By Peter Z. Scheer
I remember Gore Vidal like a Bond villain. He was sitting on the edge of his bed in that same big house in the Hollywood Hills where he died Tuesday night. Holding on to a glass of whiskey with one hand, he used the other to stroke a giant white cat with an angry mouth and a cloudy gray eye. He called it “pussy.” Of course he did.
I was there to record the great man with the booming voice while he read his latest Truthdig essay. We had done this before, but I got the impression that my arrival had disturbed him and I was anxious as I fumbled with my equipment. He was a pro with Southern grace and diction that could dent a microphone, but he chose that day to fuck with me. Rather than read his own words as written, Gore kept going off script, eyeballing me and smiling every time I ruined the recording by laughing nervously at his improvisations. The audio was unusable, but the great man had his fun and that mattered much more to him than the godforsaken hits we might generate with a podcast. That was four years ago.
We met in person again a few months ago at a fundraiser for Dennis Kucinich. Gore ad-libbed a speech praising the French, which made me oddly nostalgic for the old fights of the Bush years. He was stuck in a wheelchair and it was the first time in a half-dozen encounters I saw his hand without a glass of something brown in it. I walked up to him and said, “I’m not sure you remember me.” He shot me a wicked smile and I laughed.
I was not laughing in 2008 while editing Gore’s latest contribution to Truthdig. It was a vicious takedown of William F. Buckley. The only problem was that Buckley had just died. Gore called his old nemesis a “dishonorable American,” and also attacked Buckley’s “brain-dead son Christopher” and the “tired hacks” of Newsweek magazine, which had written an obituary that offended the great man.
I was working from Paris in Gore’s beloved France with my Truthdig colleague Kasia Anderson. We were both shocked by the piece, and debated whether we could publish it. One does not speak ill of the dead, let alone the dead’s children. It was late at night and we held a global conference call with the home office. Ultimately we reasoned that in life or death, Gore had a right to hate Buckley, who, acting the bigot and the brute, outed him during a nationally televised debate in 1968. We would not censor him.
Now, four years later, Gore follows his enemy into the abyss. And do people have a right to hate him back? Sure, maybe. But to hell with them if they couldn’t take it and pity them if they didn’t see it coming.
Gore Vidal was rich, famous and born into power. He learned about the ruling class as a boy, guiding his blind senator of a grandfather around Congress. He once asked me during a recording session how “Cousin Al” was doing. I thought it was a joke that went over my head. I did not realize that he was referring to his literal cousin, Al Gore, who was campaigning at the time on climate change.
Despite these gifts, Gore Vidal spent most of his life attacking the establishment. Maybe it’s because he was, as Buckley put it, a queer, born into power but also a secret society of misfits unwelcome in Congress or West Point.
In Gore’s 1968 novel “Myra Breckinridge,” his title character uses her queerness aggressively—manipulating, seducing, raping. It’s a comedy.
Gore was aggressive. He wrote a novel in 1946 (published two years later) which, Wikipedia records, “is recognized as the first post-World War II novel whose openly gay and well-adjusted protagonist is not killed off at the end of the story for defying social norms.”
He would, himself, defy, though with class as often as teeth. The copy editors at Truthdig had to brush up on their Latin because a commenter objected to Gore’s translation in a piece he wrote for Truthdig. (The great man was appalled at this news and he was ultimately proved correct.)
I don’t feel sad for Gore Vidal today. He lived to 86 and he had the kind of life people ask Santa Claus for. It was not without hardship, loss or suffering, but he leaves behind great works and a million smiles. If anything, I feel sad for my country, which lost one of its truest patriots.
Gore was a veteran of World War II. He knew war and had witnessed too many. A student of history, he struggled to tolerate America’s strange regression in the new millennium. His best work for Truthdig was his recurring condemnation of George W. Bush, whom he referred to as “our weird little emperor.” He wrote in one article that “W.’s love of torture and the death penalty suggests that this is Caligula Redux, but actually he is a home-grown Romulus Augustulus,” the emperor who presided over the collapse of Rome. In another essay, Gore compared Bush to the biblical Jonah, who brings a storm down upon a ship until he is thrown overboard: “In any case, with one voice let us say, ‘We’ve had enough of you. Go home to Crawford. We’ll help you raise the money for a library, and you won’t ever have to read a book.’ ”
Gore had to witness a great torrent of hogwash in the last dozen years, but even in his wheelchair, ever the soldier, he faced it, showing up here and there to speak, write and defy.
In whatever direction America is headed, its progress can at least be measured in the fact that it is now commonplace, not controversial, for gay characters to defy social norms without getting killed off at the end. They die instead of old age, with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Ave atque vale.
Gore Vidal in 1974.