Like Jesse Walker, I think highly of the just-deceased Gore Vidal's novels and other writings and I especially cherish Burr, his 1973 retelling of the American founding from the POV of the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Although they are mass-produced commercial items, relationships with books are always highly personalized and I can remember stumbling across the novel as a kid sometime in the post-Watergate, post-1776 (the musical) haze of the Me Decade. Burr fuses in my memory with snippets of the Church Commission hearings (which revealed massive wrongdoing by the National Security Administration, the FBI, and the CIA) and, believe it or not, Milton and Rose Friedman's Free to Choose: A Personal Statement.
What the Church hearings, Burr, and Free to Choose all had in common was a thoroughgoing questioning of the offical story of the goodness and greatness of government actors and government actions. Burr is a particularly well-told tale, very literary in its structure and style and very American in its quest for paternity and eventual exile. The novel was not just an exciting read, it opened by younger mind to the idea that history and literature didn't need to be dull or dusty and that the past informs the present and future far more than we might ever imagine. On a more direct ideological angle, it helped drive home the notion that stories, especially when promulgated by self-interested authorities, are explicitly designed to obscure much more than the explain. I don't have my doctoral dissertation handy so I can't check it for sure, but if Vidal didn't make it into the actual pages of that dreary text, Qualified Authority in American Fiction: Participant Observers and Market Orders, his ghost haunts almost every page.
That said, as I got older and especially as Vidal got older, he came to represent something else in my mind. I enjoyed the public spectacle he made of himself on talk shows and in magazines and in the political arena, but I think he also became less and less interesting as a thinker and a writer because he had ascended to a place where he no longer had to really engage with the world of ideas and criticism. He had his coterie and his renown and his shtick and was all set. This is partly a place every public intellectual aspires to, I suppose, and it's something they should seek to avoid if they want to stay at the very top of their game. He could still be flat-out funny: As Brian Doherty once reminded me, Vidal immediately answered "Duluth" once when asked what his best novel (a turgid parody of both the TV show Dallas and Pynchonesque metafiction, it was anything but).
But Vidal's lack of real-world grounding leads to the sort of weirdness that bubbled up in a 2009 interview with The Atlantic regarding self-confessed predator Roman Polanski's drugging and assault of a 13 year old girl:
So what's your take on Polanski, this many years later?
I really don't give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she's been taken advantage of?
I've certainly never heard that take on the story before.
First, I was in the middle of all that. Back then, we all were. Everybody knew everybody else. There was a totally different story at the time that doesn't resemble anything that we're now being told.
What do you mean?
The media can't get anything straight. Plus, there's usually an anti-Semitic and anti-fag thing going on with the press – lots of crazy things. The idea that this girl was in her communion dress, a little angel all in white, being raped by this awful Jew, Polacko – that's what people were calling him – well, the story is totally different now from what it was then.
Vidal, I'm afraid, could talk out of his ass because at some point he just kicked free of any need or desire to engage in real discourse rather than spout whatever he could dream up. That's an all-too-common endpoint for many eminent writers and thinkers.
More in that vein, including Vidal "just asking questions" about 9/11 and commenting on America's "unfree" press, here.
The Nation's Jon Weiner remembers Vidal and his life and work and controversites here.