I can’t remember exactly when my mother, of blessed memory, turned me on to Gore Vidal’s essays and historical novels, but it was probably at some point in the 8th or 9th grade (don’t get the wrong idea… I spent much more time watching tube and shooting hoops). So there I was watching two Jewish school basketball teams go at it, sitting courtside reading Vidal (can’t remember what).
One of the other fathers took note and complained to my dad, saying something like, “How can you let him read such an anti-Semite?”
All of these things flashed through my head earlier this week when I read about Vidal’s passing. First came the warm memories of bonding with my mother over Vidal’s writing — “America’s greatest essayist,” she insisted (I wouldn’t know, but she would) — and a smile at remembering her occassoinal suggestion that I take a year off from college or early adulthood to annotate his essays so that the cultural and political references would not be lost on future readers.
And then came the cringe … at the thought of checking the JTA website later in the day to find a news brief announcing Vidal’s death with not much to say other than the fact that Norman Podhoretz thought he was an anti-Semite of the first order.
In the end, no news brief turned up (is that better or worse?).
But I still spent much of the day thinking about that cringe and how we could note the dust-up with Podhoretz and Vidal’s harsh comments about American Jewish supporters of Israel without missing the bigger picture.
And by bigger picture, I don’t just mean losing sight of his literary genius. I also mean not misdiagnosing his brand of political extremism. He had over-the-line things to say about Israel’s supporters, but I think they were to some degree a symptom. He was an all-around political conspiracy nut who got nuttier with age, who spent much more time harping on the U.S. military industrial complex and the men and women in office who serve it, than he did railing against Israel and the Zionist lobby.
So what to write? I’ll leave it to Kyle Smith, who, over at The New York Post, pretty much nailed it — Vidal was gripped by “his unshakable faith in American culpability” and “was a creepy conspiracy crank who made Joe McCarthy look judicious” who would have “spent his final years as a laughingstock, if anyone was still listening to his toxic gibberish.”
… as we say of the defanged and deranged: That’s not him. It’s the disease talking. Vidal’s political self is a story of leftism metastasized. In memory, let’s surgically excise the tumors we can never forgive.
Literary Vidal was a figure of discernment and breadth and verve. His “hack work” included some of the script for “Ben-Hur,” his historical novels and plays were diverting and his cultural commentary galloped with life.
Dip into a collection such as his brick-sized “United States: Essays 1952-1992” — a book generous in its erudition and lustrous in its wit — and you may never dip out. “Who Makes the Movies?” is a merry look inside the sausage factory. “Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”? A classic of perverseness. “The Top 10 Best Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of Jan. 7, 1973”? Hilarious.
As Vidal once said of Montaigne,: “Time and again, one finds in his self-portrait one’s own most brilliant aperçus (the ones that somehow we forgot to write down).”
UPDATE: Writing at the Forward’s website, Benjamin Ivry tackles the allegations of anti-Semitism against head on. Sort of. Yes, it’s true that some of Vidal’s best editors were Jewish and some of his harshest Jewish-Israel stuff was written in response to the homophobic writings of right-wing Jewish journalists. But Ivry’s attempt to clear Vidal of the anti-Semtism charge would be stronger if he managed to pull it off while still sharing the worst of it with readers. Like this nugget cited by Podhoretz:
In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $3 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.