The Vital Gore Is Gone

Gore Vidal has died.

Anyone with the merest scintilla of cultural or political awareness of the last 50 years should know who he was.  My first memory of him was from the 1968 election when he called William F. Buckley a crypto-nazi and Buckley, losing his cool, threatened to “sock you in your goddam face” on national television.  At the time (I was not yet 14 and only beginning to become aware of politics in any meaningful way), I thought Buckley was the cool one, but in retrospect Vidal never got ruffled, continued speaking clearly, and made his points.

Points which I later found myself in agreement with, by and large.

At other times I’ve found myself frustratingly at odds with Vidal, particularly in some of his reframings of American policies.

But I was right there with him during the Bush years when he told us what Bush-Cheney were doing to the Bill of Rights and what a fix we were all about to be in.

Vidal is one side of the spectrum of political essence that makes up who we are.  If you read Buckley, you must read Vidal for the other side (which most people don’t, on either side: we pick one or the other and stick to it without ever giving the opposing voice a chance, which is why we are in the cultural nightmare in which we are presently trapped), because between the two you can get some sense of the totality.

For my part, I would like to say that Vidal was one of those writers whose ability I admire.  He was a first-class stylist and his historical knowledge was enviable.  When he chose a historical subject—like Lincoln or Aaron Burr or a year, like 1876—he described what happened and what people said if reliable sources were available and added in the connective tissue with a fine eye for detail and sense of place.  His essays, often maddening, never bored, and usually revealed a vein of thought or fact hitherto unremarked that could prove absolutely trenchant.

Many on the Right hated him because he identified, generally quite accurately, the foundation of their politics (money or power, or both) and aimed his barbs at their historical amnesia, cultural ignorance, and always at their political hypocrisy.

Many on the Left were uncomfortable with him because he wouldn’t let them off the hook.  If they pandered, compromised their values, paid lip-service and then voted otherwise, he called them on it.

He once commented that he thought we had lost our chance to “have a civilization” here, that it looked for a time “like we were going to have one” but apparently not.  He said it with a deep sadness and while I took it as hyperbole, I can understand what he meant.  We’ve been arguing in the Forum about who we’re going to be as a nation and while the argument rages on we’re squandering our resources.  We have all the components of a really fine civilization but by and large they don’t seem to matter to most people, so they atrophy from lack of proper attention.

I stress though that a steady diet of Mr. Vidal’s writings, with nothing to balance it, can be as bad as a steady diet of William F. Buckley (or William Safire or George Will).  He represented an important aspect, one side, that must be respected and engaged as an equal part of all the other sides.  (Put Will and Buckley on one end and Chomsky and Vidal on the other and in the mix you find the substance of what it means to be a free people of serious intent.)

He was on Dick Cavett’s old talk show, often, and on one of them they were playing anagrams with names, and Vidal asked Cavett what his should be.  Without missing a beat, Cavett said “You’re the Vital Gore.”  Vidal smiled, apparently pleased.

Some of our essential vitality is gone.

Published by Mark Tiedemann