Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal, RIP

A great writer has died.

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My colleague Brian Doherty will be posting a more substantial obit for Gore Vidal, the novelist, essayist, activist, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor who passed away yesterday at age 86. I just want to poke my head up to say that Vidal's books Burr and Messiah are two of my favorite novels. The first is as good a piece of historical fiction as has ever been written about the early United States, and the second is one of the best science fiction stories of the 1950s. (Vidal wrote many more good novels too: Julian and Creation and the underrated The Smithsonian Institution and all those sequels to Burr. But Burr and Messiah are my favorites.)

I'll also put in a good word for Vidal's nonfiction, or for most of it anyway. (Yes, he produced some odd, disjointed quasi-Truther stuff in his final decade. I'll forgive a man an eccentric senescence.) He wrote the first serious literary criticism that I can recall reading, way back in my early teens, and over the years he deepened my appreciation of writers ranging from Italo Calvino to L. Frank Baum. And while he wasn't a libertarian, his political essays helped steer me in that direction: He was a fierce defender of civil liberties, a caustic critic of puritanism, an angry foe of war and empire, and a patrician populist prone to quirky deviations from the usual left-liberal positions on economics. (When he ran for the Senate in 1982, Vidal called for a flat tax of just 5 percent. In 1989 he warned about "a worldwide Green movement, and the establishment of a worldwide state, which the few will take over, thus enslaving us all while forgetting to save the planet." And in the 1990s, drawing on James Bovard, David Kopel, and other libertarian writers, he denounced the DEA and IRS as "inveterate thieves of private property without due process of law.")

Finally, let's thank Vidal for one of the most memorable exchanges in TV history—the one where he called William Buckley a "pro-crypto-Nazi" and Buckley called him "you queer" and threatened to "sock you in the goddamn face." Every episode of Crossfire and Hannity & Colmes and all the other debate shows that have littered the cable news channels in the last three decades exists in hopes of seeing something like that break out again. But you can't bottle lightning, especially when you expect a Tom Daschle to play the Buckley role and someone like Paul Begala to be Vidal.