Stop Eulogizing Gore Vidal: He Was a Racist and an Elitist

The history behind current events.
Aug. 2 2012 11:41 AM

Stop Eulogizing Gore Vidal

He was a racist and an elitist, forever mourning the decline of his era of aristocratic privilege. 

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The Heartland conservatism that became these men’s philosophy—and Gore Vidal, we should recall, described himself as a conservative—aimed to insulate America from the corrupting cosmopolitan influences of Europe and beyond. Its most vile exponents, such as the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, opposed World War II on the grounds that Hitler’s war was none of America’s concern. Others followed the spirit of Jefferson’s famous warning to avoid “entangling alliances.” Some, notably Lindbergh, blamed American Jews for railroading the nation into war. Others saw dark conspiracies in Pearl Harbor, which they said was Roosevelt’s connivance, foisted on a peace-loving nation.

Vidal himself espoused both of these views. In an interview with Bob Edwards several years ago, he sputtered that Philip Roth, whose Plot Against America describes a dystopian wartime United States under a President Lindbergh, was unfair to the isolationist aviator. Later, in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, he effectively laid blame for Pearl Harbor at Roosevelt’s feet.

In the demonology of Vidal and his not-so-progressive Progressive forbears, Jews in particular loomed large. Vidal’s anti-Semitic rants frequently insinuated that Jews were un-American, more loyal to Israel than the United States. The most notorious of these pieces, “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” ran in the The Nation on March 22, 1986, and achieved what many would have thought impossible: arousing sympathy for Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. It was the kind of piece that should give pause to those who ritually deny that anti-Zionism is rooted in anti-Semitism; it should be read in full. Describing the Podhoretzs as propagandists for Israel (“in its never-ending wars against just about everyone … a predatory people”), he cast Podhoretz, who was born in the United States, as someone who would never become “an ‘assimilated American,’ to use the old-fashioned terminology.” Addressing Decter, he declared, “I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel.”

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But Jews were hardly the only target of Vidal’s ire. The same piece in The Nation that slandered the first couple of neoconservatism included an astonishing pair of sentences about what Vidal, again channeling Henry or Brooks Adams, saw as the decline of the West. “For America to survive economically in the coming Sino-Japanese world, an alliance with the Soviet Union is a necessity,” he wrote. “After all, the white race is the minority race and if the two great powers of the Northern Hemisphere don't band together, we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.” The sheer number of racist assumptions of that statement, from the notion of a white “race” that would survive only through an exclusive solidarity to the crude stereotype of Asian hypercompetence, renders implausible any effort to explain it away as irony.

At some point in his career, Vidal seemed to realize he would never rank among the literary titans of the postwar age—an age that would belong to others, including Bellow, Roth, and Mailer, a troika of Jews. Politically marginalized, literarily confined to the second or third tier, Vidal turned to historical novels, where he distinguished himself as an able practitioner, while remaining heavy-handed in his politics. (He also attempted writing some works of actual history, but they drew scant attention.) Vidal’s embrace of the past, too—he called himself, grandiosely, America’s biographer—can be seen as a rearguard action. In the career he settled for, he would seek to reclaim a past after the present had passed him by—to resurrect, or at least to preserve in amber, the mores of a vanishing WASP elite with which he always identified. For all his radical posturing, it was but one more way that he was, in a deep sense, a conservative.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.