Gore Vidal, the celebrated playwright, novelist and essayist who died July 31, was not one to adhere to the adage De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. He delighted in mocking his antagonists upon their deaths. He famously quipped that dying was a “good career move” for Truman Capote and memorialized William F. Buckley (himself no respecter of obituary protocol) as a “dishonorable American.” [Gore Vidal Speaks Seriously Ill of the Dead, Truthdig, March 20, 2008.]
This type of rhetoric garnered Vidal enemies on both the Left and Right who were eager to write their own negative obituaries upon his passing.
And Vidal left them with plenty of material to work with. Referring to Roman Polanski’s 13 year-old rape victim, he said “Look am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s being taken advantage of?” and claimed Polanski was a victim of an anti-Semitic media (!) who spread the narrative “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...” [A Conversation With Gore Vidal, The Atlantic, October 2010]
Of young boys, Vidal wrote in his autobiography that “Naturally, like most men, I am attracted to adolescent males,” He was marginally involved in the founding of the pro-pedophilia organization, the North American Man-Boy Love Association.
A few conservatives have decided to bring up these unpleasant quotes. [See Gore Vidal, Milton Friedman, and...Teenage Hookers, By Nick Gillespie, Reason Magazine, August 1, 2012]But Vidal’s Leftist antagonists have found a much more serious accusation than sympathy for rape and pedophilia: racism and anti-Semitism.
worldview was fundamentally racist and elitist, motivated by the fear that the reign of his own caste was ending as the walls of aristocratic privilege crumbled in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. [Gore Vidal: Don’t believe the rosy obituaries—he was a racist and an elitist. August 2, 2012]
Greenberg revealed some of his own prejudices by complaining that Vidal was a “paradigmatic, almost stereotypical representative of the traditional American elite—WASP lineage, prep schools, money, connections.”
Greenberg went on to attack Vidal by proxy via his lineage, describing him as being in tradition of his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore, as one of those old Progressives who, in Richard Hofstadter’s words “become illiberal and ill-tempered” and started doing horrible things like “spearheading the fight for immigration restriction” and opposing American entry into World War II. (Had Greenberg bothered to do his homework, he could have mentioned that Vidal helped organize the Exeter chapter of the America First Committee).
The only real evidence outside Vidal’s bloodline of his “racism” was his notorious March, 1986 essay in The Nation “The Empire Lovers Strike Back.” Greenberg was particularly incensed by Vidal’s statement that
“For America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity. After all, the white race is the minority race and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don't band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.”
The sheer number of racist assumptions of that statement, from the notion of a white ‘race’ that would survive only through an exclusive solidarity to the crude stereotype of Asian hypercompetence, renders implausible any effort to explain it away as irony.
Had Greenberg bothered to do a bit more research before reacting (this seems to be a theme), he would have seen that that this was not “irony” because Vidal had very strongly expanded on these ideas in a piece for the London Sunday Telegraph, “Race Against Time” October 10, 1993 (Google Books) (more on that below.)
Greenberg concludes by psychoanalyzing Vidal’s motivations for writing his wonderful historical novels. Greenberg’s theory: after realizing that he would never match up to what Greenberg helpfully describes as “a troika of Jews” (namely Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, and Saul Bellow) as a polemicist, Vidal focused on writing about the Old Republic in order “to resurrect, or at least to preserve in amber, the mores of a vanishing WASP elite with which he always identified.”
Similarly, in a New Republic obituary entitled Where Have All Our Racist Aristocrats Gone?, liberal hawk Paul Berman focused on Vidal’s Nation piece as well as Race Against Time, which he described as a “Ku Klux Klan screed” and described Vidal as a “white-race anti-imperialist of 1898.”
So was Vidal a racist and an anti-Semite?
Both Greenberg and Berman rely almost solely on Vidal’s Empire Lovers piece as proof. Berman’s summary:
Then he turned to Norman Podhoretz, the editor in those days of Commentary, which was published, as he helpfully pointed out, by the American Jewish Committee. And he turned to Podhoretz’s wife, Midge Decter. These people seemed to him insidiously foreign. Podhoretz, in Vidal’s account, was “not planning on becoming an ‘assimilated American’”—as if Podhoretz were an immigrant in need of language training. Podhoretz and Decter and presumably their American Jewish Committee sponsors seemed to him an “Israeli fifth column,” intent on undermining the white race in the service of Israel. He quoted Decter remarking that Vidal disliked the United States, to which he replied: “Of course I like my country. After all, I’m its current biographer. But now that we’re really leveling with each other, I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel”—and so on.
What this omits is the context in which Vidal said Podhoretz was not assimilated. Describing a conversation he had once had with Podhoretz, Vidal wrote,
“Why,” asked Poddy, “are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” I explained to him that my mother’s family had fought for the Confederacy and my father’s for the Union, and that the Civil War was—and is—to the United States what the Trojan War was to the Greeks, the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic.
