Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reflections on The Passing of Gore Vidal

By Nomad

So much of what Mr. Vidal had to say about American politics and its culture were things that many Americans just didn't want to hear. Yet looking back over his record as a prognosticator, he always seemed to be more on the right side, rather than the wrong side of history. 

It is true that his love for stirring up controversy (often for its own sake) made it easier for people to despise him. Yet, few could deny that when it came to exposition, to expressing the liberal ethic, Gore Vidal could rarely be bested.

There was a famous 1968 televised debate between his mirror image on the right, William F. Buckley, Jr. In this debate, the topic turned to the heavy handed police reaction to protesters at Chicago Democratic Convention. Vidal referred to Buckley as a "pro- or crypto- Nazi" and it was at that point that Buckley lost his cool and said, very uncharacteristically,"Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face, and you'll stay plastered." 

The statement was not a joke. It was meant to be threatening though it came across as just plain weird. It was a shocking display at that time but now it is the kind of political discussion that we see all the time.

With his often unnerving affectations and classical intro to his show "Firing Line," Buckley had worked hard at his image as an intellectual conservative and after being baited by Vidal, Buckley was revealed to be an angry little man with a bad temper.

Vidal wore many hats in his lifetime, a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, a politician, screenwriter, and political activist. He began his literary career at the age of nineteen. His third novel, The City and the Pillar, dealt with an issue that few novelists would dare to touch: a romantic homosexual relationship between two all-American men. Thomas Mann called the book, "a noble work." Critics thought the subject should be in the dark where they thought it belonged.

According to Wikipedia:
Orville Prescott, the book critic for the New York Times, found The City and the Pillar so objectionable that he refused to review or allow the Times to review Vidal's next five books.
Not that that blacklisting stopped him. He simply wrote under a pseudonym and waited until society caught up to him.One of his lesser novels- Myra Breckenridge- was also scandalous in its day and led his enemies to call its writer "a pornographer." Even today, the book has its shocking moment but the wicked campy humor is still a delight to read. Later in his long career, he wrote historical studies, complaining that if Americans were going to be taught about history, it was up to him to do it.

So many brave things that Vidal said stand like warnings despite the passage of time. His statements on the police brutality of the 1960s are, given the same behavior to the Occupy protesters, as relevant today. Said Vidal, 
"As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests."
Vidal said there were two things he never passed up. Sex and being on television. And he must surely have been one of the most interviewed celebrities in modern times. 
I doubt we will see another man quite like Mr. Vidal again. Farewell, Mr. Vidal. 

In memory of Mr. Vidal, one of my heroes, I have spent the day making this short video, a compilation of his photographic portraits over the years. (He was certainly a handsome man in his younger days.) 

If the link doesn't work, try this link.

I hope you enjoy it.

Zane was kind enough to pass along a link from the New Republic by Christopher Buckley about the 1968 debate, mentioned in the article. Thanks Zane! 
I was going to reply as a comment but the response became so long, I thought I would just add an update to the original post. 

The article is very interesting. I didn't know anything about Christopher Buckley - son of William F. Buckley-until I began writing this reply. He had been a speechwriter for Daddy Bush, worked on the conservative magazine, the National Review, until he endorsed Obama in 2008. (Buckley has said the switch was because of Palin) After many readers and contributors expressed their displeasure, Buckley resigned from National Review, the very magazine his own father built.
Anyway, I was a bit shocked to learn he was much less conservative than his father. I suppose I felt he was carrying the flag. The article suggests it to me but perhaps when the 1968 debate was brought up upon Vidal's death, he felt the need to defend his father. If so, it didn't impress me much.

Firstly, it strikes me as amusingly paradoxical that Christopher Buckley would spend the first few paragraphs showing what a spiteful bastard Gore Vidal was after Buckley had died. All of the mean-spiritedness to the recently departed, he implies, shows a real lack of class. Without any kind of hesitation, Christopher relates many the nasty things that Vidal had said about his father. 
WFB’s body was still warm (I exaggerate only slightly) when Vidal rendered his obsequies: "RIP WFB—in hell."
For a political satirist, Christopher misses the delicious irony of his remarks. Perhaps that's the reason I thought he had to be a conservative. Circumspection is NOT a conservative virtue, as we have seen so many times before. 
Here's another example of the grave dancing and the lack of an irony gland:
Vidal would have spent his final years as a laughingstock, if anyone was still listening to his toxic gibberish.
That's from the tabloid rag, The New York Post? The daily supplier of toxic gibberish that offers its laughingstock alternate world, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch.

In any case, dancing on the graves of the newly dead is distasteful (whoever does it) but especially when it passes from one generation to the next. As Vidal himself might have said, if one feels impelled to do a jig of the corpse of your father's enemy, they had better show some skillful footwork and have a good reason. 

What I found really revealing about the article was how Christopher uses much cheaper rhetoric techniques than his father ever did. For example, isn't it rather silly to use the word "yawn" in the middle of other people's opinions that you disagree with? Or "Ahem." Instead of confronting Vidal's ideas directly and disproving them, he does not feel the need to bother. It is as if he is saying "I say Vidal's ideas were wrong, I know you agree with me and that's it. End of discussion."
For example, with regards to Vidal's theory that 911 was a predictable result of years and years of bad American foreign policy:
For Vidal, it was simply a chickens-coming-home-to-roost moment, another—yawn—predictable instance of deserved U.S. imperial blowback.
It's debatable and perhaps it is hard for an American to absorb. However, for Christopher, there's no need to disprove this idea. Of course, it can't be true. It is apparently enough to say "Everybody knows it." 

