Ever the provocateur, Gore Vidal was not one to scruple about speaking ill of the dead. After his nemesis, William F. Buckley Jr., passed away in 2008, Vidal told a New York Times interviewer: “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”
So wherever he is now, I’m sure Vidal won’t mind if I dissent from the generally benign view of Vidal’s career that pervades some obituaries today. Gore Vidal was, as the obits say, a witty and accomplished writer -- but also a pathetically transparent publicity hound and a venomous crank, who only got more venomous and crankier with age.
Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich hails Vidal as a man of “immense heart,” possibly out of gratitude for Vidal’s endorsement of Kucinich’s preposterous 2008 presidential campaign. Judging by his writings and interviews over the years, however, Vidal’s big heart contained mainly bile.
A reckless leveler of the dual-loyalty charge against American Jews, Vidal wrote in 1994 that “no other minority in American history has ever hijacked so much money from the American taxpayers in order to invest in a ‘homeland.’” But what else would you expect from a man who once opined that Judaism is “an unusually ugly religion that caused a good deal of suffering not only in its original form but also through its later heresy, Christianity?”
He suggested on many occasions that the Bush administration was complicit in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, questioned Osama bin Laden’s culpability in that crime, and went to great lengths to recast Timothy McVeigh’s mass murder as an understandable response to the abuses of the U.S. “secret police.”
Of the sexual abuse charge that has kept film director Roman Polanski out of the U.S. for many years — a charge that involves the alleged rape of a 13-year-old — Vidal had this to say: “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”
And so on and on and on and on….
Gore Vidal’s career illustrates the price America – “the most ignorant first world country on earth,” in his estimation – cheerfully pays for the First Amendment, and I certainly defend his right to say every one of the repugnant and stupid things he said.
Less defensible, however, has been the tendency of some, both before and after his death, to recount that career as if all that mattered was the man’s style, and not his substance, such as it was.
Gore Vidal was a nihilist, an aggressive believer in nothing; he leaves a legacy to match.