ‘elitist’ means the liberals in Washington: the elitists are taking your money and using it for welfare. On this peak in human philosophy the Republican Party has built an alliance of working class whites and the business class. The Democrats’ response, as Vidal too acknowledged – in writing about Jimmy Carter, for example – was to assert just how ‘responsible’ they were. As Vidal himself famously put it, the US doesn’t have two main parties, but one – the Property Party, with its two right wings, Republican and Democrat.
For Vidal, the culture wars were always part of the politics war. He was proud to refer to ideas from Kate Millett, Eve Figes and Germaine Greer to show how the attitudes to women of writers like Norman Mailer and Henry Miller dovetail nicely with the making of war and the bossing around of people:
“Figes feels a change in the economic system will free women (and men) from unwanted roles. I have another idea. Free the sexes first and the system will have to change. There will be no housewife to be conned into buying things she does not need.”9
Of course, history came up with a new trick: publicise shopping as liberation (not compensation) and ban sexist and racist banter in the boardroom, but not all varieties of discrimination, and underpayment, in the job market. Through the scented mists of confusion the point is now plain: the struggles for sexual and social liberation are indivisible.
Some of the techniques Vidal mentioned have a habit of showing up in Britain. Like accusations of elitism and the worship of invigorating privatisation. They sometimes sound silly, though, in their Tory context: private care homes do not have the best of reputations, while the accusation of elitism can sound ridiculous once you register that it is usually being made by one Oxbridge graduate against another. But the main weapon is fear. Defenders of capitalism do not have much to say for themselves, except that you won’t be better off with the other lot: the extreme Muslims, the puritanical politically correct, the unreconstructed admirers of Mao and Stalin (whoever they are).
In the 60s Vidal became preoccupied with ‘overpopulation’ and debated the idea of setting up an “authority” to command birth control.10 Later he suggested that ‘we’ should call a new constitutional convention – rejigging the articles being a radical proposal in a nation where everybody from martial presidents to Midwest terrorists claims to be defending that 18th century document.
In his last years, Vidal continued to write and talk, often in memoir form, but also in TV lectures and web interviews, about how even farther he thought the States had fallen. His tone was often more world-weary than scathing – even desperate. Understandable enough in the face of so much recent mass destruction, which others who thought him “loco” (like Christopher Hitchens11) considered a necessary part of the west’s ‘interventions’.
Maybe his mood wasn’t helped when in November 2003 his long-term partner, Howard Auster, died, leaving him with “the blankness of familiar rooms, lacking their usual occupant”.12 By this time, however, Vidal had sold his home in Italy and had been living permanently in Los Angeles. It was here, in the Hollywood Hills, that he died from complications of pneumonia on July 31 2012.
His best political pieces were on the Kennedys,13 the Reagans,14 ‘Paranoid politics’15 and The American presidency.16 These sparkling, but firm essays mixed anecdotes and ‘insider gossip’ with an overview of why office-holders are smart not to act clever: rather, a code is used (see above) and familiar notions invoked. When was ‘Yes, we can’ (B Obama) not an American sentiment? Though Vidal did show interest in conspiracy theories surrounding the Twin Towers (and plotting before Pearl Harbour), he concluded in 2007 that the Bushites “could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to.”16 Nor was he afraid to call Christian evangelists Anti-Semites or New York intellectuals Zionists.17
In his last volume of memoirs, Vidal was sure that war-making for profit had not ended with Iraq: “Now we are creating air bases in central Asia to seize Iranian oil reserves? Or, more dangerously, to take on China en route to North Korea or vice versa?”18
He often seemed to refer to a golden age: “I am a lover of the old republic and deeply resent the empire our presidents put in its place.”19 He used many names for what he detested: the “Bushites”, the “national security state”, “the Bank”. Each president was “that loyal retainer of the Chase Manhattan Bank.”20 In the 70s he could sense some broad dissatisfaction in the audiences he spoke to: “Lowly consumer-depositors now speak of a national ‘crisis of confidence.’ The ordinarily docile media have even revealed a few tips of the iceberg – no glacier – that covers with corruption our body politic. Now the masters of our third republic are striking back.”21 Namely, as Vidal then outlines, by increasing the powers of the CIA and FBI – long before 9/11.
“Meanwhile,” Vidal concludes, “a new constitutional convention is in order. The rights guaranteed by the founders of the old constitution should be reinforced; the presidential form of government should be exchanged for a more democratic parliamentary system …”22 Of course, “those conservatives known as liberals have found this notion terrifying, because they are convinced that the powers of darkness will see to it that the Bill of Rights is abolished.”23
The argument for rights, though, has been won: it is just that sometimes they are confused with entitlements (exclusions being immigrants or ‘enemy combatants’). But the morality of treating people as ends, of basic equality and respect, is now supposed to be sovereign. After all, who approves of exploiting children? Violations of this principle therefore have to be justified, as in war, and any exemptions, even made in the name of ‘economic efficiency’, are open to challenge more than ever before. The point then is to insist on generalising this morality of ends – of rights, love and respect, even to the economy. It is the only universal and respectable way of arranging things (however ignored in actuality).
Society already depends on non-exploitative relationships (caring for children, for example), which is why conservatives of the Daily Mail type fear that women might become merely paid workers and not do their ‘second shift’ of caring for dependents. They are right – society would collapse if we did not have unpaid, caring (non-exploitative, non-‘economic’) relationships, but it is just that we have to arrange them more equally. The tendency of capitalism is against this: exploitation rules, but the alternative is not a return to a ‘golden age’, even in an isolated republic. Throughout the ages, cooperation was always threatened by alienation and it was a constant struggle to find a better arrangement, sometimes by force, in desperation and tragedy, but sometimes winning gains – liberties and benefits, which even now are under threat in the name of ‘security’ and ‘austerity’.
In the end what we can praise about Gore Vidal is that he wanted to discuss such arrangements – moralities of sex, art and administration. He observed, criticised, informed. He subjected his community to conscious examination. As the young Marx observed, unlike other animals, the human being “makes life activity itself the object of will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity.”24
Gore Vidal was a consciously political animal, in the broadest sense.
1. ‘Gore Vidal on the media’: http://www.therealnews.com.
2. G Vidal Point to point navigation: a memoir London 2006, p21.
3. G Vidal, ‘Paranoid politics’ Collected essays London 1974, p267.
5. ‘Gore Vidal on the media’: http://www.therealnews.com.
6. GWF Hegel, ‘Logic defined and divided’ Logic.
7. G Vidal, ‘Sex is politics’ Pink triangle and yellow star, and other essays London 1983, p190.
8. Ibid p191.
9. G Vidal, ‘Women’s liberation meets Miller-Mailer-Manson man’ (1971) Collected essays London 1974, p402.
10. G Vidal, ‘Manifesto and dialogue’ (1968) Collected essays.
11. C Hitchens, ‘Vidal Loco’ Arguably London 2011.
12. G Vidal Point to point navigation: a memoir London 2006, p75.
13. G Vidal, ‘The holy family’ Collected essays London 1974.
14. G Vidal, ‘Ronnie and Nancy: a life in pictures’ Armageddon? London 1989.
15. G Vidal, ‘Paranoid politics’ Collected essays London 1974.
17. G Vidal, ‘Pink triangle and yellow star’ Pink triangle and yellow star, and other essays London 1983; ‘A cheerful response’ Armageddon? London 1989.
18. G Vidal Point to point navigation: a memoir London 2006, p160.
19. G Vidal The American presidency Boston1998,p87.
20. G Vidal, ‘The state of the union revisited (1980) Pink triangle and yellow star, and other essays London 1983, p284.
21. Ibid p302.
22. Ibid p305.
23. Ibid p291.
24. K Marx Economic and political manuscripts Moscow 1977, p73.