Gore Vidal (1925-2012): The Patrician Defector

He wrote often of politics, sometimes very compellingly, not as the rabblerouser grafittiing up a monument, but an exile from the patrician elite. John Kennedy asked him to help kill a story on his Addison’s, and he heard first hand from Eleanor Roosevelt of the measure of Kennedy pere‘s indifference to Nazi domination of Europe*. The conspiracies of the political class in his novels and essays are accompanied by no ominous piano chords; it’s everyday work to treat certain people less well, not stemming from the evil of any man, but a common feeling that there are lessers and betters, and it’s no great issue for the lessers to get a little swindled or have a few of their children die in a war, and any petulance on the part of the lessers to this is rather tiresome. That Roosevelt allowed the bombing of Pearl Harbor so that the U.S. might enter the war is given not as dramatic revelation, but a casual aside, and the very casualness gives it the aspect of truth, though the underlying facts do not. The sordid details of this class are told, not as blemishes on a myth, but like the bathroom life of anyone. Yes, of course Lincoln had slept with whores. Yes, of course Mary Lincoln had gone insane because of syphilis contracted from her husband. This is related to the guileless reader not in a tone of angry defacement, but the mild exasperation of the sophomore advising a wide-eyed innocent who’s never given a blow job**.

The american political system of his novels and essays was no idealistic engine, or even such an engine gone astray, but resembled something like the politburo, its members pre-sculpted for the demands of the institution, the institution and its interests demanding fealty to those interests first, all while making a few happy noises about god’s children and equality as necessary cover. The exceptional presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, were those who became double agents at the pyramid’s zenith, giving assurances to the moneymen and influence holders that they would be following orders, then through guise and guile, having the audacity to do a few things for the people’s benefit. Vidal wrote of this as a separate world, like a defector who’d scaled america’s own iron curtain, a Gilded Wall perhaps, and his manner was always of his exiled class. His attitude could be as disdainful as a soviet agent now stuck among malls where nobody’s heard of Tolstoy. The infamous sparring with William Buckley was not a fight between the within and the without, but something like a debate between Khruschev’s propaganda minister and an emigré spy chief, men who disliked each other, but were both familiar with the texture of Russia’s black earth and could quote Lermontov with ease.

His father served under Roosevelt as head of the FAA, and his sister, through his mother’s re-marriage, was an obscure figure sometimes known as Jackie O. He was often seen as a liberal, and this may have been a mis-indictment. Vidal’s politics were those of a man of the west, forever suspicious of the stock jobbing con men back east. His isolationism took after William Jennings Bryan, as did his other ruling passion, a horror for paper currency. Some saw his siding with Timothy McVeigh, in part because of the latter’s cause for a metal currency, as a momentary lunacy, when it was nothing of the kind: the animus of paper dollars is there in his scathing look of Alexander Hamilton in Burr, and the deal over scrip in Lincoln. This was not a man who was moved to a better life for others after seeing his father destroyed by coal mine work, or someone who might happily pore through inches of labour stats. He wanted as small a government as possible, but as long as the ruling committee were going to raise funds for ordinance to kill Vietnamese or Koreans, they might as well spend that cash on schools and hospitals. He likewise had no interest in ivory tower theories on sexuality or being part of any guild because of a sexual act. You pulled certain people into bed, and all that he required was that no meddlesome fanatic should intrude: if a certain pesky Nazarene’s act hadn’t caught on, Rome would have been a better place, and so would the United States.

When he was to be cast as the snob villain in the terrible movie With Honors, the producers wanted someone with a haughtier Oxbridge accent, but Joe Pesci demurred: “Why go with one of these english assholes when we’ve got one of our own?” I am a far more sentimental man than Vidal, but I find the necessity to find a compassionate humanity to enwreath in epitaph as tiresome as he would, something like an inverse Egyptian death ritual, where a beating heart is now placed back in the body. I didn’t read Vidal because of his overwhelming kindness, any more than I read him for christian ethics. His essays, and some of his fiction, were good because they had an easy, funny eloquence; as usual, of course, I mean easy as easy to enjoy, not easy to achieve. This photo, accompanying a memorable eulogy by Christopher Buckley, shows the imperial look of a gorgeous young man, which emphatically declares “No…I don’t think I’ll be sleeping with you.” Such an attitude impairs his novels, where the characters are simple puppets of a political system, as well as simple puppets of the writer, but that same arrogance only enhances his essay work, which is joyfully piercing and arsenic stained. Lee Siegel points to Vidal’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky as an example of his empathy with the working poor. I observe instead a man who had an unostentatious ethic that you do solid, good craftsmanship, whatever the material, if someone’s paying you for it. His scriptwork on Ben-Hur demonstrates this same principle, not any hidden sympathy for the teachings of the galilean carpenter. He was as prolific a writer, a sitting at a desk activity, as he was at a sleeping in a bed activity, and he looked at both with a lack of piety: you read not because you wish to kneel at any holy place, but for the same selfish pleasure that the cruel, heartbreakingly beautiful boy or girl gets chosen over the kind-hearted wallflower.

