Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


Vidal, Mr Gore

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, you might recall that last night in the chamber I spoke about the life and work of Gore Vidal, who died on 31 July this year at the age of 86. Despite being a prolific novelist, satirist and autobiographer, most agree that it was in the essay that Vidal produced his greatest work. Like his hero Montaigne, the form suited his personality and purpose. Whereas the novel required Vidal to submit his voice to his characters, in the essay he could unashamedly put his intellect on display and let his personality permeate the page.

Publications like the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the Nation became outlets for his intellect and his art, mediums with the requisite intellectual rigour and relevance to allow him to comment on the events of the day. He wrote widely, humorously, intelligently but often maliciously. In 1982 a collection of his essays, The Second American Revolution, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In 1993 he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his collection United States: Essays 1952-1992.

And while Vidal was a lover—of literature and the life of the mind—he was also a tremendous fighter. Throughout his life he maintained a collection of famous feuds with other public figures. During the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, as protestors battled with police outside the amphitheatre, Vidal battled rhetorically with conservative commentator William F Buckley inside. Vidal called Buckley a 'crypto-nazi'. Buckley called Vidal a 'queer'. Norman Mailer was also a favourite target. They once met backstage at the Dick Cavett Show after Vidal had just written a scathing review of Mailer's latest book. An argument ensued in which Vidal got the better of his opponent. Mailer headbutted Vidal in frustration, to which Vidal responded with the quip, 'Once again, words failed Norman Mailer'.

But Vidal's interest in politics and public life was not purely academic. Not content to watch from the sidelines, he twice ran for national office. On the first occasion he ran as the Democratic candidate in New York's 29th District. He lost in what was a conservative stronghold, but he polled a respectable 43.3 per cent of the vote. He ran again in 1982 for the Senate nomination in the California Democratic Primary, running second to then Governor of California, Jerry Brown.

Vidal's politics were perhaps too complex for the machinations of modern democracy. For Vidal, intellectual freedom was synonymous with political sovereignty and so for him notions of left and right were irrelevant. As Kaplan wrote in his introduction to The Essential Gore Vidal:

… he embraced a conservatism so radical that to the conservatives he was no conservative at all. And his radicalism was so conservative, so rational, so much an expression of enlightenment utopianism, that to the doctrinaire radicals he was no radical either.

Vidal believed in the primacy of America's Constitution and Bill of Rights, and he shaped his politics accordingly. His fealty to these documents was born of a faith in the genius of America's founding fathers. He once argued:

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country—and we haven't seen them since.

Like his grandfather, he was a strict isolationist. That was a principal that shaped much of his critique of American foreign policy. As my colleague Senator Bob Carr wrote upon hearing of Gore Vidal's death:

He embodied an anti-imperial tradition that goes back to Mark Twain—representing an isolationist viewpoint that once ran deep in America. Gore Vidal believed no foreign war justified a single American life and this view was his fundamental political commitment.

Vidal's privileged heritage bequeathed to him an intimate knowledge of the institutions and characters of establishment America, and he used that knowledge to shine a light onto what he believed were the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of these institutions and individuals. In his novel Julian, the emperor, on attaining the emperorship, observes:

Wherever there is a throne, one may observe in rich detail every folly and wickedness of which man is capable, enameled with manners and gilded with hypocrisy.

Gore Vidal dedicated much of his writing life to uncovering the folly, wickedness and hypocrisy of the powerful. He did this with prose both brutal and beautiful. It is a loss for all of us that a writer of his flair, his wit and his clarity is no longer with us. Farewell, Gore Vidal.


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