“Well, to me,” said Poddy, “the Civil War is as remote and as irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” I realized then that he was not planning to become an “assimilated American,” to use the old-fashioned terminology; but, rather, his first loyalty would always be to Israel.
Perhaps Vidal took a bit of a logical jump, but the fact that a self-appointed arbiter of American patriotism would consider the most seminal event in American history as a foreign event is a clear sign that Podhoretz was not assimilated—which means a lot more than “language training.”
As for the racism allegations, Vidal seems in fact to have been largely uninterested in racial issues. This perhaps is not sufficient to the Left—especially given his WASP lineage. Yet it is difficult to see him as being a “racist” even by liberal standards.
Thus in a speech on Pat Buchanan and Jerry Brown 1992 presidential campaigns , Vidal’s generally positive statements about Buchanan were tempered with the qualification that Buchanan “is a classic Archie Bunker type, seething with irrational prejudices and resentments.”
Vidal discussed Arthur Schlesinger’s liberal anti-multiculturalist essay The Disuniting of America,
Professor Pendulum [Schlesinger] is having a nervous breakdown because so many different tribes are being drawn to this sweet land of liberty and, thus far, there is no indication that any of the new arrivals intends ever to read The Age Of Jackson. I think the taking in of everyone can probably be overdone. There may not be enough jobs for very many more immigrants, though what prosperity we have ever enjoyed in the past was usually based on slave or near-slave labor.
On the other hand, I think Asians, say, are a plus culturally, and their presence tends to refocus, somewhat, the relentless white versus black war. Where I am as one with friend Pendulum is that the newcomers must grasp certain principles as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Otherwise, we shall become a racially divided totalitarian state enjoying a Brazilian economy. . [The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents, The Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, April 20, 1992:]
So much for a hatred of Asians.
Yes, it turns out that Vidal was concerned about the rising power of Japan and China relative to the West. But this does not seem a particularly extreme position. In fact, it seems to be something that both Republicans and Democrats are campaigning on right now.
Moreover, in his Empire Lovers piece, Vidal prefaced the comments about the white race banding together in the face of Asian hegemony by noting “The white race is a minority race with many well-deserved enemies.”
Yes, the notion that the white race should band together may be a heresy, but saying its enemies are “well-deserved” is not something you would expect from an unreconstructed racist.
Anyway, this discussion of race was really an aside in the Empire Lovers piece. I suspect that both Berman and Greenberg decided to focus on it to make it appear that they were not solely opposed to Vidal for his supposed anti-Semitism.
Vidal’s Race Against Time piece was even less objectionable to liberal sensibilities.
While promising to discuss immigration, Vidal only vaguely stated that there are not enough jobs to accommodate immigrants, but that he will “sidestep” what to do about it.
Vidal does envision something of a Northern alliance against the Orient, but not because he regarded the white race as something worth saving. Rather, he was strongly opposed to war, and thought that he could appeal turn the intractable sentiments of "football louts, continental skinheads, overwrought white American racists" towards something productive.
Vidal concluded that explicitly:
I regard race as nonsense, but most of the world feels passionately otherwise. In the unlikely event that the human race survives another millennium, there will be no white or black races, but combinations of the two, and of every other race as well. But for now, let us use this negative force for a positive end, and create a great northern peaceful alliance dedicated—if I may end up on a chauvinist American note—to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This is probably the first “Ku Klux Klan screed” to call for the amalgamation of the races.
Far from being a “racist,” Vidal seems to be pretty uninterested in race. However, this allowed him to entertain ideas—such as trying to channel racial nationalist sentiments towards causes he supported like non-interventionism—rather than scream about how evil racial nationalism is.
This indifference towards race, combined with his WASP lineage, and occasional criticism of Israel was sufficient to get left-wing Jews like Berman and Greenberg in a tizzy. However, he was never much of a racist.
Interestingly, Vidal’s much-denounced piece about Timothy McVeigh reports a similar distinction. The political class had made much about the fact that McVeigh had copied pages from self-proclaimed Nazi William Pierce’s white-insurrection novel The Turner Diaries. But Vidal quoted McVeigh’s prison psychiatrist Dr. John Smith who responded when asked if McVeigh said he was influenced by it:
Well, sort of. Tim wanted it made clear that, unlike The Turner Diaries, he was not a racist. He made that very clear. He did not hate homosexuals. He made that very clear. [The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh, Vanity Fair, September 2001]
Tellingly, Vidal, who had no problem acknowledging he was attracted to adolescent boys, was nonetheless afraid of endorsing a book that he knew would be denounced as “racist.”
A “nativist” and “bigot” should be made of sterner stuff.
Charles Bloch (email him) considers himself an unhyphenated American.