His last years were not his best, the casual asides of state evil becoming now something witlessly screechy. The cruel dismissal of Roman Polanski’s rape victim suggests to me nothing more than Michael Richards, a comedian whose old material is getting a nonplussed stare, so he tries for a rise with a few vile fireworks. A last brief skirmish involved a Minnesota schizophrenic, mistakenly admitted to Congress rather than a more apt public institution, who credited her political genesis to the violent offense she felt at Thomas Jefferson’s depiction in Burr. The man who’d served in World War II and made his own fortune through writing embodied once again anti-capitalism and anti-americanism, this time for a woman who’d spent most of her pre-political time at the IRS, almost all of it on maternity leave. Great, he might have thought. My epitaph’s now going to read, Gore Vidal, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, wit, skeptic, and: co-creator of Michelle Bachmann. He prophesied many times the coming end of the United States, and, once again, it couldn’t come soon enough.

POSTSCRIPT (21/07/2014): Though I took some small pride in this concept of a patrician in exile, it was while looking through an old issue of Playboy (the magazine is an invaluable source for research, with the monomorphous perversity funding excellent reporting and interviews), that I came across this very same insight in a Q and A with Saul Bellow. From their May 1997 issue:

PLAYBOY: You’re already on record for saying that writers seldom wish other writers well. Did winning the Nobel Prize widen the gulf between you and your peers?

BELLOW: I suppose that was Truman’s problem. Maybe even Gore Vidal’s problem. Gore never mentions me without treating my head like an ashtray, flicking his cigarette on it.

PLAYBOY: Hold on. Vidal said in Palimpsest that, with the exception of you, his “celebrated contemporaries all seem to have stopped learning in their 20s.”

BELLOW: Well, that’s true. But I looked up some of the references in that book and they were not as kind as all that. He can’t resist putting me down.

PLAYBOY: Is Vidal a better nonfiction or fiction writer?

BELLOW: His novels lack originality. His essays are much more interesting. Gore Vidal is a good writer, he’s just not as good as he thinks he is. I often thought of Gore as a patrician who got trapped among plebeians, and somehow he was condemned by his sexual perferences to live a level or two beneath the station to which he’s entitled. He’s always resented it a great deal: He doesn’t see why homosexuals should not also be aristocrats. Well, he’s right about that.

* The sentence of an earlier edition of this post read instead “he knew from his father of Joseph Kennedy’s enthusiastic desire to help Nazi Germany”; I mis-remembered that Vidal heard from Eleanor, not his father. I’ve also slightly shifted the claim to safer ground. What Eleanor related to Vidal was of her husband being deeply, deeply offended by what his former ambassador gave as advice. FDR was a cold-blooded political realist, isolationism was not difficult to find in the country, yet somehow, what Kennedy said to the president went so far as to cause him to never want to see this man again. It was not blackmail, because the president happily took up cudgels against his former ambassador. It can be presumed to be something truly vile, in the context of the war, but what that is, from Vidal’s claim of Eleanor’s remembrance, is unknown. The original sentence perhaps weighed the scales down too much, but perhaps not entirely without basis.

My knowledge of this incident comes from Seymour Hersh’s disturbing and controversial The Dark Side of Camelot.

Here is the context prior to the last meeting of ambassador Kennedy and the president.

