Hitchens on ‘Vidal Loco’

August 1, 2012 at 8:21 am (conspiracy theories, intellectuals, Jim D, libertarianism, literature, perversity, terror, Troothers, United States)

Gore Vidal, essayist, novelist, political commentator, contrarian and patrician socialite, has died.


Above: portrait taken in 1978 of Gore Vidal for the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s what his one-time friend and admirer Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in February 2010 (later included in Hitchens’ last book, Arguably).  As will become apparent, Hitchens had long since fallen out with Vidal, mainly over the latter’s increasingly deranged and conspiracy-driven view of the world after 9/11. It is far from being a fully-rounded picture but – frankly – by 2010 Vidal thoroughly deserved such a demolition job. Enjoy:

What has happened to Gore Vidal, the witty, tough-minded subversive of American letters, the 20th century’s only possible answer to Oscar Wilde? After 9/11, the author laments, Vidal’s writings took a graceless lurch toward the crackpot, surpassing even the wilder-eyed efforts of Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, and providing a miserable coda to his brilliant run.

More than a decade ago, I sat on a panel in New York to review the life and work of Oscar Wilde. My fellow panelist was that heroic old queen Quentin Crisp, perhaps the only man ever to have made a success of the part of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Inevitably there arose the question: Is there an Oscar Wilde for our own day? The moderator proposed Gore Vidal, and, really, once that name had been mentioned, there didn’t seem to be any obvious rival.

Like Wilde, Gore Vidal combined tough-mindedness with subversive wit (The Importance of Being Earnest is actually a very mordant satire on Victorian England) and had the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones. Like Wilde, he was able to combine radical political opinions with a lifestyle that was anything but solemn. And also like Wilde, he was almost never “off”: his private talk was as entertaining and shocking as his more prepared public appearances. Admirers of both men, and of their polymorphous perversity, could happily debate whether either of them was better at fiction or in the essay form.

I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong. One was made aware, too, that he suspected Franklin Roosevelt of playing a dark hand in bringing on Pearl Harbor and still nurtured an admiration in his breast for the dashing Charles Lindbergh, leader of the American isolationist right in the 1930s. But these tics and eccentricities, which I did criticize in print, seemed more or less under control, and meanwhile he kept on saying things one wished one had said oneself. Of a certain mushy spiritual writer named Idries Shah: “These books are a great deal harder to read than they were to write.” Of a paragraph by Herman Wouk: “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” He once said to me of the late Teddy Kennedy, who was then in his low period of red-faced, engorged, and abandoned boyo-hood, that he exhibited “all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal.” Who but Gore could begin a discussion by saying that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”? In an interview, he told me that his life’s work was “making sentences.” It would have been more acute to say that he made a career out of pronouncing them.

However, if it’s true even to any degree that we were all changed by September 11, 2001, it’s probably truer of Vidal that it made him more the way he already was, and accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant. If you look at his writings from that time, thrown together in a couple of cheap paperbacks entitled Dreaming War and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, you will find the more crass notions of Michael Moore or Oliver Stone being expressed in language that falls some distance short of the Wildean ideal. “Meanwhile, Media was assigned its familiar task of inciting public opinion against Osama bin Laden, still not the proven mastermind.” To that “sentence,” abysmal as it is in so many ways, Vidal put his name in November 2002. A small anthology of half-argued and half-written shock pieces either insinuated or asserted that the administration had known in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington and was seeking a pretext to build a long-desired pipeline across Afghanistan. (Not much sign of that, incidentally, not that the luckless Afghans mightn’t welcome it.) For academic authority in this Grassy Knoll enterprise, Vidal relied heavily on the man he thought had produced “the best, most balanced report” on 9/11, a certain Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, whose book The War on Freedom had been brought to us by what Vidal called “a small but reputable homeland publisher.” Mr. Ahmed on inspection proved to be a risible individual wedded to half-baked conspiracy-mongering, his “Institute” a one-room sideshow in the English seaside town of Brighton, and his publisher an outfit called “Media Monitors Network” in association with “Tree of Life,” whose now-deceased Web site used to offer advice on the ever awkward question of self-publishing. And to think that there was once a time when Gore Vidal could summon Lincoln to the pages of a novel or dispute points of strategy with Henry Cabot Lodge …

