Gore Vidal has departed the stage given news today that he has died of complications from pneumonia at age 86.
I shook Vidal’s hand once — and when he took mine, his smirk pretty much sheared off several layers of identity protection I had cloaked around myself.
I imagined him instantly reading all of the things about me that I didn’t want to share at the time. He seemed to convey in that look that he knew I was gay. I was just a college student then, about twenty years old, not out, and scared of the whole gay thing. But I had read The City and the Pillar, one of the first American mainstream novels with a gay theme, and just knowing who Vidal was — a great writer who befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, read books to his blind uncle US Senator from Oklahoma TP Gore, and ran around with the Kennedy-Bouvier clan — changed what I thought was possible in my own life.
I was interning at both RAND Corporation and a place then called the Center for International and Strategic Affairs — and without conveying any of this to Vidal, I sensed that he perceived in my self-serious coat and tie and briefcase that I was well on my way to becoming a tool of the American empire.
He talked that way in general about everyone, not specifically about me, but then I knew my too stiff demeanor planted the idea. He said from the stage, “Stand against empire. Don’t be deceived.” And then he looked right at me from the podium, or I thought he did. I felt his interest and his nudge to make better choices than I was making.
Vidal’s characterization of the United States as a turbo-charged version of ancient Rome and his dismissal of those in think tanks and academia tied to the state as ‘spear-carriers for empire’ prepared me well for my later, quite close relationship to Chalmers Johnson who succeeded Vidal and Chomsky as an equally effective, often acerbic, staunch ‘chronicler of empire’ during America’s post-9/11 convulsions.
Vidal’s revealing and psycho-politically gripping memoir, Palimpsest, helped me understand the power of networks, of cocktail parties, of social scenes and what could be created or destroyed through them. They didn’t all have to be about being a geisha to the powerful, but one could orchestrate political and policy drama from inside the network. He also laid bare the flaws of many iconic political powerhouses from the 1950s through the 1990s.
I loved Vidal’s expose-it-all battle with Charlton Heston over the gay sub-themes Vidal said he wrote into early script versions of Ben Hur — a culture war duel that then Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Shelby Coffey had stirred up between a self-righteously indignant Heston and the gleefully provocative Vidal.
Anyone who knew Gore Vidal — and some friends like Michael Lind who corresponded with him — knew that he was self-absorbed, a constant name-dropper and flamboyant about it (at a New America Foundation board retreat a couple of years ago, I took a page from the Vidal playbook and dropped a few names, saying “Name-dropping: I embrace it.” Brought the house down. Thanks Mr. Vidal).
But Vidal was also committed to something quite selfless — and that was turning a mirror such that Americans could see themselves and reflect on what they were doing to the world; that empire was not democracy and that the US was building a national security state that didn’t see a threat it couldn’t hyperventilate about and overreact towards.
He was active in big causes, not all of them with which I agreed, but he put his credibility and his brilliant capacity as a literary and political thinker, as well as his considerable pedigree as an uber-connected socialite on the line for meta-causes.
Vidal’s brand of self-absorbed selflessness had limits but was something I wish there was more of in America and around the world.
Vidal was the epitome of flamboyant, unforgiving boldness, and he made a difference. Whether in the broad game of American politics, the sizzle of the film industry, or in the arena of letters and literature, Vidal dramatically broadened the world — and my world — by upending the conventional.
His handshake and grin helped me realize much and gave me an opportunity to pivot in new directions, at least in my own mind, and for that I am deeply grateful to Gore Vidal.