The obituaries are coming in, and as usual they are filled with the trite things Americans are obsessed with: Gore Vidal’s sexuality, his “coldness,” his feuds, his quips. Andrew Sullivan is typical – and isn’t that typical – in ascribing what he views as Vidal’s flaws to his lack of support for gay marriage and his “anti-American” utterances. Commentary magazine celebrated the great man’s death by posting Norman Podhoretz’s interminable rant, first published in 1986, accusing Vidal of … yes, you guessed it: anti-Semitism. The evidence? Describing Podhoretz and his wife Midge as “Israeli fifth columnists,” a charge that, in retrospect, seems more like an undeserved compliment: after all, a “fifth columnist” is something like a spy, a profession that hinges on the clandestine, but Poddy’s big mouth – which he opens at every opportunity – has hardly made a secret of his allegiances.
Aside from Vidal’s disdain for the kind of identity politics that gives a nonentity a hook on which to hang his bonnet, Sullivan is appalled by what is perhaps Vidal’s most interesting book. The Golden Age dramatizes the fascinating historical research published in Thomas E. Mahl’s Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44. Mahl’s 1998 book is based on declassified documents that tell some of the story of how British intelligence agents permeated the political and social elites in Washington and New York, pushed a reluctant “isolationist” America into war – and put us on the road to empire.
Sullivan, still the loyal subject of Her Majesty the Queen, is horrified by this, but it’s not just the British angle that sets Andy’s skirts aflame – it’s the very idea that anyone in their right mind would question the official history of our entry into World War II. In Sullivan’s world, this makes him a “Pearl Harbor truther.” To the historian, however, who isn’t just a court historian – and to the serious person, as opposed to court jesters of Sullivan’s ilk – this makes him that most exotic of creatures: a truth-seeker. Rarer than unicorns in our media-driven propaganda-drenched Twitterverse, the loss of this one marks a turning point in American intellectual history – a downturn, to be sure. As I put it in my 2001 review of The Golden Age:
“Gore Vidal is a member of what seems to be a nearly extinct fraternity: the American novelists of ideas. When he goes, who is left – and what hope is there that someone will breach the walls of political correctness meant to keep his kind out forever?”
His enemies understood him, which is why they hated him – and couldn’t help admiring him. The neocons hated him because he was a formidable opponent of their imperial project: they never forgave him when he called them out for their treasonous tribalism. The liberals, who thought he was one of them, were made increasingly uneasy by his public utterances, as detailed in this very perceptive account of Vidal’s career by Michael Lind, who describes his attendance at a speech by Vidal given at the Woodrow Wilson Center in the late 1990s:
“Soon I found myself as uncomfortable as the other members of the auditorium audience, when, during his speech, Vidal launched into what sounded like a defense of Timothy McVeigh, the far-right would-be revolutionary whose bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil before the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. While not exactly condoning McVeigh, Vidal told us that a violent reaction was inevitable, given the way that the federal government was oppressing American farmers.
“I could sense that others in the audience shared my disquiet. The farmers? What the hell is he talking about?”