He wrote novels — many themed around corruption in public and private life–but he also was a proficient writer of essays, screenplays and stage plays.
Vidal was a true American intellectual, of which there are fewer and fewer. Favorite topics for speaking (and writing) included sex, politics and religion and his quotes are memorable. Over the years his pointed political commentary about America’s militarization made clear his view that American had become a decadent empire. I can’t really disagree.
In fact, I hardly disagree with him at all. About anything.
Back in the day, he had some famous head-t0-head debates with Norman Mailer and William Buckley, two other intellectuals who, in my opinion, weren’t anywhere near as witty. I know that because they had to try to hit him below the belt and that only happens when someone feels they can’t compete. Here’s the most well-known of the Vidal-Buckley interchanges, this one during ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Buckley resorts to calling Vidal “a queer,” which he unabashedly was, but of course, that fact was totally unrelated to the debate at hand and just Buckley’s way of striking back.
Let’s address Vidal’s homosexuality for a minute, because he was “out” long before it was common and he paid dearly for it. I love his views. Here’s what he wrote way back in September 1969 for a piece in Esquire magazine.
We are all bisexual to begin with. That is a fact of our condition. And we are all responsive to sexual stimuli from our own as well as from the opposite sex. Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime … despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word ‘natural,’ not normal.
Today, it’s not a surprising view, but that was a courageous stance back then.
He wrote his first book, Williwaw, when he was only 19 and serving in the Army. It was published. How often does THAT happen? Why go to college when I can write and make a living at it? was his view. He also believed the writers are born, not made.
The recent documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia reminded me of how much I loved Vidal’s work and how long it had been since I’d read anything of his. I’ve just put a few on my list. Vidal died in 2012 at the age of 86. The only heir apparent to the title “American intellectual’ was the late Christopher Hitchens, who died young the year before. (Yes, I know, he was British but became an American citizen.) As a society, we are the worse for their deaths.
Oh, the documentary is on Netflix. You should see it. Meanwhile, here are a few of his best-known quotes. Even as they make us laugh, each one is an opinion essay in miniature, something that he did so well. I could think about any of these for hours–and riff on them, too. But I’ll let you do that. I hope you will. Here they are:
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.
Our form of democracy is bribery, on the highest scale.
I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.
The corporate grip on opinion in the U.S. is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity–much less dissent.
The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.
Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every 40 years. Either the host dies, or the bacteria dies or they both die.
Gore Vidal reading list, as of 2006: