The current scene isn't producing writers like Gore Vidal, one of the towering writers and cultural figures of the post-World War II era. So his passing Tuesday in Los Angeles, where he lived most of the past decade, marks a sad cultural milestone.
I hardly knew him well -- he was a cool, aristocratic, witty, mandarin sort of cat who spoke through his work (beneath the icy exterior, he told me, as he apparently liked to say, lies cold water) -- but encountered him many times over the years, including when he ran for the U.S. Senate against my old friend Jerry Brown in 1982, and when we featured him at the Shadow Conventions in 2000, the alternative political conventions mirroring those of the major parties spearheaded by Arianna Huffington, for which I served as senior advisor. Ironically, I had just been re-reading one of Vidal's books when he passed away, after reading several over the past year.
Novelist, essayist, politico, playwright, screenwriter, conversationalist, provocateur, Vidal was the complete package as what used to be called a man of letters back when there was such a thing. He did not, to my knowledge, tweet, nor Facebook. He simply wrote, at proper length, which is what most writing, aside from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, concerning which Vidal had very useful things to say, is about.
Doing my usual Net sweep, I see that there have been a massive number of pieces from people who apparently never met him, as well as a few from those who were very much fans and some more from those brave souls who have waited to rip him until after he was safely dead. In my view, he was a flawed genius, sometimes prone, especially late in the day, to some errant conspiracy-mongering. In the aftermath, I prefer to focus on the genius part of it, especially since brilliance is an endangered species in this era in which a majority of at least one major political party seeks to kill the Enlightenment ideas on which this nation was founded.
Born in New York, Vidal ended, after a lengthy sojourn in Italy, in California. Which in a sense is fitting, since this is where he flourished as a screenwriter and mounted his biggest political effort, his run for the U.S. Senate in 1982 against then and future Governor Jerry Brown.
Truth be told, my memories of that campaign are already becoming somewhat vague. I was co-chair of Brown's campaign task force on energy and the environment, but I was much busier that year helping Tom Hayden get elected to the state Assembly -- I supported Hayden and then-wife Jane Fonda as champions of renewable energy, which of course had little to do with the anti-Hayden billboards festooning TK West LA emblazoned with incendiary '60s Hayden quotes about "Property is theft" and "Pick up the gun" -- and serving as the opposition researcher for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's gubernatorial campaign back in the stone knives and bear skins days of that particular black art. I was also just coming on board, in my first role of many in a five-year long effort, as Northern California coordinator for the nascent presidential campaign of Gary Hart, a then-obscure U.S. senator who'd managed George McGovern's presidential campaign and given Bill Clinton his first major political post before becoming the champion of the military reform movement. Hart would burst onto the national scene in a very big way two years later.
Though I was obviously all for Jerry Brown, Vidal's campaign was quite interesting, not least, naturally, to Brown himself. I loved The Best Man, the award-winning (and oft-revived) Broadway play-turned-successful movie starring Henry Fonda, whom I was fortunate to know, about a presidential race at a political convention, and had quite enjoyed his novel Burr, in which he turned our notions about the nation's founders on their heads. I didn't necessarily agree with it, which was true for me of much of Vidal's work, but I appreciated the ingenuity and sheer style of the effort.
Vidal had run as the Democratic candidate for Congress in an upstate New York Republican district in 1960, predictably losing though running ahead of his distant relative John F. Kennedy. (Vidal, who like European aristocrats was related in complex ways to various elite families, was a stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy. Born at West Point, where his father, a two-time Olympic athlete and future FDR administration official and founder of major airlines, was an instructor and coach, Vidal, who was to have a complex and mostly adversarial relationship with American imperialism, was nephew to famed isolationist Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore and cousin to Vice President Al Gore.) Having a famous falling out during the Camelot days with Robert F. Kennedy, my boyhood hero, Vidal, whose sexuality would have been an issue in any event, set aside his overt political aspirations for a time. His California campaign was his first serious effort since then, to the extent that any run against Jerry Brown in a California Democratic primary can be considered serious.
I spoke with Vidal during his Senate primary campaign, and he acknowledged the obvious, that he had no realistic sense that he might win, but that he did hope to provoke debate with Brown, a famous lightning rod in his own right, about the nature of democracy in America, something for which Vidal had a notably jaundiced view. In his opinion, which he made crystalline in his appearance at our Shadow Convention in Los Angeles in 2000 and many times elsewhere, there was no true democracy in America. There is only one overarching party, a corporatist party, of which the Republicans and the Democrats are two warring branches.
Brown won easily, with 51 percent of the vote to Vidal's 15 percent, before going on to lose to Pete Wilson in the general election. Brown's problem for the general election was that he had simply run too often during his governorship, with presidential races in 1976, when he was the late-starting Democratic presidential runner-up, and 1980, when he should not have run at all given the dynamic of Senator Ted Kennedy taking on President Jimmy Carter.
In fact in the Democratic primary, Vidal barely finished second, by a few hundred votes, ahead of state Senator Paul Carpenter, an Orange County Democrat who ran against Brown from the right.
Bracketed by the acerbic Vidal on the left and Carpenter on the right, with moderate Fresno Mayor Dan Whitehurst running as well, Brown, who as you might expect was quite intrigued by Vidal, wanted no part of debates that would chip away at his appeal. So the potentially greatly entertaining Brown-Vidal match-up never came to pass.
It was too bad, as it would have been hugely entertaining and intellectually provocative, factors which I've come to appreciate even more after many years in and around politics.
By the '90s, incidentally, Vidal, who praised Brown's capacity for change and growth in a 2006 interview, liked Brown and was offering him advice in his 1992 presidential run, taking credit for ideas that helped Brown win the Connecticut primary. That set the stage for what could have been a killing blow by Brown in the New York primary. But for the fact that it did not happen, which is another story entirely.
In 2000, I worked with Arianna Huffington to organize the Shadow Conventions. Mirroring the British concept of shadow ministries appointed by the party out of power as watchdogs and goads, these conventions "shadowed" the Republican national convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic national convention in Los Angeles.
In Philadelphia, Senator John McCain keynoted our convention shadowing the Republicans, while in Los Angeles, former Senator Gary Hart keynoted the shadow convention taking place down the street from the Democratic confab.
Vidal was a natural choice for the session with Arianna and Christopher Hitchens and others to provide rapid reaction to President Bill Clinton's convention address. But a funny thing happened on the way to the fair; we got shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department on a bomb threat. We were forced to leave the building we were meeting in, venerable Patriotic Hall, where George C. Scott delivered the famous speech at the beginning of Patton in front of the huge American flag.
It was a very tense situation. Just blocks away, the LAPD were chasing down protesters. The cops in our vicinity looked on edge. The ones I talked to, including the leaders, didn't seem to know exactly why they were there, fake bomb threat aside. Some of our attendees, very much on edge, looked like they were ready to challenge the cops. I worked to cool them down while Arianna tried contacting L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, the moderate conservative Republican whom I'd met at her house. While talking with the cops on scene and some of our very tense attendees, I worked on contacting two future mayors of L.A., then L.A. City Attorney Jimmy Hahn and then California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, whose earlier speech at Shadow Convention L.A. I'd scheduled.
Vidal, who'd seen far worse confrontations at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago but knew a knife's edge situation when he saw it, played it cool, calming our crowd with occasional comments -- noting that the scene reminded him of "Chicago in 1968, and I was there, with Bill Buckley" (referring to a notorious run-on on network TV during that truly convulsive convention -- while making a few waspish private asides about ignorant police state tactics. The very well-lubricated Hitchens, on the other hand, made a variety of provocative comments, threatening to upset a very uncertain apple cart. Which became all the more ironic in retrospect when he went pro-Bush/Cheney not long after in his rah-rah sis-boombah Iraq War days.
As interesting as Vidal was as a public figure -- there's certainly no shortage of acerbic and pithy sayings floating around right now, not to mention encounters with the likes of William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer -- I think of him as a writer, first and foremost.
I happened to re-read several of his novels over the past year, from his sequence of historical novels about America. The "Narratives of Empire" as Vidal styled it, or "American Chronicles," as his publisher preferred, runs from Burr, an iconoclastic recasting of disgraced secessionist Vice President Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, as a hero and Thomas Jefferson as, well, not, through Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C., and The Golden Age, ending with the country in the post-World War II era.
Lincoln and Empire, in particular, caught my attention again.
I've read many books about Abraham Lincoln. But Vidal's novel brings him to life in a way that none of the other books do. It is simply a great novel, one of my favorites.
Vidal does not present him as a shining progressive hero. He presents him as a practicing, eminently and constantly pragmatic politician, always guided by a larger vision but willing to seem less than himself in order to attain his goals through indirection.
Most of the big-name characters underestimate Lincoln at every stage of the story, failing to comprehend what he was really up to even as he was achieving it.
Which is especially fascinating since Vidal, in his columns and essays and other public commentary was very much a man of the left, decrying the sort of pragmatic indirection practiced by the real life politician whom he presents most sympathetically in his fiction.
There is something about historical distance which enabled Vidal to see Lincoln's method and his greatness at once. Of course, he had the results to look at and account for. But it is the mark of his great artistic imagination that he presented Lincoln in this way. Not Carl Sandberg's or even the greater artist John Ford's uplifting but impossibly great man, but a practicing politician working on greatness, and on preserving, reinventing, and transforming America with the tools available to him. Who was, flaws and all, very much a great man.
I think that Vidal's secret weapon in this novel, which he continues to employ in Empire, his story of America becoming a great world power in the presidencies of William McKinley and, ultimately, Teddy Roosevelt, is his decision to use John Hay as a principal narrator in both of the books. It's not at all something that a true ideologue would do. For John Hay turns out to be no progressive's idea of a hero.
From my lifelong study of history, John Hay was already one of my favorite characters. A young Midwesterner who came with Lincoln to Washington in 1861, an intellectual with a knack for homespun poetry of a sort, Hay began as a great young idealist, working with Lincoln throughout his presidency and later becoming, with fellow presidential secretary John Nicolay, author of voluminous Lincoln biographies.
His later career combined journalism and diplomacy.
By the time of Empire, Hay acquiesces readily to the incipient imperialism afforded by America's easy win over imperial Spain in the Spanish-American War.
In fact, he becomes imperialism's great rationalizer, supporting America's war against the Filipino uprising that ensued when the U.S. decided after the decisive Battle of Manila Bay not to settle for a naval base in an independent Philippines but to take the whole country. In less brutal fashion, but no less supportive of America's expanding commercial interests, Hay promulgated the "Open Door" policy in China, to prevent any European power from becoming dominant in a collapsing Chinese mainland in which the US wanted its access and share of trade and booty.
In these novels, Vidal presents America's nascent imperialism not so much as an evil plot -- though much evil was done in that period from the perspective of the people of the Philippines, to name one obvious example -- but as a natural development in the dynamics of history. Characters who in the present day he would have excoriated in his brilliantly etched essays he presents as dimensional people, even Teddy Roosevelt, whom he clearly does not particularly admire.
It's quite fascinating, and a real sign of his artistic imagination married to his well-honed political perspective.
This is what lives on, after the talk show appearances and clever quips are forgotten. Vidal was a real writer who took the time to present events in full dimension. Agree with him or not, his achievements are great and his work lasts.
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