Gore Vidal: A genuine American guardian of free speech
By DiMarkco Chandler:
One of America’s most respected writers, Gore Vidal, 86, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles. His career as an author, playwright, politician and commentator with a vast and sharpened range of published works and public remarks, stamped by his immodest wit and unconventional wisdom, traversed across more than six decades. During that time Vidal authored more than twenty six novels, hundreds of essays, fourteen screenplays, and eight plays. Admired by literary writers worldwide, Vidal’s life, and beliefs helped shape nineteenth century America and left an unforgettable mark on humanity.
Gore Vidal was born Eugene Louis Vidal, Jr. but changed his name to Gore Vidal in honor of his grandfather, Thomas Gore, an Oklahoma Democratic Senator.
His father, Eugene Luther Vidal, was appointed Director of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Air Commerce in 1933 by President Franklin D Roosevelt. Susan Butler, author of “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart,” wrote that “Eugene Vidal… was the great love of Amelia [Earhart’s] life.” The elder Vidal was an astonishing athlete, playing quarterback at West Point and participating in the 1920 and 1924 Summer Olympics.
Eugene’s son, Gore never achieved the athletic notoriety like his father and retired UO archivist once wrote that Vidal “was anything but and athlete!”
Vidal’s mother, Nina Gore was a well-known socialite. It was widely known that Vidal hated his mother, claiming that she was an alcoholic who married, always unsuccessfully, for money and status. The stories he tells of her selfishness and abandonment are enough to help us understand why Vidal became what the world has come to know.
Huffington Post contributor, Michael Grass, writes that “Vidal grew up overlooking… [the] nation’s capital, on the estate of his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore.” According to Vidal, he was raised by his blind grandfather, and grew up overlooking the nation’s capital, on the senator’s estate. Vidal has stated that his grandfather was an atheist and had a strong cynical streak.
Bill Kauffman, contributor to “The American Conservative” writes: “Senator Gore, to whom the young Vidal read the “Congressional Record,” impressed upon the boy that the populist, however, maligned by the establishment, kept alive the spirit of 76. Of his grandfather, an ally of Bryan and enemy of Wilson and FDR, Vidal writes, ‘He was a genuine populist; but he did not like people very much. He always said no to anyone who wanted government aid.’ (Equal rights for all, special privileges for none, as the populist motto went.) Senator Gore, says his grandson, was ‘the first and, I believe, last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune.”
Vidal would often read to the blind Senator, stoking a lifelong fascination with literature and politics.
Once Vidal finished high school, he skipped college to enlist in the U.S. Navy, serving in the Aleutian Islands – the setting for his first novel.
Records indicate that the 19-year-old Vidal started his writing career in 1946 with the novel “Williwaw.” During his first three books, the author’s work won praise and condemnation alike. A “Newsweek” critic once called him “the best all-around American man of letters since Edmund Wilson.” His third book, “The City and the Pillar,” a story of a young man who is coming of age and discovers his own homosexuality was declared by some critics as exceedingly ahead of its time. Published in 1948 the novel caused such furor that “The New York Times” would not advertise it and no major American newspaper or magazine would provide the novel with a professional review nor would they critique any other Vidal’s books for the next six years, according to Wikipedia. Nevertheless, the book sold well and enjoyed several paperback reprint editions. In 1999, “The City of the Pillar” was ranked number 17 on a list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels compiled by “The Publishing Triangle.”
Vidal also wrote for television and authored the made for T.V. movie “Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid” staring Val Kilmer. He also wrote the original draft for the controversial film Caligula, but then had his name removed when director Tinto Brass and actor Malcolm McDowell rewrote the script.
The fifth cousin of Jimmy Carter, distant cousin of Al Gore, Vidal was frequently identified with Democratic causes and personalities and wrote in a 1973 essay “Matters of Fact and of Fiction,” that “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”
In 1960 Vidal entered politics as a candidate, and ends up losing an election in New York’s 29th congressional district. Though he lost, Vidal received the most votes that any Democrat had ever received in that district.
In 1972 he supported Ralph Nader for president, and in 1982 he campaigned against California governor Jerry Brown.
A frequent champion of progressive ideas, Vidal nevertheless claimed that he thought of himself as a conservative. This was evident during a 1999 lecture in Dublin where Vidal said: “A characteristic of our present chaos in the dramatic migration of tribes. They are on the move from east to west, from south to north. Liberal tradition requires that borders must always be open to those in search of safety or even the pursuit of happiness. But now with so many millions of people on the move, even the great-hearted have become edgy. Norway is large enough and empty enough to take in 40 to 50 million homeless Bengalis. If the Norwegians say that, all in all, they would rather not take them in, is this to be considered racism? I think not. It is simply self-preservation, the first law of species.”
Vidal seemed to never waste an opportunity to express his political opinion, and no politician was safe from his scorching critiques.
Strongly critical of the Bush administration, Vidal described George W. Bush as “the stupidest man in the United States” according to a Kevin Osborne’s article “Gore Vidal: Obama a Disappointment.” The same article reported that Vidal believed that Obama’s performance as U.S. President was Dreadful, and that Hillary Rodham Clinton would’ve made a better president.
In a 2009 interview with “Vanity Fair” Vidal was asked about his opinion of Sarah Palin, and answered “I believe oblivion is from whence she came and where she will soon return to. She doesn’t deserve to be our national liar.”
Vidal seemed to live his personal life without regret. He had affairs with both men and women, and was momentarily engaged to Joanne Woodward, before her marriage to Paul Newman.
The author met his life partner Howard Austen in 1950. When describing his relationship with Austen, Vidal said that, “It’s easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part & impossible, I have observed, when it does,” this, according to Charlotte Robinson’s “Outtake Blog Author & Gay Icon Gore Vidal Dies.”
At the 2009 National Book Awards ceremony, Dave Eggers said Vidal “meant everything to me when I was learning how to write and learning how to read…His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can’t articulate it.”
Along with such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, he was among the last generation of literary writers who were also genuine celebrities – regulars on talk shows and in gossip columns, personalities of such size and appeal that even those who hadn’t read their books knew their names.
In recent years, Vidal wrote the novel “The Smithsonian Institution” and the nonfiction best sellers “Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace,” as well as “Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta.”
A second memoir, “Point to Point Navigation,” came out in 2006. In 2009, “Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History’s Glare” featured pictures of Vidal with Newman, Jagger, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Springsteen.
In a seven-part interview, British novelist Martin Amis said, “Even his blind spots are illuminating.”
When asked what he believed was his greatest achievement, Vidal told Vanity Fair, “Despite intense provocation over the course of what is becoming a rather long life, I have never killed anybody.”
Though his life was full of complexity, Gore Vidal appeared to always speak with clarity and truth. This characterization can be seen in some of his more noted quotes, which I could not help but to include here:
“Television news covers the lies like its news.”
“America has been brought up on advertising.”
And though the following quote was not his own, “History is a wonderful thing if only it was true” by Tolstoy, the words nevertheless reminded us of a tradition of wittiness that marked his legendary career.
After living a rich life that profoundly impacted those whose path he crossed, Gore Vidal died of complications from pneumonia at 6:45 in his home on July 31, 2012.
Vidal is survived by his half-sister Nina Straight and half-brother Tommy Auchincloss