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Seduced by Gore Vidal

The complicated pleasures of Nicholas Wrathall's hagiographic new documentary.
Gore Vidal at 23. (Photo: Public Domain)

Gore Vidal at 23. (Photo: Public Domain)

One of the semester's chief joys, whenever I teach journalism, is the first of eight classes on “political commentary”—the day when I introduce unsuspecting youngsters to the K-hole known as “YouTubing Gore Vidal vs. William F. Buckley.” We watch selections from the 1968 debates in Chicago and Miami, and undergraduate jaws tend to dislocate within the first three minutes. The classroom's stated task is to compare 1960s and ’70s notions of public intellectualism and political gamesmanship with our own age's debased versions of these things, and to have a gut-bustingly good time doing so.

Once in a while a student will take a shine to Buckley (“debonair” and “like James Bond”), but if we let the tape roll long enough, Vidal's deeper composure and keener knowledge of history will often seduce even the most conservative students. Whereas Buckley produces one of Evelyn Waugh's anti-socialist epigrams idly, like removing a kerchief from the pocket of his blazer, Vidal's points of reference in these televised sparring matches are precise, sedulously selected from his self-compiled encyclopedia of a brain. His glibness is not, as with Buckley, the premise of argument, his wit less a tool of deflection than a source of argumentative propulsion. Few pieces of 20th-century political theater can match the intellectual bloodsport of these tapes.

The value of the public intellectual is somewhat inflated by sentiment in this age where few applicants qualify; nostalgia for the allusive pronouncements of over-educated white men is both lingering and probably irrelevant. Vidal, though, is something of a special case.

Director Nicholas Wrathall's new documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia offers an entertaining, almost entirely votive biography of the man, generously peppered with five decades of him being fabulous on television. Viewers unfamiliar with Vidal's seductive intellect will likely be taken in—his half-performed egotism was rarely less than winsome, if you lived anywhere near his political camp—and those who have already plundered YouTube's Vidalian offerings will find here plenty of new (or forgotten) footage of the man in his element. Critics will keep arguing whether his principal achievements were the novels or the essays, but Vidal's greatest stock-in-trade was being Gore Vidal. The film would likely tickle his ego, but as a critic and enemy of cant, Vidal might well despise the dewy lens through which the audience is invited to view his life.

In Wrathall's account, Vidal's life is something charmed and airborne; an early and surreal moment has Gore at 10 years old, piloting a prototype airplane designed and built by his father Eugene, the aeronautics inventor and magnate who ran the Bureau of Air Commerce under FDR. In his teenage precocity, Vidal spent afternoons in the office of his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, reading aloud to the blind elder statesman who shared, or indeed helped form, his grandson's pacifist and non-interventionist dogmas.

By 15, Vidal was trying novels as a means of forgetting the ugliness of his relationship with his mother; within a few years, he would “defect,” as he said, from his inherited perch in the American aristocracy. “The whole point to a ruling class,” Vidal has said (on several occasions), “is they don't conspire, the ruling; they all think alike. Unless you get out of it, as I did.” At 19, he wrote his first novel, Williwaw, while convalescing in the North Pacific, where he served for three years during World War II. Writing in the Times in 1946, Orville Prescott gave a triumphalist review, and Vidal had arrived, terribly young, in the world of letters.

Trailer for Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.

The glittering accomplishments of Vidal's youth are more impressive, even moving, when we consider that Vidal published The City and the Pillar just two years later, in 1948—an explicitly gay novel that the Times refused to review, just as they did not review Myra Breckinridge. In his earliest television appearances, culled here with sensitivity by Wrathall, the young Vidal is remarkably composed and confident as he declares the difference between gay and straight to be “about the difference between somebody who has brown eyes and somebody who has blue eyes.” He was an outspoken pioneer on dangerous territory despite being—to believe Jay Parini, Vidal's literary executor and the documentary's M.C.—“really quite shy” at the time.

Similarly, Vidal's boosterism of the women's liberation movement, he claims, was the final wedge between him and Norman Mailer. In wildly divergent ways, both men were canny traffickers in literary celebrity, and Vidal comes close to admitting as much midway through the film: “He wasn't crazy. He was a persona.” (Their dispute about feminism and wife-stabbing, on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, remains rather embarrassing for both parties; Troy Patterson notes with playfulness that Mailer's “performance [that night] was better than some of his journalism and all of his novels.”) Vidal, meanwhile, made a small fortune in Hollywood writing screen- and teleplays (the former include Ben Hur), moved to Ravello (“He lived like a Roman emperor in exile,” Parini says), and began a series of lengthy historical novels. As former protégé Christopher Hitchens tells the camera, referring to the seven novels of Vidal's Empire saga: “I am probably not the only person to say that my understanding of America ... comes from that shelf of novels.” In the footage, Hitchens is bald and cancer-stricken and utterly respectful toward his old friend, even after a very public severance of ties.

