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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Brilliant, But Hated or Loved by Millions

By Tom Morrow

He was one of America’s brilliant authors, commentators, and philosophers. He was hated by half of those who knew him or read his work, and beloved by the other half who admired his commentary and written words. But, admire him or vehemently disagree with him, Gore Vidal was one of America’s great minds of the 20th Century.

Eugene Louis Gore Vidal, who was born on Oct. 3, 1925, was an American writer and public intellectual known for his patrician manner, wit, and polished style of writing.

His father was the first aeronautics instructor at West Point. He was born into a political family; his maternal grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, served as United States senator from Oklahoma. Gore Vidal himself was a Democrat, who twice sought elected office — first to the United States House of Representatives from New York in 1960, then to the U.S. Senate from California in 1982.

His father, Eugene Vidal Sr., was director (1933–37) of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Air Commerce during the Roosevelt Administration, and also was romantically involved with famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, to whom young Vidal grew very close.

During World War II, Vidal become a maritime warrant officer serving as first mate of a merchant ship berthed at Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Vidal began with the success of the military novel Williwaw, a men-at-war story derived from his duty during the War. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948) caused a moralistic furor over his dispassionate presentation of a young man coming to terms with a homosexual relationship. Vidal had to take on the pen name “Edgar Box” and wrote a series of mystery novels.

The Edgar Box novels sold well and earned then-black-listed Vidal a secret living. That mystery-novel success led Vidal to write in other genres and he produced the stage play, later a movie, The Best Man, about politics (1960). Vidal’s historical novels formed a seven-book series: Washington, D.C. (1967, Burr (1973), 1876 (1976), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990) and The Golden Age (2000).

Vidal explored the intricacies of power political and cultural. He described President, Ronald Reagan as a “triumph of the embalmer’s art. He said “Reagan’s provincial worldview, and that of his administration’s, was out of date and inadequate to the geopolitical realities of the world in the late 20th century.

The most notable and, at the time, volatile feud was between Conservative editor and writer William F. Buckley of National Review magazine and Vidal. In 1968, the ABC television network hired Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. as political analysts of both presidential conventions. Their commentaries led to Buckley threatening to assault Vidal on air.

After days of bickering, their debates degraded to vitriolic attacks. In discussing the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, the two intellectuals argued about protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag. Vidal told Buckley to “shut up a minute.”

The televised debate continued. “As far as I’m concerned, the only sort of pro-crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself,” said Vidal. Buckley replied, “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Their quarrel was interrupted by the ABC News anchorman-moderator Howard K. Smith and they returned to providing the political analysis and commentary for which they had been hired. Later, William F. Buckley said he regretted having called Gore Vidal “a queer” yet said that Vidal was an “evangelist for bisexuality.”

Buckley sued Vidal for libel; at trial, the judge said, that the “court must conclude that Vidal’s comments, in these paragraphs, meet the minimal standard of fair comment. The inferences made by Vidal, from Buckley’s earlier editorial statements, cannot be said to be completely unreasonable.”

Vidal remembered his nemesis William F. Buckley, Jr., who had died on Feb. 27, 2008. “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins, forever, those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”

The Buckley-Vidal debates, their aftermath and cultural significance, were the focus of a 2015 documentary film called Best of Enemies.

On July 31, 2012 Vidal died of pneumonia at his home in the Hollywood Hills at the age of 86. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, in Washington, D.C.

Domestic obituaries proclaimed “Gore Vidal Dies at 86,” “Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer.” The New York Times described him as “an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed – probably a true statement.

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