Everyone who enjoys — and wishes there were more of — a truly informed debate in the world should mourn the passing of Gore Vidal. As a figure on the cultural landscape as long as I’ve been alive I can’t tell you the number of times he simultaneously brought a smile to my face and a flash of illumination to my dullish brain. Lord, it would be a blessing to have more of his kind around today … and to see them in a format that fully engaged their skills.
Vidal was already known to me — a nerdy teenager — before his startling and thoroughly enjoyable “interaction” with William Buckley — as ABC News pundits — at the 1968 political conventions. He would pop up occasionally on Johnny Carson or some other talk show, exuding his trademark charm; an unusual/delightful mix of the well-earned literacy of a voracious curiosity and trans-continental urbanity topped off by an acid wit that delighted in reducing fools to flustered boors. Johnny clearly enjoyed the guy, and that was good enough for a lot of middle America, even if they understood only a fraction of the references he was making and had no idea of his sexual persuasion.
In the past couple days several eulogists/social critics have pointed to the Vidal-Buckley convention contretemps as an example of the kind of “uncivil” debate generally disgracing much of America’s political dialogue today. And, while true, the two literary lions did nearly come to blows, in stark … I say STARK … contrast to the buzzword sloganeering of say your Jonah Goldbergs, or John Hinderakers and Paul Mirengoffs at Power Line, (who stand on shoulders above the squalid, repeater-mouthpiece rantings of your “average” conservative blogger), Vidal and Buckley at least commenced their thrust and parry with intellectually credible ideas … of their own divining. Neither man needed a sheet of talking points from Karl Rove to get his message across. (Buckley of course would have no standing among today’s Tea Party intelligentsia [sic]).
Given the highly fragmented news/entertainment audience of modern America, where Jon Stewart has a hit show with an audience the size of which would’ve had him cancelled after two episodes 20 years ago, I am amazed no one anywhere has assembled a show around the concept of “The Debate of the Week”, in which the Vidals and Buckleys of today, or from the art world, Robert Hughes vs. … take your pick, would meet face to face and unedited and have at it. Obviously not something for the “Dancing With the Stars”/”Bachelorette”/”Swamp People” demographic. But tell there aren’t a million Americans who would pay attention to something like that?
The other great value Vidal brought to American culture was his willingness to engage. The recently departed Christopher Hitchens was both prolific and highly visible, at least with a rarefied intellectual set. But Vidal did him one better by running for public office — twice — which meant straying far, far from the Ivory Tower of the Upper East Side salons and pressing flesh with — eeewwww — “real Americana”. In 1982 Vidal ran for Governor of California and a guy named Gary Conklin made a documentary of the campaign called, “The Man Who said No”. I saw it at the U Film Society and upon that viewing inducted Vidal to my Hall of All-Time Favorite Characters.
The pleasure of the film/campaign was watching Vidal, who never dumbed himself down from, you know, Gore Vidal, give speeches to the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce (or wherever) and sincerely try to enlightened a population accustomed to nitwit martial/patriotic rhetoric to the realities of the world as he saw it, a world where fantastic wealth (which Vidal knew very well) regarded earnest middle-Americans as gullible, malleable customers … at best. I remember the reaction shots of his various audiences being spit-take hilarious. Naturally, Vidal lost badly … to Jerry Brown.
(Last year I corresponded with Conklin trying to get a copy of the film.)
Vidal was a master provocateur, an intellectual with a show business sensibility, who understood that if you sincerely believed your ideas had any merit at all, you owed it to yourself to expose them to as wide an audience as possible, and … accept that fools would rush forth in clumsy counter-attack. It’s all fine and wonderful to have informed, heated debates at the 92nd Street Y, but if you want to spark something in skeptical little nerds in far off rural Minnesota it helped to take your act on Johnny Carson, which means of course being the sort of act that Johnny Carson wanted on Johnny Carson. (And yes. We can all agree that Jay Leno is no Johnny Carson.)
Moreover, Vidal, while clearly “liberal” by any definition, was no stale partisan, as most pundits are required to be to gain purchase on commercial (or public) TV. What made him distinctive was his genuinely iconoclastic, atheistic take down of so many pillars of American cultural legend, something no network could justify to its shareholders today.
A taste of Gore:
“What I am is something unbearable, particularly to the world of journalism and the world of clichés, I am a realist…Now when I say that the American political system is totally corrupt, I’m perfectly willing to sit down and prove how it is. I go into it endlessly, I show how it has been corrupted by the vast amounts of money that are given to politicians…I can explain and explain and explain. ‘Oh, he’s just so cynical,’ Well this is because it’s part of the brainwashing. Obviously, if you want to keep the system the way it is, you must see to it that anyone who is realistic, who draws attention to the illness, to the corruption must be discredited. So, ‘He’s cynical, he’s a bad person. If he was a good person, he would love what we’ve done to America.”
I’m already missing that guy.