By David Greenberg
De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: Of the dead say nothing unless it is kind. This is a good rule of thumb. Despite the temptation, it would be mean-spirited to object to the barrage of shallow Facebook postings about Steve Jobs, gratuitous to gripe that Nora Ephron, though a terrifically talented journalist, didn’t really rate an above-the-fold, front-page New York Times obituary. Even Jan Berenstain, as execrable as her books may have been, deserved a decent interval.
But sometimes there are people whose malevolence gets airbrushed out in the media frenzy following their death, and it’s proper to speak up. The love-in that was Richard Nixon’s funeral was rightfully met with dissents from heavyweights David Halberstam, Garry Wills, and, inimitably, Hunter S. Thompson. Alexander Cockburn, whose reputation benefited from whitewashing after he died last week, was too minor a figure to demand a counter-obituary (though Ronald Radosh helpfully wrote one anyway). On the other hand, Cockburn’s fellow The Nation contributor, Gore Vidal, talk of whose demise has been suffocatingly ubiquitous, was not just a world-famous intellectual—from the Mailer-Buckley-Galbraith era, when the term really meant something—but also a thoroughgoing nativist and bigot. He is not someone who deserves to be spared the rigors of a reckoning.
Toward the end of Vidal’s life, he discredited himself even on the left with his embrace of loony ultra-right causes, such as Ruby Ridge, Waco, and eventually Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Oklahoma City Murrah building in 1995. Vidal feebly tried to justify these indefensible sympathies by pointing to the United States government’s abuses of power. McVeigh, moreover, was not unique in soliciting Vidal’s tender mercies. The Sage of Ravello was an equal-opportunity apologist for terrorists, taking up the obscene theories (which, in an exquisite Orwellism, go by the name “truther”) that the Bush administration was complicit in al-Qaida’s 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Unfortunately, this delusion was excused in some quarters as eccentricity, the confusions of advancing age, or forgivable derangement brought about by the misdeeds of American politicians and policymakers which, one was perhaps supposed to infer, embodied the more proper targets of our censure.
Vidal’s extreme late-in-life beliefs, however, weren't deviations from an otherwise noble record. They were the natural progression of thought in a man whose worldview was fundamentally racist and elitist, motivated by the fear that the reign of his own caste was ending as the walls of aristocratic privilege crumbled in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Vidal was a paradigmatic, almost stereotypical representative of the traditional American elite—WASP lineage, prep schools, money, connections. Fashioning himself a latter-day Henry Adams, a valiant upholder of a civilization under siege—he compared America to Rome in its decadence—he repeatedly denigrated those arriviste groups he considered less than fully American.
Vidal came by this worldview, fittingly, through his own heritage, which he regarded as a kind of select birthright. His grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, began his career as a political Progressive. The Progressives, epitomized by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, believed that the federal government had to actively rectify the injustices wrought by the industrial corporations of the day. But World War I split the Progressives. One strain went on to found contemporary liberalism, in the form of the New Deal. As for the other strain, as the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in The Age of Reform, “Somewhere along the way”—the 1920s and 1930s—“a large part of the Populist-Progressive tradition has turned sour, become illiberal and ill-tempered.” Hiram Johnson of California spearheaded the fight for immigration restriction; Gerald P. Nye emerged as a leading isolationist; and Grandpa Gore tried to quash enactment of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal jewel.
What made these onetime Progressives into blinkered, anti-government conservatives? They liked to trace these impulses to Thomas Jefferson’s view of an agrarian republic with a wide berth of individual freedom (as, tellingly, did Timothy McVeigh), but their reading of Jefferson was selective and opportunistic. After all, Franklin Roosevelt, who opposed them on many issues, also took Jefferson as his inspiration. What really rankled them was the end of American isolation—the transformation of its people by new immigration and its assumption of its role as a global leader. It was no longer the preserve of the native born.
The Heartland conservatism that became these men’s philosophy—and Gore Vidal, we should recall, described himself as a conservative—aimed to insulate America from the corrupting cosmopolitan influences of Europe and beyond. Its most vile exponents, such as the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, opposed World War II on the grounds that Hitler’s war was none of America’s concern. Others followed the spirit of Jefferson’s famous warning to avoid “entangling alliances.” Some, notably Lindbergh, blamed American Jews for railroading the nation into war. Others saw dark conspiracies in Pearl Harbor, which they said was Roosevelt’s connivance, foisted on a peace-loving nation.
Vidal himself espoused both of these views. In an interview with Bob Edwards several years ago, he sputtered that Philip Roth, whose Plot Against America describes a dystopian wartime United States under a President Lindbergh, was unfair to the isolationist aviator. Later, in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, he effectively laid blame for Pearl Harbor at Roosevelt’s feet.
In the demonology of Vidal and his not-so-progressive Progressive forbears, Jews in particular loomed large. Vidal’s anti-Semitic rants frequently insinuated that Jews were un-American, more loyal to Israel than the United States. The most notorious of these pieces, “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” ran in the The Nation on March 22, 1986, and achieved what many would have thought impossible: arousing sympathy for Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. It was the kind of piece that should give pause to those who ritually deny that anti-Zionism is rooted in anti-Semitism; it should be read in full. Describing the Podhoretzs as propagandists for Israel (“in its never-ending wars against just about everyone … a predatory people”), he cast Podhoretz, who was born in the United States, as someone who would never become “an ‘assimilated American,’ to use the old-fashioned terminology.” Addressing Decter, he declared, “I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.”
But Jews were hardly the only target of Vidal’s ire. The same piece in The Nation that slandered the first couple of neoconservatism included an astonishing pair of sentences about what Vidal, again channeling Henry or Brooks Adams, saw as the decline of the West. “For America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity,” he wrote. “After all, the white race is the minority race and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don't band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.” The sheer number of racist assumptions of that statement, from the notion of a white “race” that would survive only through an exclusive solidarity to the crude stereotype of Asian hypercompetence, renders implausible any effort to explain it away as irony.
At some point in his career, Vidal seemed to realize he would never rank among the literary titans of the postwar age—an age that would belong to others, including Bellow, Roth, and Mailer, a troika of Jews. Politically marginalized, literarily confined to the second or third tier, Vidal turned to historical novels, where he distinguished himself as an able practitioner, while remaining heavy-handed in his politics. (He also attempted writing some works of actual history, but they drew scant attention.) Vidal’s embrace of the past, too—he called himself, grandiosely, America’s biographer—can be seen as a rearguard action. In the career he settled for, he would seek to reclaim a past after the present had passed him by—to resurrect, or at least to preserve in amber, the mores of a vanishing WASP elite with which he always identified. For all his radical posturing, it was but one more way that he was, in a deep sense, a conservative.