He also refers to Vidal's "crackpot" idea that FDR " had incited the Japanese to start a war and contrived to conceal intelligence about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor." 
Again, calling something you disagree with crackpot is something we expect more from Fox News. It is any more or less crackpot than saying as a conservative candidate did that Obama's views are based on his Kenyan background? Are they any more crackpot than the conspiracy theories about Obama's birth certificates? Maybe or maybe not. 

But since the writer decided to mention this as a sign of Vidal's crackpottedness, then why not show us the supporting evidence to make your case. Or a link? Again, for this Buckley, it is enough to say "Evidence shows..." 

Later in the article, Christopher uses another cheap device when discussing Vidal unfortunate Tim MacVeigh affair. (There's no defense of any kind of support for terrorism so I won't try.) It showed very poor judgment and Vidal should have known better. Norman Mailer back in the 1980s made the same mistake. His infatuation with a prisoner and his successful campaigning for his release, led to the man committing a murder of a waiter only a few months later. Again, it showed poor judgment of Vidal's part. Yet, see how Christopher felt the need to exploit it:
Vidal wrote of him that he was “a noble boy.” Remember that phrase next time you see the famous photograph of the fireman cradling the dying body of the infant Baylee Almon.
With the unnecessary and emotional imagery, isn't that a bit heavy-handed? It is not shocking news to learn that old men-especially when they were egomanics to begin with- often become embittered, say foolish things or hold on to odd notions. It is something we tend to expect. 

Christopher strangely even takes Vidal to task for discussing himself in an interview. Isn't that the purpose? Conversely, Christopher also criticizes Vidal for, apparently not portraying himself in a flattering light.
“I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
And perhaps that's what especially irks Christopher the most. Vidal didn't pretend to be something he wasn't. It is something related to their inability to see themselves impartially, warts and all. (To the degree it existed, this was one of Reagan's most admirable traits.) 

Finally, there is the most important point. Why did Buckley even write the article? 
It seems clear to me that Christopher had been waiting to get his revenge and knowing that Vidal could not defend himself- which he probably could have easily enough, he took this opportunity. 

Yet, looking back at the debate, the reason for the article in the first place, it was Buckley that was at fault. 
After all, Vidal merely called him a "crypto-nazi" and given his support of Joseph McCarthy and his support for white supremacy in the South, the charge holds some weight. 

It is not without reason that Buckley is called "the father of the modern conservative movement." Buckley's influence proved significant in a time when conservative politics had been discredited by the Birch Society, by its support of segregation and against the civil rights. Buckley was there to clean up the conservative movement's image and provide a superior intellectual argument.
In 1962, Buckley denounced Robert W. Welch, Jr., and the John Birch Society, in National Review, as "far removed from common sense" and urged the GOP to purge itself of Welch's influence.
(Ronald Reagan was far more ambivalent about the support of the Birchers and received a lot of flack about it when he was running for governor of California.)

The incident at the debate revealed the truth. By calling Vidal "a little queer" revealed Buckley's true nature. The reason it was such a shock was because calling a person a "crypto-nazi" is a comment on their ideas but calling somebody a "little queer" is a personal attack. It is very much like calling a black person "a little nigger" and in one moment, Buckley's intellectually-detached image dissolved into mud.
Buckley's apology was mere posturing. Why? Because after apologizing (conservative style), WFB went on to write in Esquire magazine in 1969:
"The man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction, and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher."
Of course, the implication was that homosexuality and/or bisexuality was a disease or an addiction. (Buckley appears to suggest that homosexuals should suffer with their "affliction" in silence which perhaps says more about Buckley than about Vidal.) 
The medical community was even then having serious doubts about that diagnosis. in that very year, gay groups disrupted the American Psychiatric Association convention in San Francisco to press their claim for reform. By 1973, after much debate, the APA revised their opinion. 
Buckley once again was forced with crafty rhetoric to give his intellectual support to old-fashioned notions, breathing new life into dead ideas. Just as he did with the conservation ideology in general.
Christopher's rhetorical art is of the low-brow- pretty laughable- variety. Listen to how Christopher described his father's death.
"He died with his boots on after a lifetime of riding pretty tall in the saddle."
In fact he died in his comfortable study in Stamford, Connecticut, and not among the sagebrush and the rattlers. Presumably, Christopher's statement was supposed to connect to William Buckley's phony intellectual support of the equally phony cowboy Ronald Reagan. 
So, despite this article about Gore Vidal and a look back at a small moment in a long career, Christopher has written an inappropriate reminder to the conservatives about how great Buckley was to the dying conservative movement. Fairly pathetic.  

Gore Vidal called Christopher Buckley "creepy" and nothing in this article disproves that. Given that Christopher decided to entitle one of his books "They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?” creepy sounds like another fairly accurate Gore Vidal assessment.

I would add that he seems to have inherited all of his father's negative traits and none of the positive ones, such as they were. Christopher Buckley implies that it was one-sided animosity on Vidal part. In fact, neither too the high road. and there were a series of court battles between the two. Most of the lawsuits were thrown out of court because judges refuses to get involved in a mutual personal feud between two overstuffed egos.

Buckley has taken this moment to do his happy dance on the gravestone shows a lack of class, something that Buckley, at least tried to display.. until provoked. To his credit, Buckley the Elder had the class not insult the dead, something that escaped Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and now Buckley the Younger. 

And anyway, what kind of son would be so pretentious as to refer to his father using only his initials?