Saturday, October 3, 2009

Patriotic Gore

Gore Vidal first enjoyed the public gaze at age three when he became the first child to fly across the United States in a plane. He's enjoyed attention ever since. A preening, arrogant, articulate, intelligent, entertaining scold. A critic of almost everything Americans do or say or think, but a defender of our rights to be as stupid as we are, which makes him the most valuable kind of American: a troublesome patriot. I like Barbara Ehrenreich's line: "Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots." He and H. L. Mencken serve as bookends to the American sensibility, one left-wing, the other right, both discontented and contemptuous.

Gore Vidal was born on this day in 1925 in, of all places, West Point, New York. His mother was an actress and New York socialite. His father, a former West Point All-American quarterback, was the academy's first aeronautics instructor when Gore was born, and went on to direct FDR's bureau of air commerce in the Department of Commerce. Which is how the toddler wound up in a plane at such a tender age. At age 11 Gore was flying his own airplane in a Pathé newsreel. He fought in World War II and wrote a novel about it. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (provocative title) was daring enough to suggest that homosexuals were as normal as anybody else, which caused the New York Times to ban reviews of his next five novels. He was 22. He wrote the script for Ben Hur, became friends with Tennessee Williams and the Paul Newmans. In 1960 he ran for Congress––and lost. His most celebrated moment may have been his televised scuffle with William F. Buckley Jr. during ABC's coverage of the the 1968 Democratic Convention.

In the 1970s Vidal said this: "There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party...and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties." Thus proving he could be very right and very wrong in one paragraph, but always provocative and intelligent. In spite of everything, he always considered himself a conservative. If conservative means preserving what works, for instance a functioning and fair-minded government to serve public needs, then he probably is one, and so am I. Gore Vidal appears six times in A Book of Ages.

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