Three days after the [1940 presidential election], [Joseph] Kennedy self-destructed. In an interview with Louis Lyons of the Boston Globe and two other journalists, he essentially declared that Hitler had won the war in Europe. “Democracy is finished in England,” Kennedy told Lyons. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can get used to incessant bombing. There’s nowhere in England they aren’t getting it…It’s a question of how long England can hold out…I’m willing to spend all I’ve got to keep us out of the war. There’s no sense in our getting in. We’d just be holding the bag.” The story made headlines. Ther American response was devastating for Kennedy: thousands of citizens wrote Roosevelt urging him to fire his defeatist ambassador.

Here is Eleanor’s recall of the meeting itself, related to Vidal:

Roosevelt finally lashed out at Kennedy after a private meeting with him at Thanksgiving: Kennedy was to be a weekend guest of the president and his wife at their estate at Hyde Park. It is not known precisely what took place, but Roosevelt ordered Kennedy to leave. Eleanor Roosevelt later told the writer Gore Vidal that she had never seen her husband so angry. Kennedy had been alone with the president no longer than ten minutes. Mrs. Roosevelt related, when an aide informed her that she was to go immediately to her husband’s ofice.

So I rushed into the office and there was Franklin, white as a sheet. He asked Mr. Kenendy to step outside and then he said, and his voice was shaking, “I never want to see that man again as long as I live. Get him out of here.” I said, “But, dear, you’ve invited him for the weekend, and we’ve got guests for lunch and the train doesn’t leave until two,” and Franklin said, “Then you drive him around Hyde Park and put him on that train.” And I did and it was the most dreadful four hours of my life.

Just what happened between the two men is now known, but Vidal, recounting the scene in a 1971 essay for the New York Review of Books, quoted Mrs. Roosevelt as wistfully adding, “I wonder if the true story of Joe Kennedy will ever be known.” (Discussing the scene years later, in an interview for this book, Vidal said he thought at the time that Mrs. Roosevelt’s real message was not only that the truth about Kennedy would not be known, but that it would be “too dangerous to tell.”)

The book then follows with a possibility of what led to this complete rupture:

Published and private reports available to the White House and the British Foreign Ministry early in 1941 alleged that a notorious Wall Street speculator named Bernard E. “Ben” Smith had traveled to Vichy France in an attempt to revive an isolationist plan, favored by Kennedy, to provide Germany with a large gold loan in exchange for a pledge of peace. Kennedy, still intent on saving American capitalism from the ravages of war, was described in one British document as “doing everything in his power to try and bring this about.” Smith, known as “Sell ‘Em Ben” in his Wall Street heyday, was identified as Kennedy’s emissary. In a confidential report to the Foreign Ministry dated February 4, Kennedy was reported to have sent Smith to visit senior officials of Vichy France in an effort to encourage “Hitler to try to find some formula for the reconstruction of Europe…Having secured this, [Kennedy] hoped that, with the help of two prominent persons in England [he could] start an agitation in England in favour of a negotiated peace.” Roosevelt learned of the Kennedy plan in advance, according to the Foreign Office report, and was able to abort it. Smith, a heavy contributor to Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign, did travel to Vichy France in late 1940, but the plan went nowhere.

** I give a better example of this casual intimacy with a ruling class than what is there in the opening paragraph or the first footnote; it is the beginning of the essay “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”, from The Second American Revolution and Other Essays (1976-1982) which I came across around November 21, 2013, the date on which this footnote was added:

In Washington, D.C., there is – or was – a place where Rock Creek crosses the main road and makes a ford which horses and, later, car could cross if the creek was not in flood. Half a hundred years ago, I lived with my grandparents on a wooded hill not far from the ford. On summer days, my grandmother and I would walk down to the creek, careful to avoid the poison ivy that grew so luxuriously amid the crowded laurel. We would then walk beside the creek, looking out for crayfish and salamanders. When we came to the ford, I would ask her to tell me, yet again, what happened when the old President Roosevelt – not the current President Roosevelt – had come riding out of the woods on a huge horse just as two ladies on slow nags had begun a slow crossing of the ford.

“Well, suddenly, Mr. Roosevelt screamed at them, ‘Out of my way!'” My grandmother imitated the president’s harsh falsetto. “Stand to one side, women. I am the President.” What happened next? I’d ask, delighted. “Oh, they were both soaked to the skin by his horse’s splashing all over them. But then, the very next year,” she would say with some satisfaction “nice Mr. Taft was the president.” Plainly, there was a link in her mind between the Event at the Ford and the change in the presidency. Perhaps there was. In those stately pre-personal days you did not call ladies women.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: