We watched the documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, on Saturday. I confess, as the movie pushed to its inevitable end and showed a picture of Vidal’s desk, typewriter, with piles of paper strewn about … and an empty chair … I welled up with tears. I miss this man.
The video above was a clip from American television coverage of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. So many things were different in that era. A real “left” point of view was allowed to air, and the images from the night before went out largely unfiltered. (I don’t watch enough mainstream news to know, so tell me: Was the clubbing by police of OWS people aired on American news networks?) In addition, the participants were scholars, and decorum required them to adhere, as much as possible, to moderator Howard K. Smith’s advice given late in the exchange, “Now let’s not all talk at the same time.”
We suffer from TV-induced short attentions spans these days, so I feel obligated to advise you that the fireworks between the two men begin at around eight minutes in. [Which reminds me, the clip is 13 minutes long! That’s unheard of today.]
I very much admire these two men, and say, I think with some objectivity, that Vidal won the exchange with both his arguments and demeanor. Buckley, as we now know, was recruited by the CIA out of Yale, and so might have been super-sensitive to the “crypto-Nazi” invective that Vidal so skillfully leveled at him. He comes unglued and starts hurling patrician threats at Vidal at that comment. We now know about Project Paperclip. Most who know of it assume had to do with Nazi scientists being brought over to make bombs and rockets. It was much larger than that. It included rescue of hundreds, if not thousands of SS agents as well. It was the fictitious piece of junk Argo writ large. “CIA” would become an amalgam of SS and the old OSS. I wonder how much Buckley and Vidal knew of this, as Buckley does leave his shoes momentarily.
Back to the movie: There were perhaps a dozen people in the sprawling theater at Chez Artiste in Denver. So I not only felt a sense of loss that Vidal is gone, but also one of loneliness that so few people can appreciate him or operate on his intellectual level. I will pass on just a couple of impressions and then leave the reader to see the movie when it comes out on Netflix or some other platform.
First, just changing times I suppose, but a movie theater is not the right venue for a movie of this type. Also,
- Vidal was gay. But his reflections on sex in general are stunning in their sensibility and startling for the time that he sat on national TV and espoused them.
- Vidal’s partner, Howard Austen, died in 2003, and one gets a sense that the last nine years of Vidal’s life were a downward spiral. He was lonely. Aside from those closing years, Vidal comes across as a thoroughly happy man, confident in his abilities and affectionate of people in general. Austen said to Vidal around the time of his passing, “It went by so quickly.”
- Gore was a graduate of Exeter Academy, and was accepted at Harvard. He said he realized at that time that he had been institutionalized his entire life, and opted to forgo college. I suspect Harvard would have tamed this man, robbed us of the wit, rancor, insight and talent that he possessed. It might have turned him into Erich Segal. [Or worse yet, Al Gore.]
- Austen and Vidal, according to Vidal, were not sexual partners. Vidal did not believe in having sex with friends, as it inevitably complicated friendship. Their expressions of love and devotion to one another, however, were profound. (He did say he would never turn down an opportunity to have sex or appear on TV.)
- Vidal, even though born of the oligarchy, willfully cast it aside. He said that Truman Capote spent his whole life trying to get in to the thing that he was trying to get out of.
I enjoyed Vidal’s writings, mostly his historical tracts, and appreciate them now more than when I read them. I understand better now that the job of the historian in an empire is to walk backwards reassembling the facts to better shape and form our official lies. Vidal brought Burr and Lincoln to life for me, but more so helped me understand that it was Lincoln, and not the so-called founders, who invented the American Republic. It was the doe-eyed Missouri petty criminal Truman who destroyed it.
Men like Vidal pass by so seldom that I think it appropriate to pause and take note: His was a charmed life, and his contributions to American literature and intellectual culture are unparalleled. I cannot think of another of his caliber, though I know they are there. For right now, I am just mourning the loss of Gore Vidal.