It became more and more difficult to speak to Vidal after this (and less fun too), but then I noticed something about his last volume of memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, which brought his life story up to 2006. Though it contained a good ration of abuse directed at Bush and Cheney, it didn’t make even a gesture to the wild-eyed and croaking stuff that Mr. Ahmed had been purveying. This meant one of two things: either Vidal didn’t believe it any longer or he wasn’t prepared to put such sorry, silly, sinister stuff in a volume published by Doubleday, read by his literary and intellectual peers, and dedicated to the late Barbara Epstein. The second interpretation, while slightly contemptible, would be better than nothing and certainly a good deal better than the first.

But I have now just finished reading a long interview conducted by Johann Hari of the London Independent (Hari being a fairly consecrated admirer of his) in which Vidal decides to go slumming again and to indulge the lowest in himself and in his followers. He openly says that the Bush administration was “probably” in on the 9/11 attacks, a criminal complicity that would “certainly fit them to a T”; that Timothy McVeigh was “a noble boy,” no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower; and that “Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war” by inciting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. Coming a bit more up-to-date, Vidal says that the whole American experiment can now be described as “a failure”; the country will soon take its place “somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs”; President Obama will be buried in the wreckage—broken by “the madhouse”—after the United States has been humiliated in Afghanistan and the Chinese emerge supreme. We shall then be “the Yellow Man’s burden,” and Beijing will “have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport.” Asian subjects never seem to bring out the finest in Vidal: he used to say it was Japan that was dominating the world economy, and that in the face of that other peril “there is now only one way out. The time has come for the United States to make common cause with the Soviet Union.” That was in 1986—not perhaps the ideal year to have proposed an embrace of Moscow, and certainly not as good a year as 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt did join forces with the U.S.S.R., against Japan and Nazi Germany, in a war that Vidal never ceases to say was (a) America’s fault and (b) not worth fighting.

Rounding off his interview, an obviously shocked Mr. Hari tried for a change of pace and asked Vidal if he felt like saying anything about his recently deceased rivals, John Updike, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer. He didn’t manage to complete his question before being interrupted. “Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist, too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.” One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second. Oh, just in closing, then, since Vidal was in London, did he have a word to say about England? “This isn’t a country, it’s an American aircraft carrier.” Good grief.

For some years now, the old boy’s stock-in-trade has been that of the last Roman: the stoic eminence who with unclouded eyes foresees the coming end of the noble republic. Such an act doesn’t require a toga, but it does demand a bit of dignity. Vidal’s phrasings sometimes used to have a certain rotundity and extravagance, but now he has descended straight to the cheap, and even to the counterfeit. What business does this patrician have in the gutter markets, where paranoids jabber and the coinage is debased by every sort of vulgarity?

If Vidal ever reads this, I suppose I know what he will say. Asked about our differences a short while ago at a public meeting in New York, he replied, “You know, he identified himself for many years as the heir to me. And unfortunately for him, I didn’t die. I just kept going on and on and on.” (One report of the event said that this not-so-rapier-like reply had the audience in “stitches”: Vidal in his decline has fans like David Letterman’s, who laugh in all the wrong places lest they suspect themselves of not having a good time.) But his first sentence precisely inverts the truth. Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted—I have the correspondence—and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character—a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.

I don’t in the least mind his clumsy and nasty attempt to re-write his history with me, but I find I do object to the crank-revisionist and denialist history he is now peddling about everything else, as well as to the awful, spiteful, miserable way—“going on and on and on,” indeed—in which he has finished up by doing it. Oscar Wilde was never mean-spirited, and never became an Ancient Mariner, either.

[NB: for a more charitable view, here’s the New York Times obit – JD]



  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    When Hitchens wrote about Vidal, of course, he was truly writing about himsef.

  2. Mick O said,

    No mystery here. Oscar Wilde didn’t get old. Vidal did.

  3. Jim Denham said,

    William F Buckley v Gore Vidal; a highly unpleasant encounter between two highly unpleasant characters:

  4. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Like so many of us in these dismal twilight years of civilisation Vidal just lived too long – if he had been lucky enough to die in say 1997 he would have been saved what appear to be 15 years of personal pain and loss and left a far stronger reputation behind.

