Gore Vidal After the Fact

by RON JACOBS

When considering left-leaning essayists in the United States of the past half century, three names stand out in my mind.  Alexander Cockburn, Andrew Kopkind and Gore Vidal.  Sure, there are others, but for me, these are the troika I prefer.  Kopkind has been gone for several years, while Cockburn and Vidal’s passage is considerably more recent.  Kopkind’s milieu was also further to the left than the other two writers, primarily because of when he wrote the bulk of his material: the 1960s and 1970s, then the United States had a militant and fairly large left-inspired movement and culture.  Cockburn certainly made a mark for himself, with his critiques of the mainstream media and his unrelenting anti-imperialist take on US foreign policy, especially when it came to Israel and the Middle East.  Vidal was closer to the liberal side of leftism and closer to the power elites that represented that dying segment of the US polity.

However, it was Vidal’s tongue, when antagonized, that dripped venom cloaked in a humor that left the target of his attacks clinging to mere shreds of dignity.  This is what made him so much fun to listen to and read.  Like anyone who was watching television during the Democratic Convention in 1968, I will never forget his interaction with the right-winger William F. Buckley, Jr.  Buckley’s attempts to bait Vidal with remarks concerning his sexuality were met barb for barb by Vidal, who finally let loose and called Buckley what he truly was: “a crypto-fascist.”  This exchange took place in a year that Vidal had already made a mark on with the publication of his novel Myra Breckenridge.

That novel is one of the subjects discussed in a newly-released collection of three conversations between Vidal and Nation editor Jon Wiener.  The book, simply titled I Told You So: Gore Vidal Talks Politics, includes four conversations with Vidal.  They are from (in the order they appear in the text) 2007, 2006, 2000, and 1988.  In addition to that novel, Wiener and Vidal also discuss Vidal’s septet of novels he called the Narratives of Empire.  This collection of works includes the novels Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, DC, and The Golden Age.  These novels not only chronicle the history of the United States, they do so in a manner that disrupts the conventional narrative and toss a number of national myths into the trash heap of history.  Vidal refused to call these novels historical fiction because, as he remarks to Wiener, that term “seems to cancel itself out.” Instead, he preferred to consider them as reflections on history.

This short book is full of what I can only call “Vidalisms.”  His sharp tongue is matched only by his perceptive abilities.  His description of the beginnings of the Cold War in the first conversation that appears in these pages is the most concise and comprehensible description I have ever come upon.  Simply stated, the linchpin of the two or three paragraphs Vidal speaks is his observation that after the atom bomb became viable, the United States made a conscious decision to “wage perpetual war for perpetual peace.”  According to Vidal, this decision was made by a very few men and locked the United States into the war-based economy and culture we live in today.  As he notes in another one of these conversations, the end of the Soviet enemy meant the creation of another, even more nebulous one: terrorism.

While Vidal’s observations may be standard currency among the US Left (such as it is) and other outside political forces like that antiwar libertarians and many anarchists, it is how he states those observations that always set him apart from the standard rhetoric found in those circles.  This little book does not disappoint in that regard.  In addition, because Vidal comes from the closest thing the United States has to aristocracy, his words tended to carry more weight in the media outlets that represent that aristocracy’s viewpoint.  For those in the hoi polloi, this membership through blood and his connections to the US upper crust provided a gateway into how that class actually functions.  Unlike the mainstream media, Gore Vidal never saw his job to be the protection of ruling class secrets.  Instead, he saw his duty as being one that ripped those secrets away.  These conversations about politics are a good introduction to Vidal fulfilling that described duty.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
July 28, 2015
Mark Schuller
Humanitarian Occupation of Haiti: 100 Years and Counting
Peter Makhlouf
Israel and Gaza: the BDS Movement One Year After “Protective Edge”
Eric Draitser
China’s NGO Law: Countering Western Soft Power and Subversion
Lawrence Ware
Why the “Black Church” Doesn’t Exist–and Never Has
Paul Craig Roberts - Dave Kranzler
Supply and Demand in the Gold and Silver Futures Markets
Carl Finamore
Landlords Behaving Badly: San Francisco Too Valuable for Poor People*
Michael P. Bradley
Educating About Islam: Problems of Selectivity and Imbalance
Binoy Kampmark
Ransacking Malaysia: the Najib Corruption Dossier
Michael Avender - Medea Benjamin
El Salvador’s Draconian Abortion Laws: a Miscarriage of Justice
Harvey Wasserman
Will Ohio Gov. Kasich’s Anti-Green Resume Kill His Presidential Hopes?
Cesar Chelala
Effect of Greece’s Economic Crisis on Public Health
Mel Gurtov
Netanyahu: An Enemy of Peace
Joseph G. Ramsey
The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left
George Wuerthner
Bark Beetles and Forest Fires: Another Myth Goes Up in Smoke
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode 4, a Bowery Ballroom Blitz
July 27, 2015
Susan Babbitt
Thawing Relations: Cuba’s Deeper (More Challenging) Significance
Howard Lisnoff
Bernie Sanders: Savior or Seducer of the Anti-War Left?
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma’s Profiteers: You Want Us to Pay What for These Meds?
John Halle
On Berniebots and Hillary Hacks, Dean Screams, Swiftboating and Smears
Stephen Lendman
Cleveland Police Attack Black Activists
Patrick Cockburn
Only Iraq’s Clerics Can Defeat ISIS
Ralph Nader
Sending a ‘Citizens Summons’ to Members of Congress
Clancy Sigal
Scratch That Itch: Hillary and The Donald
Colin Todhunter
Working Class War Fodder
Gareth Porter
Obama’s Version of Iran Nuke Deal: a Second False Narrative
Joshua Sperber
What is a President? The CEO of Capitalism
Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Politics of Coercion in Greece
Vacy Vlanza
Without BDS, Palestine is Alone
Laura Finley
Adjunct Professors and Worker’s Rights
Jon Langford
Mekons Tour Diary, Episode Three, Where We Thrill Everyone by Playing Like “Utter Bloody Garbage”
Weekend Edition
July 24-26, 2015
Mike Whitney
Picked Out a Coffin Yet? Take Ibuprofen and Die
Henry Giroux
America’s New Brutalism: the Death of Sandra Bland
Rob Urie
Capitalism, Engineered Dependencies and the Eurozone
Michael Lanigan
Lynn’s Story: an Irish Woman in Search of an Abortion
Paul Street
Deleting Crimes at the New York Times: Airbrushing History at the Paper of Record
ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH
Making Sense of the Iran Nuclear Deal: Geopolitical Implications
Andrew Levine
After the Iran Deal: Israel is Down But Far From Out
Uri Avnery
Sheldon’s Stooges: Netanyahu and the King of Vegas
David Swanson
George Clooney Paid by War Profiteers
ANDRE VLTCHEK
They Say Paraguay is in Africa: Mosaic of Horror
Horace G. Campbell
Obama in Kenya: Will He Cater to the Barons or the People?
Michael Welton
Surviving Together: Canadian Public Tradition Under Threat
Rev. William Alberts
American Imperialism’s Military Chaplains
Yorgos Mitralias
Black Days: August 4th,1914 Germany and July 13th, 2015 Greece
Jeffrey R. Wilson
“It Started Like a Guilty Thing”: the Beginning of Hamlet and the Beginning of Modern Politics