Word comes from the great state of California that Gore Vidal, literary politician, has once again transmogrified into Gore Vidal, professional politician. Matched against Jerry Brown and other beauties, Vidal will contend for the United States Senate seat now occupied by S.I. Hayakawa, who is retiring in order to devote more time to his naps.
Is this good news or bad for fans of Vidal’s writing, among whom I count myself? At first glance it would seem that we have here a source of sorrow. After all, it is likely that a victorious Vidal would proceed to dissipate his energies in debates over tax cuts, anti-abortion legislation, and subsidles for farmers, these high-minded concerns being, of course, a senator’s lot. On the other hand, a spell on Capitol Hill might serve in the long run to improve Vidal’s writing by rendering him so weary of public affairs that politics would never again putrify his prose.
Vidal the politician has always been Vidal at his worst, and the present collection of his essays offers additional evidence of this. In “The State of the Union Revisited,” for example, he reiterates his thesis that every President of the United States is, in fact, a retainer of the Chase Manhattan Bank. He refers to “Banksman Henry Kissinger” and “Banksman Jimmy Carter” and argues that the dying Shah of Iran was admitted to this country for medical treatment solely because “Banksman Carter” feared that the Shah would close his American bank accounts if denied entry. Indeed, says Vidal, the mediocrity of American politicians is mainly due to the machinations of the Chase Manhattan Bank. “The Bank prefers to keep the brightest Americans hidden away in the branch offices. The dull and the docile are sent to Congress and the White House.” Even Carl T. Rowan can do better than this.
Would a Senator Vidal rise above the rabble? Essayist Vidal, I fear, offers little encouragement. In “The Real Two-Party System,” he confesses that he does not vote, and in the book’s title essay Vidal forthrightly states what he believes to be the Senate’s purpose: “The Senate should be kept as a home for wise men, much like England’s House of life-Lords.” In other words, Senator Vidal would in all likelihood see it as his primary responsibility to stand up and say wise things about the Chase Manhattan Bank’s all-powerful role in American politics.
VIDAL ENTERTAINS OTHER statesmanlike notions. He thinks, for example, that we should switch to parliamentary government. “This would render it possible for the United States to have, for the first time in two centuries, real political parties. Since the parliamentary system works reasonably well in other industrially developed countries there is no reason why it should not work for us.” The only other country Vidal considers in this book is Italy, where he has maintained a home for several years and on which he meditates in “Sciascia’s Italy.” And how is parliamentary government faring there? According to Vidal, “Italy’s two great unloved political parties” operate in a society based on “moral anarchy,” which makes me wonder if our would-be senator has thought his proposal through.
Vidal is a champion of many causes. In an essay called “Sex Is Politics,” he undertakes an intellectual defense of homosexuality. It is one of his most peculiar performances – not because homosexuality is unworthy of intellectual defense, but because of the way Vidal goes about it. In defense of his point of view, Vidal traces antihomosexual sentiment back to Biblical times, in particular the book of Leviticus. He writes: “Leviticus was written either during or shortly after the Jewish exile in Babylon (586-538 B.C.). The exile ended when Persia’s Great King Cyrus conquered Babylon. Tolerant of all religions, Cyrus let the Jews go home to Jerusalem, where they began to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed in 586. Since it was thought that the disasters of 586 might have been averted had the Jews been a bit more strait-laced in their deportment, Leviticus was drafted.”
Is Vidal inventing history here? This is the first time I have seen it argued that one of the original five books of Moses was written in the Sixth Century B.C., rather than several centuries earlier, as is commonly assumed to be the case. Vidal declines to share his sources of information with us, and so I am doubly baffled to read, in the following paragraph, “In earlier days, Jonathan and David were much admired. Was their celebrated love for each other an abomination? Obviously not.” Is Vidal saying that the lives of David and Jonathan preceded the life chronicled in Leviticus? Or is he saying that the lives of David and Jonathan preceded the composition of Leviticus? In either case, this is news to me, and it must be news to an awful lot of Biblical scholars, too. On top of that, Vidal’s confident assertion that the love of David and Jonathan was “obviously not” an abomination would be news to Jonathan’s father, the late King Saul, whose disapproval is registered right there in the Bible, and can be read by everyone able to grab hold of a Gideon.
HE IS A VERY odd fish, this Mr. Vidal. Whatever doubts one might entertain about him, one must recognize his talent. Here in this book there are essays that are as fine as any written in recent years. There are charming pieces on screenwriting and on Frank Baum’s “Oz” books. There is an essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald which actually manages to say something fresh about F. Scott’s brief but infinitely belabored life. There is an essay on Christopher Isherwood in which the subject of homosexuality is treated gracefully and intelligently, without the propagandistic humbug that characterizes “Sex Is Politics.” And there is a superb meditation on Edmund Wilson where we find the following observation, so wise and true that it ought to be carved into Wilson’s gravestone, with copies distributed to every aspiring author in America: “To the end of a long life, he kept on making the only thing he thought worth making: sense, a quality almost entirely lacking in American literature where stupidity — if sufficiently sincere and authentic — is deeply revered, and easily achieved.”
One thing about Vidal: He is consistently most dubious when he is most preachy. For that reason I find myself finally wishing him well in politics. If elected, he could talk nonsense to his fellow senators, and, having got that out of the way, he could speak more sensibly to his readers, who, after all, cherished him first, and will cherish him last.
Mitchell S. Ross is author of The Literary Politicians and An Invitation to Our Times.