    And I am not talking about his increasingly deranged politics – as I argue every opportunity I get if there is any relationship between the quality of a writer’s work and the acceptability of his (and I am afraid it is almost always a his) political views it is usually a strongly inverse one.

    Just take the two volumes of his autobiography – Palimpsest from 1995 is quite simply superb – 2006’s Point to Point Navigation shows a truly tragic decline in his creative powers.

    And then there is miserable culmination of the great cycle of American history novels that began with Washington DC in 1967 took us looping back to Burr and 1876 and Lincoln and Empire and Hollywood and then came back full circle with the abysmal Golden Age in 2000.

    Above all he seems to have lost the mordant humour (physical decay and watching everyone and everything you love die slowly and painfully tends to do that….) that generated the endless fees from chat shows that kept him in luxury for so many years.

    Still you’ve got to love a man who knowing his arch-enemy Norman Mailer always looked first at the index of any non-fiction volume that might conceivably mention him put in the index of a book of essays: Mailer, Norman – Hi Norm!

  5. Rosie said,

    What Mick O & Roger say about his old age rings true to me. If he’d stopped writing and being interviewed when he was 70, he would have left a good body of work and a better reputation behind him. His powers and self-control failed. I wonder what Hitchens would have been like if he’d lasted till 86?

    My favourite Vidal story is when Mailer took a swing at him, and he said, “Lost for words again, Norman?” or “Words failed you again?” Dunno if that’s apocryphal or not

  6. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Amidst some extraordinary flights of idiocy this Martin Amis interview did tackle the central problem of writers who even if they do not live too long certainly write too long:

    ‘Failure is much more interesting than success. And we’re sort of biologically locked in to decline. I interviewed Graham Greene for his 80th birthday, and I said—incredibly impertinently, it now seems—well, at least you’ve got religion. You’ll be needing that, soon.

    And he said, oh, no. My faith is much weaker than it used to be. Faith is a talent, and it goes the way of all your talents. Getting old is the subtraction of your powers. Which very much goes for writing. And the writer in decline is a contribution of medical science—it didn’t used to come up, because they’re all dead. Dickens at 58, Shakespeare at 52, Jane Austen at 41. Didn’t used to come up. But now you have 80-year-old novelists. And it’s self-evident that the grasp and the gift erodes—you can see it in various ways. In Updike it was the ear that went. Those reliably melodious sentences just dried up—schoolboy inadvertencies crept into his later prose that just wouldn’t have been there earlier on. I don’t see many exceptions to that rule’.


    Which does however link to one of the bigger idiocies of the interview – the assertion that it wasn’t their shared vice of smoking that killed Hitchens but the hospitals that treated him.

    I am now wracking my brains for great novels (or indeed great anythings) written by 80+ year olds.

    Possibly Hadji Murat might qualify but that’s all I can come up with.

  7. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,


    For once link URL says it all.

    And much as I enjoy Vidal’s historical novels it is astonishing how utterly absent the poor are from them – 1876 for instance completely ignores the fact that during that election year something not far short of a savage race war was being perpetrated in the South as Reconstruction was coming to an end.

    Which is the Vidal problem to a tee – for Vidal the enemy was not poverty or injustice but the political corruption his idealised Populist grandfather was elected to the Senate to fight in the 1890s.

    With his political prism ground out in his grandfathers study where the young Vidal would read to the blind old man before escorting him to the Senate to vote like some beautiful ephebe leading Homer to the agora the world could change again and beyond all recognition – but all Vidal could ever see was the same hereditary enemy – the ‘wrong’ elite that was ruling Washington and had prevented the country from becoming the enlightened aristocratic Elysium intended by the Founding Fathers.

    And it is this ressentiment (which is also sublimated in the novels which are seemingly not about modern America at all – he mocked himself for finding Nixon and Kissinger on the banks of the Ganges in Creation) which gives his best novels a peculiar power – due to his very peculiar upbringing he just CARES about Lincoln and Burr and the result of the 1876 election in a way which I don’t think any other historical novelist ever approaches or can ever approach again.

  8. Alfred said,

    I appreciate, cause I found exactly what I was looking for.
    You have ended my 4 day long hunt! God

    Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: