Here is a report from The New York Times of September 12, 1960, written from Poughkeepsie under the byline of Ira Henry Freeman:
Gore Vidal, Democratic candidate for Representative in the twenty-ninth Congressional District, sprawled barefoot in a gilded fauteuil of his luxurious octagonal Empire study as he considered the question whether he could win the election.
“If this were not a Presidential year, I might have a chance,” he said. “As it is, every four years, about 20,000 extra people crawl out of their Hudson Gothic woodwork up here to vote for William McKinley.”
Mr. Vidal is 34 years old, slender, smooth in dress and manner, bright, sharp, sophisticated. He looks like a juvenile lead and talks like Mort Sahl. “I say 80 per cent of what I think, a hell of a lot more than any politician I know,” he said.
Take out the proper name in that story, and who could fail to guess the subject’s identity? By then, he had written his first eight novels, two Broadway successes, and the screenplays for Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. According to the New York Times reporter, he had also written some speeches for President Eisenhower. That detail—I’m unsure of its provenance—might have thrown some people off the trail. Yet it is essential, in the understanding of Vidal, to know how conservative as well as how radical he can be.
Having been defeated in Dutchess County while outpolling the presidential leader of that ticket, Vidal was pressed by the party managers to try again. He was offered backing if he would contest the same House district, or perhaps if he would run for the Senate against Jacob Javits. Having scored a critical and commercial hit with his play The Best Man (still, in its celluloid form, the only enlightening movie ever made about an American party convention) and having outperformed JFK as a man of the people, Vidal evidently felt that he had squeezed the political lemon dry for that season, and told the emissaries from New York that he was off to either Athens or Rome, to write a novel about Julian the Apostate.
This could, in ordinary times, have been a reculer pour mieux sauter. There seemed to be space and leisure enough, for Julian and, perhaps, for a return to the fray on the part of Senator Gore’s grandson. But “Camelot,” as he would never have dreamed of calling it, was to be as ephemeral as it was tawdry, and the Republicans were to surpass his most sardonic predictions by nominating Barry Goldwater, and every law of unintended consequence was to combine to make 1964 a landslide year in which even Dutchess County, New York, went for the Democrats.
From a number of hints, scattered through his texts and footnotes, it is possible to intuit that Vidal has never quite forgiven himself or the Fates for this turn of events. Even the dullest imagination might feast for a moment or two on the might-have-been: Congressman Vidal, or even Senator Vidal, his blade flashing from its scabbard at the Tonkin Gulf resolution, or at the Chicago convention. If there sometimes seems to be a law—artfully adumbrated in The Best Man—that keeps intelligent or original men out of politics, there is no law that says that once in they have to leave. “I have a house in Italy and a house in the Hollywood Hills,” Vidal once told an interviewer, “so you could say that I don’t live in America at all.” Our most eminent literary émigré—or is it exile?—has, ever since Julian and Dutchess County, surveyed his native heath with a mixture of loyalty, resignation, anxiety, and satirical distance, in which mixture is compounded a small but crucial element of bitterness.
Vidal has another quarrel with the past, which lies deeper and even further from redress. In the storming of Iwo Jima in March 1945, his first love Jimmy Trimble was among the young men flung into the breach to die. The story was not told to Vidal’s audience until the publication of his memoir Palimpsest half a century later, though its combination of stoicism and sentiment had been prefigured in an essay the preceding year, where Vidal made elegiac use of the old torch song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” This junction of Eros and Thanatos with male bonding had also been strongly present through his thrice-rewritten postwar novel The City and the Pillar, where in one version Jim rapes Bob and in another kills him, but there were restraints upon confessional realism in 1948 (The New York Times neglected to take serious notice of Vidal’s work for a few years afterward). Having matured in the cask, so to say, the story is partly and more relaxedly retold in The Smithsonian Institution, with the emphasis this time on salvage and survival; nearer to the heart’s desire.
The hero and protagonist of the novel—its title almost pancake-flat, as if to disguise its ludic quality—is T. And T. (he always comes with this punctuation, as if to be twice capitalized) is a golden youth from St. Albans school in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1939. Innocent within and without, he has the gift of understanding the quantum and of producing mental simulacra in the field of relativity. He is thus both Trimble and Time. Italo Calvino once wrote of Vidal’s fantasy-fictions, which include Kalki, Duluth, and Live from Golgotha, that they were manifestations of “the hyper-novel or the novel elevated to the square or to the cube.” Not the least achievement of this apparently unstrenuous book is the way that it mobilizes several dimensions of space and time without losing its narrative thread, and contrives to deploy a historical sense in tandem with an awareness of physics and biology. Recent revelations about Jeffersonian DNA and the practicability of cloning are anticipated in the pages, which are a cocktail of magical realism, science fiction, and historical revisionism.
Hard to encapsulate? Not necessarily. Held in a time warp within the Smithsonian, T. is able to visit the past, to interview the waxwork assemblage of ex-presidents and first ladies, and to preview the future. It soon becomes evident that war is on the way, that this war will take his life, and that it—and everything else—will end with a nuclear detonation. The only way to avert all these undesirable outcomes is to derail the locomotive of history well back on its track. This in turn necessitates a judgment of taste as well as of mass—Which past president could we most do without? From a strong field of contestants—most entertainingly reviewed—T. does what I would have done and culls Woodrow Wilson. At one stroke, with some judicious blackmail, he removes the most sanctimonious and—high-mindedness notwithstanding—the most warmongering of the chief executives.
Contact with Princeton, New Jersey, furthermore, invites intercourse with Albert Einstein and allows Vidal full use of a wondrous and yet disturbing coincidence from his own biography—which is that, even as he was bidding farewell to Jimmy Trimble, he had left their old school St. Albans and moved to another in Los Alamos, New Mexico. (This establishment was also alma mater, if the term can be employed in such a connection, to William Burroughs.) Over the historical romp and political lèse-majesté is therefore superimposed the shadow of what we now call, though usually only when possessed or developed by others, “weapons of mass destruction.”
Connoisseurs will encounter some old Vidal favorites, distributed as markers in the labyrinth. Joseph Kennedy turns up, in the role of bootlegger to some American Indians (“Great Hyannis Hyena,” they call him). Benito Mussolini is rumored to be hiding out in “the Englewood, New Jersey area,” a frequent resort of Vidal’s when he wishes to poke fun at innocent but hirsute Italian-Americans. Mr. Lincoln is rescued from Ford’s theater and allowed to become a sort of resident Polonius. The Great Lingam of the Washington Monument receives its due propitiation. For the succulent whiteness of his skin, T. receives the nickname “Veal” from the waxwork Indians who come to life outside visiting hours, and one remembers the metaphorical stress that Vidal has often laid on this controversial dish. Counterintuitively, all the sex is both joyous and hetero, a blend found also in The Judgment of Paris but infrequently attempted elsewhere.
Lighthearted though the treatment may be, the novel is a frontal attack on the retrospective fatalism which makes us say World War I and World War II, and forget that the First was once called Great because it had no ensuing partner. Vidal is serious about stopping the Second, and not just for T.’s sake. He determines—first things first—that this involves preventing Mr. Wilson’s War. As a consequence, the “war clouds” still “gather” in 1939, but there is no Adolf Hitler on the scene. This might be described as the progressive use of anachronism. Also as a consequence—because Vidal has other loyalties from that period aside from Trimble—Colonel Charles Lindbergh, for example, whose Spirit of St. Louis is a centerpiece of the Smithsonian, resumes his place as an American patriot. While Franklin Delano Roosevelt, freed to fight only in the Pacific against the Emperor of Japan (and the Emperor’s American adviser, Lieutenant General Douglas MacArthur), makes plain his global ambitions in an address to all the ex-presidents. Roosevelt proposes a 90 percent corporate tax to fund the arsenal of democracy, not to say empire:
“Socialism,” said Coolidge. “Confiscation!”
“Don’t worry, Calvin. The corporations will get the money back—with interest—in government orders for more and more arms. Then there is the personal income tax. Never exactly popular. Mr. Lincoln got away with it in an emergency. But later the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional. Of course, we got it back again, but, as of last year, only ten percent of the workforce paid income tax, some four million returns. Drop in the bucket, my friends. Well, now, to finance the war, everyone will be paying….”
“How’re you gonna make them?” Coolidge was sharp.
“No problem. We have devised something called the withholding tax. We take the money out of their paychecks before they get them.”
When President Taft breaks in to say that this really would be confiscation and that the courts will never uphold him, Roosevelt replies serenely that “the courts I’m appointing will take a different view,” and that anyway America has “the whole world ahead of us to do, as Mr. Harding would say, business in.” President Grant proposes a vote to back the President from Hyde Park to the hilt.
In microcosm, then, The Smithsonian Institution revisits and refines several Vidalian tropes. There is, first, his long-held view that “entangling alliances” are death to republican virtue, and that they become domestic entanglements as well. This belief, that a warfare state may evolve into a domestic tyranny, was first set out at length in an essay published in the month of the first Kennedy assassination, and took the form of a review of Edmund Wilson’s polemic of that year, The Cold War and the Income Tax. Discussing the half-buried tradition of American tax-resistance (also present in his tribute to Daniel Shays and the whiskey rebels), Vidal noted:
The line between Thoreau and Poujade is a delicate one. Yet it is perfectly clear that it must one day be drawn if the United States is not to drift into a rigid Byzantine society where the individual is the state’s creature (yes, liberals worry about this, too), his life the property of a permanent self-perpetuating bureaucracy….
Vidal claims that it was he, and not Milton Friedman, who first coined the satirical line about the symbiosis between state planning and corporate power: “Socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.” The line to note above, however, is about another kind of line—the one that separates Thoreau from Poujade. In his polemics against empire and interventionism and the overmighty state, Vidal has been careful to avoid the paranoid school: the old gang who used to cry that “FDR knew” about the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ones who referred to the President as “Frankie Rosenfeld” and who now cluster sadly around the memory of Harry Elmer Barnes and other occult practitioners of the nation’s “hidden” history. (He has never, to my knowledge, written anything about the more respectable and even less fashionable Charles and Mary Beard, whose work fell under a different sort of intellectual ban because they were out of step with the American Century; this is an omission one would love to see him someday repair.) In the same essay, though, he referred approvingly to Edmund Wilson as “something of a cultural America Firster.” This is an early sounding of a note that was to get him repeatedly into trouble, and that continues to do so. In The Smithsonian Institution, this note is defiantly resumed in the affectionate portrait of Lindbergh, to which I want to recur later.
The other essential and familiar elements in the novel are Vidal’s heterodox view of Abraham Lincoln; his tendency to overestimate the Japanese; his contempt for stay-at-home patriots; his interest in the historical role of first lady; and his belief—derived as much as anything from Lucretius and De Rerum Naturum—that nature and philosophy, and the relation between atoms and infinity, are much fitter studies, and greatly more awe-inspiring and respect-deserving, than any religion.
In selecting for his Vidal “reader,” which serves as part prelude to his forthcoming authorized biography, Professor Fred Kaplan has enforced a distinction between Vidal the fabulist, Vidal the novelist and screenwriter, Vidal the historian, and Vidal the essayist. His choices are excellently made, and are partitioned by well-wrought passages of introduction from both editor and author. The interest and pleasure, though, derive largely from the blending effect, from what Vidal (who never attended any university) would certainly scorn to call the multicultural or the interdisciplinary. As he puts it here in a dismissive review of some overlong and overrespectful biography of Truman, there was a time when historians knew they were also composing literature. The corollary—why should not a littérateur be writing history?—would have been obvious before the age of specialization overtook us. Even as it was, Vidal was able in his Lincoln to offer a portrait with background of “The Ancient,” to speculate with profit (and with evidence) about his racial and sexual attitudes, and to provoke a Historikerstreit among the academics of the post-Sandburg school, from which he emerged with distinction.
Here is the closing stave of Kaplan’s selection from the novel. Lincoln has survived an attempt to impeach him—for violating the law and the Constitution in the matter of habeas corpus—but not an attempt to assassinate him:
“I have been writing, lately, about the German first minister.” Mr. Schuyler was thoughtful. “In fact, I met him at Biarritz last summer when he came to see the emperor. Curiously enough, he has now done the same thing to Germany that you tell us Mr. Lincoln did to our country. Bismarck has made a single, centralized nation out of all the other German states.”
Hay nodded; he, too, had noted the resemblance. “Bismarck would also give the vote to people who have never had it before.”
“I think,” said Mr. Schuyler to the princess, “we have here a subject—Lincoln and Bismarck, and new countries for old.”
“It will be interesting to see how Herr Bismarck ends his career,” said Hay, who was now more than ever convinced that Lincoln, in some mysterious fashion, had willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.
The implication could not be plainer—the unum comes at the expense of the pluribus, and war is the health of the state, and the cost is often not counted. In Lincoln John Hay is the secretary to “The Ancient” and the constant companion of John Nicolay. By the time of Empire, published only three years later, in 1987, he is teamed up with Henry Adams and the “wounds” of the War Between the States are being heartily bound up by a joint all-American expedition against Cuba and the Philippines.
He was Colonel Hay just as the President was always Major McKinley. But the President had actually seen action under his mentor, Ohio’s politician-general Rutherford B. Hayes, whose own mentor had been yet another politician-general, James Garfield, and Hay’s dear friend, as well…. Now, of course, all the political generals from Grant to Garfield were dead; the colonels were on the shelf; and the majors had come into their own. After them, no more military-titled politicians. Yet every American war had bred at least one president. Who, Hay wondered, would the splendid little war—oh, fatuous phrase!—bring forth? Adams favored General Miles, the brother-in-law of his beloved Lizzie Cameron. Lodge had already declared that Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila was equal to Nelson’s at Aboukir. But of course Lodge would support McKinley, who would be reelected; and so there would be no splendid little war-hero president in the foreseeable future.
Thus does Vidal slyly prepare the entrance of his least favorite character, the prancing figure of “Teddy” Roosevelt. His evocation of political culture in Washington, sustained now through seven novels, depends upon a high skill in depicting two sorts of personage—the sinuous and flattering courtier and the military-imperial braggart, the latter often being more of a secret sissy than the former. Note that in his recommendation of Edmund Wilson Vidal characterized the military-commercial nexus of state power as “Byzantine”: he was in the midst of composing Julian when he wrote that.
Julian, which is his literary masterpiece in my opinion, takes place in the world of fourth-century Romanism, when the capital has been moved by the Christian convert Constantine to Constantinople. Julian’s cousin Constantius has succeeded Constantine. As pictured by Vidal, the vicious court oscillates between intriguing eunuchs and boastful tyrants who believe in the domino theory of empire:
“The empire is big. Distances are great. Our enemies many…. I mean to hold the state together. I shall not sacrifice one city to the barbarians, one town, one field!” The high-pitched voice almost cracked.
And here, for comparison purposes, is Brooks Adams trumpeting the murder of McKinley and the ascension of “TR” in Empire:
“Teddy’s got it all now! Do you realize that he occupies a place greater than Trajan’s at the high noon of the Roman empire?” Brooks, like his brother, never spoke when he could lecture. “There has never been so much power given a man at so propitious a time in history! He will have the opportunity—and the means—to subjugate all Asia, and so give America the hegemony of the earth, which is our destiny, written in stars! Also,” Brooks came to earth with a crash, “today is a day of great importance to Daisy and me. It is our wedding anniversary.”
“History does seem to have us by the throat,” said Lizzie mildly.
Brooks Adams really did speak—and write—like that: the near-Wildean bathos is, however, furnished by the author.
The occluded hero of Julian is the Greek philosopher Libanius, who rejects the regimentation and superstition of Christianity (Julian refers to Christian churches as “charnel-houses” for their disgusting practice of keeping moldering remains as objects of veneration) and who wants to keep open the schools of disputation. He helps narrate the story of what emerges as the last battle to preserve the sunlit ancient world.
Vidal’s nostalgia for the polytheistic or pagan Mediterranean has been a constant since his boyhood reading, and rivals that of Mary Renault in its fidelity to period and texture. But it usually avoids the vulgarity of romanticism; does not repeat the Christian error of imagining an ideal state before the fall. In Creation he takes a very detached and sometimes caustic view of fifth-century Athens—the golden age itself—by adopting the perspective of a sightless envoy named Cyrus, giving what Robert Graves in another connection called “the Persian version.” Cyrus is a descendant of Zoroaster and has voyaged to India and Cathay and seen the roots of Tao, Confucius, and Buddha. There is, to him, something provincial and coarse about Athens:
It is my view that despite the basic conservatism of Athenian people when it comes to maintaining the forms of old things, the essential spirit of these people is atheistic—or as a Greek cousin of mine pointed out not long ago, with dangerous pride, man is the measure of all things. I think that in their hearts the Athenians truly believe this to be true. As a result, paradoxically, they are uncommonly superstitious and strictly punish those who are thought to have committed impiety.
Iconoclast as he may be, Vidal does not imagine that the breaking of idols is a sufficient or necessary condition of emancipation. There is much to be feared from zeal of all kinds, especially the puritan variety. Interestingly enough, he does not follow Mary Renault and other writers in making the ancient world a location for the polymorphous perverse. He merely takes note of the fact that sexual love between men and men or women and women was not, in that formative period of “Western” civilization, considered either abnormal or profane.
The proselytizing for—maybe I should say his justification of—intersexuality is reserved for his modern entertainments and his essays. In Myra Breckenridge (I still feel for poor, straight, violated Rusty sometimes) he introduces a phrase which often recurs and which he employs as an all-purpose satire on monogamy and on same-sex discipline: “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.” As Myra thoughtfully puts it, exploring the implications of this offer:
It is curious how often the male (and sometimes the female) needs to think of those not present in the act. Even with Myron, I was always imagining someone else, a boy glimpsed at Jones Beach or a man observed briefly at the wheel of a truck or sometimes (yes, I may as well confess it) a slender blonde girl that used to live in the brownstone next door.
In his 1966 essay “Pornography” (not reprinted here) Vidal opened one of the most polished of his reflections on masturbation—a topic on which he’s been out front and done the hard thinking for all of us—by writing:
The man and the woman make love; attain climax; fall separate. Then she whispers, “I’ll tell you who I was thinking of if you’ll tell me who you were thinking of.”… For those who find the classic positions of “mature” lovemaking unsatisfactory yet dare not distress the beloved with odd requests, sexual fantasy becomes inevitable and the shy lover soon finds himself imposing mentally all sorts of wild images upon his unsuspecting partner, who may also be relying on an inner theater of the mind to keep things going; in which case those popular writers who deplore “our lack of communication today” may have a point.
And in 1991, in a piece of sparkling pedagogy which is collected by Kap-lan (“The Birds and the Bees”), Vidal reviewed the current literature on sexual fantasy and concluded, in an image of indelible and electrifying gruesomeness:
Actually, the percentage of the population that is deeply enthusiastic about other-sex is probably not much larger than those exclusively devoted to same-sex—something like 10 percent in either case. The remaining 80 percent does this, does that, does nothing; settles into an acceptable if dull social role where the husband dreams of Barbara Bush while pounding the old wife, who lies there, eyes shut, dreaming of Barbara too.
And here is another topic on which our author has done some hard thinking: the tricky concept of first lady. He was a confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt. He was stepbrother to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon and Rosalynn Carter were, in sooth, not his type, though I like to think he might have hit it off with game old Betty Ford. But, picking up the thread, about Nancy Reagan he was always deft and perceptive. From observing her, and from an understanding of her Hollywood background, he guessed early what few observers—and almost no intellectuals—ever allowed themselves to believe, namely that this devoted couple was White House-bound. (“The Late Show,” September 1968, his report on the Republican National Convention). And now—having advised Jerry Brown during the 1992 primaries—he has emerged as a defender of Hillary Clinton. Some may prefer to see, in this alliance, an attempt to thwart any premature accession by the distant cousin Al Gore, whose warm connection to the editor of The New Republic is seen as fetid and ominous from the Ravello standpoint. Or it may be, as Vidal put it in a recollection of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1971, that
It is a curious fact of American political life that the right wing is enamored of the sexual smear. Eleanor to me: “There are actually people in Hyde Park who knew Franklin all his life and said that he did not have polio but the sort of disease you get from not living the right sort of life.”
The left wing plays dirty pool, too, but I have no recollection of their having organized whispering campaigns of a sexual nature against Nixon, say, the way the right wing so often does against liberal figures.
Or—to be scrupulously fair—the way that Vidal himself made a guess about Nixon in The Best Man (“When I based the character of the wicked candidate in the play on Richard Nixon, I thought it would be amusing if liberal partisans were to smear unjustly that uxorious man as a homosexual”). Later in the same very moving essay—Mrs. Roosevelt had been among his champions in the Dutchess County campaign in 1960, and shared his own reservations about what he calls the Holy Family from Hyannisport—he recounts:
She was also indifferent to her own death. “I remember Queen Wilhelmina when she came to visit during the war” (good democrat that she was, nothing royal was alien to Eleanor) “and she would sit under a tree on the lawn and commune with the dead. She would even try to get me interested in spiritualism but I always said: Since we’re going to be dead such a long time anyway it’s rather a waste of time chatting with all of them before we get there.”
This of course was written before the current First Lady confided to a therapist friend that she sometimes “channeled” Eleanor Roosevelt from the private quarters. And before Vidal himself wrote, of that same Eleanor’s husband:
Certainly, he hurt her mortally in their private relationship; worse, he often let her down in their public partnership. Yet she respected his cunning even when she deplored his tactics.
Vidal shows the same gallant curiosity in his historical fictions, making rather a subject out of the distraught Mrs. Lincoln for example, and even showing President McKinley in a more human light for his indulgence toward Clara, whose face had to be covered with a napkin during spasms of petit mal in mixed company, and whose unscripted irruptions into conversation are rendered drily in Empire as familiar signs that “her unconscious had joined the party.”
Professor Kaplan’s careful selection avoids repetition, and it is in any case one of Vidal’s achievements as a writer that he can recur to a favored subject many times without repeating himself. Three Vidalian commitments seem to undergird what he writes on any topic. The first is the curse of monotheism: enemy of pleasure and foe of rational inquiry. The second is the blight of sexual stereotyping. (He insists that acts, not persons, are homo- or heterosexual.) The third is the awful temptation of America to meddling and blundering overseas: imperialism, to give it the right name.
This Trinity sometimes becomes One in his polemics, and is the reason why Vidal has often been pelted with dead dogs by certain critics. In two major public combats with the spousal team of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, Vidal has asserted that an uncritical pro-Israeli allegiance supplies some of the advocacy for US interventionism, and also that ancient moral creeds from primitive Palestinian sects are at the root of much of our libidinous discontent. This version of the Trinity has exposed him to his own private screening of Live from Golgotha. Not to mince words, he has been accused of the unpardonable offense of anti-Semitism: a charge of which no decent or serious person can even be suspected.
This accusation is, in my opinion, malicious as well as nonsensical. (One might try a brief thought-experiment: Vidal has written for years about an unelected and secretive “permanent government” in Washington. Almost all those he cites—many of them from personal acquaintance or experience—are from what used to be termed the WASP establishment.) Vidal knows as well as anybody else, better than most in fact, that most American Jews are liberal on foreign policy matters and moreover opposed to theocracy in both Israel and the United States. When literal Mosaic precepts are thundered today, they come carefully packaged as Judeo-Christian.
No true admirer should press caution or restraint on Mr. Vidal (it would be to miss the point, somehow), but for this admirer that leaves only one quarrel unresolved. It concerns some aspects of isolationism. And this returns us to the ambivalent figure—featured positively in both the fiction and the nonfiction—of Charles Lindbergh.
Vidal’s fealty here is not in the first instance a political one: his adored father was an inaugurator of American civil aviation (the essay to consult in this collection is entitled “On Flying,” and remains one of his best-observed glimpses of Americana, as well as a rather fine and unembarrassing evocation of filial love). In the pioneer winged cohort of the interwar years (that gray area again), “Lindy” was someone to tip your hat to. However, successor generations have learned to think of Lindbergh and “America First” as protofascist. And here is how Vidal approached the question when reviewing Scott Berg’s excellent biography of Lindbergh in the Times Literary Supplement last October:
In a notorious speech at Des Moines in 1941, he identified America’s three interventionist groups: the Roosevelt administration, the Jews and the British. Although the country was deeply isolationist, the interventionists were very resourceful, and Lindbergh was promptly attacked as a pro-Nazi anti-Semite when he was no more than a classic Midwestern isolationist, reflective of a majority of the country. But along with such noble isolationists as Norman Thomas and Burton K. Wheeler, not to mention Lindbergh’s friend Harry Guggenheim’s foundation, the “America First” movement, as it was called, did attract some genuine home-grown fascists who would have been amazed to learn that there was never a “Jewish plot” to get the United States into the Second World War. Quite the contrary. Before Pearl Harbor, as Berg notes, “though most of the American motion-picture studios were owned by Jews, most were virtually paranoid about keeping pro-Jewish sentiment off the screen.” Also, Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, confided as late as September 1941 to the British Special Operations Executive agent Valentine Williams “that for the first time in his life he regretted being a Jew because, with the tide of anti-Semitism rising, he was unable to champion the anti-Hitler policy of the administration as vigorously as he would like, as his sponsorship would be attributed to Jewish influence by isolationists and thus lose something of its force.”
Everything stated above is uncontroversial, and could probably have been put with even more emphasis. But there is an elision of which Vidal seems unaware. If Hollywood studios and New York publishers, neither of them exactly divorced from the pulses of public opinion, were so impressed by the anti-Semitic element in isolationism as to fall into a defensive or reticent posture, then one must ask: At whose expense is this supposed irony? Where did “the tide” come from? When Vidal says “quite the contrary,” he is saying correctly that there was no Jewish plot. But his supporting evidence is that there was no Jewish plot because even the most Establishment Jews were in real dread of anti-Semitic populism. This won’t do as an acquittal of “America First.”
But nor will it do as an insinuation of prejudice on the part of Vidal. I once came almost to tears in an argument with him about Bosnia. He lives much nearer Sarajevo than most Americans, and can also tell the difference between Dacia and Dalmatia, yet nothing would persuade him that such a crisis was any business of the United States, or had not somehow been overstated by the pundits of the Committee for the Free World, or On the Present Danger. It would have been otiose to accuse him of anti-Muslim bigotry, just as (to take up the missing term in Lindbergh’s triad of “enemies within”) it would have been absurd to accuse Vidal of harboring anti-English feeling in 1941.
The ironic mode is Vidal’s métier, and for all I know he has felt ironic nudges from history ever since graduating from short to long pants at Los Alamos, and then becoming a sailor on the Arctic front of an imperialist war that was nonetheless fought for freedom. Certainly he knows the least tinge of irony when he sees it. Richard Nixon, when asked to what use he would put the auditorium in his dreadful presidential “library,” said that it should be employed to reenact “great debates like—oh, Vidal and Buckley.” This of course delights our author. But here, too, the irony is reciprocal. When Vidal and Buckley almost grappled in Chicago, and exchanged views on appeasement, fascism, faggotry, anti-Semitism, they were at least momentarily obliged to overlook, even to forget, the main thing they had in common, which was their families’ feeling for the “America First” tradition.
It is perhaps some unresolved confusion on this score, even now, that causes Vidal to reprint his least prescient essay (“The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas,” 1986), in which the flag of the Rising Sun is again hoist, this time in the sign of the triumphant yen, not merely over Mount Suribachi and the hecatombs of Iwo Jima but over the Federal Reserve. Could it be that émigré/exile status sometimes prompts a slight, overcompensating twinge of the provincial?
But Gore Vidal’s real debt is not to any nativist counterpart like William Jennings Bryan or even—specialized affinities to one side—Charles Lindbergh. If he were “only” an American, he could have imbibed from the wells of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, commingling and contradicting both at once. Like Twain and Mencken, hostile to empire and especially sulphurous about the missionary element. Like Twain but unlike Mencken, warm toward the Southern states and their odd, durable patrimony. Like Mencken and unlike Twain, a protector and patron of neglected or fragile reputations (Dawn Powell, Thornton Wilder). Like both Twain and Mencken, contemptuous of both Old and New Testaments.
Yet Vidal is inescapably cosmopolitan. A cosmopolitan within America—early Southern exposure, at home in Washington, D.C., likewise on the Hudson, in Hollywood, on Broadway, even briefly at Hyannisport—and also a cosmopolitan in the customary sense of assimilation and ease in London, Rome, Paris. (There is even, in Palimpsest, the merest suggestion of a Sephardic and Venetian trace in his line.) Dutchess County, even when a rising tide was lifting all Democrats, would have been too small a compass for this versatility. So indeed might Washington have been. These losses are our gain: a writer standing at an acute angle to his subject, and making imperishable sentences as well as—no less a pleasure, one suspects—passing and pronouncing them.
April 22, 1999