For students of shifting allegiances in American political life, Vidal's break with the Jewish intelligentsia may be old news, but it sheds significant light on the progress of American homophobia. Jewish intellectuals, once firmly leftist, had begun to merge with post-Nixonian, proto-Reaganite movement that would become neoconservatism, and Vidal was terrified. “With the creation of Israel,” he tells the camera, “many [Jewish thinkers] moved to the right”—to the camp of “the anti-Semites, the Jesus Christers.” Vidal's 1981 essay “The Pink Triangle and the Yellow Star” is a mournful and persuasive case for common plight. “Like it or not,” Vidal wrote, “Jews and [gays] are in the same fragile boat, and one would have to be pretty obtuse not to see the common danger”; nonetheless, the “shrill fag-baiting of Joseph Epstein, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Kazin, and the Hilton Kramer Hotel” continued unabated.

Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal feud on the Dick Cavett Show.

And then there is the great white Left of Hollywood, ever pleased to class itself up by hanging with Vidal and his literary sparring partners, especially in Ravello, where we see him in 1975 delivering prepared epigrams about the mediocrity of Truman Capote to several couches full of appreciative cocktail-sloshers. In the background throughout is Howard Auster, whom Vidal describes as a sort of non-sexual life-partner. “Sex ruins friendship,” Vidal tells us at one juncture. Generally pro-copulation (“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television”), Vidal maintains that his 50-plus-year relationship with Auster was Platonic. The two men are now buried together in Rock Creek Cemetery, not far (Vidal assures the camera) from the plot that George McGovern had chosen.

The value of the public intellectual is somewhat inflated by sentiment in this age where few applicants qualify; nostalgia for the allusive pronouncements of over-educated white men is both lingering and probably irrelevant. Vidal, though, is something of a special case. Unlike Buckley, he tore up an Ivy League acceptance letter; an autodidact, he devoted himself to the study of languages, political history, philosophy, and literature with a breadth and depth that easily outmatched Buckley and, by a closer reckoning, Hitchens too.

The movie features its share of gross absurdities and moments of self-parody: election night 2008, when Vidal announces, “This is my prediction: The Republican Party as of this day is as terminated as the Whigs were in 1846.” Then, with little ceremony or explanation, Vidal is suddenly in a gondola, skimming the canals of Venice with Mikhail Gorbachev. The lack of exposition here is both hamhanded and perfect; after hanging out with JFK and Tennessee Williams, why not share a tender moment under the Bridge of Sighs with the architect of Perestroika? And naturally the film does not dwell on Vidal's occasional poor choices in the whipping-boy department, nor on his more outré opinions about Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal.

To no one's surprise, Vidal never bridled at being branded the “American Oscar Wilde,” and the epithet certainly obtains in the violet-tinted life that Wrathall presents in his documentary. Performing on TV, on the page, on the campaign trail, Vidal embraced a Wildean ideal of conspicuousness as the supreme artistic act—to quote the latter, “I've put my genius into my life; I've put only my talent into my works.” For this reason, it is the essays that we most remember simply because they contain so much Gore. “I felt I knew him,” Hitchens tells the camera, “because he's one of those essayists who has the ability to make you feel personally addressed.”

At no time in history has the personal essay enjoyed its current vogue, while political commentary has never been so impoverished. In Vidal's life and in its natural extension, his non-fiction, we are reminded of the possibilities of the personal-political essay: With his idealism, his instincts for gamesmanship and provocation, his voice that drew its authority from money, self-schooling, and natural wit, Vidal was never uninteresting and never wholly irrelevant, even during his most paranoiac and irrational moments. Bill Maher, riffing on those Dos Equis commercials, calls Vidal “the real most interesting man in the world.” It is easy and not entirely unreasonable to find oneself beguiled by all that glamorous erudition, whether on the page or on the screen. To put things more simply: I like much of what he has to say, but mainly I like hearing him say it. As John Lahr once wrote in the New Yorker: Vidal “pisses from a great height.”

A merciless and earnest wit is rare in any age, and if Wrathall has elevated Vidal's pissing to something of an Olympian act, one can perhaps forgive the director—it is, after all, the cool and composed charisma that attracts, and no one operating in Vidal's rarified sphere was ever cooler or more composed. As my students observe, unprompted, today's political television has lots of decibels but little matter, which is why classes keep responding with such amazement when they watch Vidal and Buckley fencing. It's their first peek at the lettered corrosions of the golden age of political TV—at the forgotten possibilities of political rhetoric.