The Patrician in the Mudpit
In Ridley Scott's Gladiator, the great Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus corrects a fellow senator who chides him for enjoying the vulgar entertainments of the Colosseum. In one of the best lines of the movie, Jacobi states, "I don't pretend to be a man of the people. But I do try to be a man for the people. "
That, perhaps, is the best and most complete epitaph that will ever be written about Gore Vidal, who died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 86.
As with so many Great Men, an impressive, decades-long list of accomplishments guaranteed insularity against the rude entertainments of the latter day United States and virtually all of its enthusiasts. The anti Charles Bukowski, Vidal was most at home with his fellow elites and was far more easily imagined having dinner with Jack Kennedy at the White House or at the Four Seasons with Eleanor Roosevelt than at a monster truck rally or NASCAR event.
As I and many of us had concluded, the United States is doomed and in many ways has become the exact analogue of its actualization and potential. We are and always have been a vastly imperfect country, one marked by bigotry, intolerance and a thirst for blood and oil bringing out the worst in us. Yet the latter-day United States, the one that has risen from its glorious ashes in the last half of his life, has indisputably taken a turn for the worst, is much more removed than ever from perfection or at least perfectibility, and we couldn't have lost Vidal at a worse time. Far be it for him to sit at John Q. Public's dinner table and discuss politics and literature, Vidal nonetheless felt the kind of contempt for the governments and the wealthy that have led us since Reagan, the kind of contempt and sense of hopelessness that only a true patriot can feel. He was arguably the most famous and eloquent of the apostates of the 1%.
Yet, he was misunderstood at worst, derided by the right wing at best and at the very least, only partially understood. Those too young to remember the actual telecast and those who had not read his nonfiction books and historical novels may first recall Vidal calling William F. Buckley a "crypto Nazi" on August 28, 1968 during the infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
His ten dollar name-calling, and Buckley's equally immature threat to respond with violence, was nonetheless delicious in that it showed two patricians on national television lowering themselves into a mud pit usually occupied by bottom feeders like Joe Pine. It was an updating of the hoi polloi throwing cream pies at each other in the last two minutes of a Three Stooges short.
But obviously there was much more to Gore Vidal than just the name-calling (however spot-on it was) and head-butting Norman Mailer backstage at the Dick Cavett show. Sort of the anti-George W. Bush, Gore's grandfather was a US Senator, he'd run for the House once and failed (and much later, for the US Senate). His literary reputation, I think it safe to say, is secure for at least the next century to come. But he was also a playwright, a screenwriter (Suddenly, Last Summer, as well as other movies) and even dabbled in acting.
Gore Vidal, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, through his writing across several different genres and mediums, his acting, his punditry and so forth, made him an indelible, almost an iconic, image as to what it means to be a latter day American. What exact place he occupies and what Vidal represents beyond abstract concepts such as the will of the individual and collective American to bring about necessary, even radical change, will be debated at least for decades.
As with many liberals (meaning, those of us who see through the pandering, slandering and philandering of the Obama administration and many of the Democrats on the Hill), Vidal unconditionally respected only one president, Franklin Roosevelt, for whom his father briefly worked. He saw Reagan for the genial racist he was all along, always deeply suspected the Bush administration had advance knowledge of 9/11 (for which Christopher Hitchens, a man who could not afford to talk considering his own inexplicable and outlandish rah-rah, sis boom bahing of the Iraq war, took him to task in the aptly-named Vanity Fair) and knew we'd gone to war with Iraq over oil and predicted we'd eventually be subservient to China. He could plainly see through the flag-waving jingoism that we were waging, to quote one of his book titles, "Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace."
Perhaps best of all, he was blamed by the anti-Vidal, Michele Bachmann, for getting her out of the Democratic Party and on the ignorant side where she belongs.
As with Norman Mailer (Gary Gilmore) and Capote (Perry Smith and Dick Hickock), Vidal had formed a warm and more than sympathetic relationship with Oklahoma City bomber and convicted killer of 168, Tim McVeigh, the one great cypher and mystery in Vidal's long career in clear-eyed intellectualism. Vidal was not only on friendly terms with McVeigh, he actually thought he was innocent.
And, as the proverb goes, every wise man is permitted to act like a fool at least once. Whatever you want to say about him, few if any of us embodied the United States in mind, body and soul as thoroughly and as perfectly as Gore Vidal.