The most cunning, odious and successful of Gore Vidal’s provocations was surely a mid-career contribution to a special issue of The Nation in 1986, marking the magazine’s one-hundred-twentieth anniversary. The essay was called “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” and is best read today in conjunction with a previous Nation essay from the same year, “The American Empire Ran Out of Gas,” and a clarifying subsequent commentary in The Sunday Telegraph in 1993 called “Race Against Time,” all of which he went on to reprint in his essay collections, perhaps under different titles. His argument was a Ku Klux Klan screed.
Vidal was a champion of the white race. He worried that, because of American imperial overreach, the white race’s moment of world domination had come to an end. He believed that Tokyo had replaced New York City as the global capital of finance. World power had shifted from the white race to the “Asiatic colossus” and the “yellow man.” And he feared that, if the white race failed to rally, “we are going to end up as farmers—or, worse, mere entertainment—for more than one billion grimly efficient Asiatics.” The pronoun “we” referred, of course, to anyone among The Nation’s readers who identified with the white race and its past glories and future prospects—arguably, not too many people.
Vidal proposed that, in order to fend off the yellow man and the efficient Asiatics, the white race needed to form what he described in The Nation as a Russian-American alliance (and more fully described in The Sunday Telegraph as a “northern confederacy of Europe, Russia, Canada, the United States”—with the reference to a “northern confederacy” containing a veiled homage to the southern capital-C Confederacy of yore). Such was his opening thought in The Nation. Then he turned to Norman Podhoretz, the editor in those days of Commentary, which was published, as he helpfully pointed out, by the American Jewish Committee. And he turned to Podhoretz’s wife, Midge Decter. These people seemed to him insidiously foreign. Podhoretz, in Vidal’s account, was “not planning on becoming an ‘assimilated American’”—as if Podhoretz were an immigrant in need of language training. Podhoretz and Decter and presumably their American Jewish Committee sponsors seemed to him an “Israeli fifth column,” intent on undermining the white race in the service of Israel. He quoted Decter remarking that Vidal disliked the United States, to which he replied: “Of course I like my country. After all, I’m its current biographer. But now that we’re really leveling with each other, I’ve got to tell you I don’t much like your country, which is Israel”—and so on.
And The Nation published it!
The provocation was cunning because Vidal plainly understood that, in response to his outrageous essay, everyone was going to behave in precisely the way that he most preferred. And everyone did. Podhoretz screamed bloody murder on the cover of Commentary and at length in the inside pages, quite as if Vidal and The Nation had staged a pogrom. Podhoretz’s allies banged the drum on his behalf. Podhoretz’s critics on the democratic left, the editors and friends of Dissent magazine, myself among them, earnestly explained in one publication or another that Vidal had written a racist essay, as if this needed to be pointed out. The editor of The Nation in those days was Victor Navasky, who, having already performed one service for Vidal, dug himself deeper into the hole by publishing a subsequent defense which praised Vidal for “violating the taboo that forbids the discussion of the relationship of the American Jewish community to the state of Israel."
This was still more outrageousness, given that, even if legend has it that Jews stifle discussion, the discussion of America’s Jews and their relation to Israel had, by then, been noisy and contentious and entirely public for nearly a century, ever since the days of Louis D. Brandeis. Irving Howe, the editor of Dissent, took particular umbrage, if only because, at his own magazine, he had spent more than thirty years publishing endless discussions of precisely that one point. Not to mention whole sections of World of Our Fathers! How was it possible, wondered the editor of Dissent, that Victor Navasky, a decent and humane person, could possibly have written those foolish words? And Howe concluded that, at The Nation, the defense of Gore Vidal had been written, instead, by Uriah Heep. This, of course, was the point.
Vidal was surely serious, in his manner, about the white race and its Asiatic and Jewish enemies, as revealed by his subsequent enthusiasm for Timothy McVeigh and 9/11 conspiracy theories. But his purpose in writing these things was ultimately to bring about public demonstrations of his own aristocratic status. And this he achieved. The grandest of his triumphs naturally came at the expense of the editor of The Nation, whom he reduced to obsequious servility. But the red-faced hollering by the editor of Commentary, the fist-banging by the admirers of Commentary in other publications, the earnest distinctions offered by some of us on the democratic left in one publication or another, even the letters to the editor at The Nation—these, too, represented triumphs, from a standpoint like Vidal’s. For there was not a doubt in the world, once everything had been said and done, that all the other parties in the affair, in their servility or table-thumping fury or earnest indignation, hailed from humble regions of ordinary American life, and he alone dwelled in fabulous-land, where one is indifferent to the little niceties. This sort of attitude was, to be sure, the cause of the French Revolution.
I suppose that even Vidal’s admirers, the loyalists of the white race, would concede that his later provocations proved to be less effective. Vidal’s fate in later years was to descend as if into the zones of online advertising where you are supposed to click to find the answer to the question, “He said what?” Still, it has to be acknowledged that Vidal’s Nation tirades established a vein of modern political writing, which you could follow in later years through the columns of still other Nation writers, the late Alexander Cockburn and the late Christopher Hitchens (during the period before Hitchens admirably threw off the combined Vidal-and-Cockburn influence), with their habit of puzzling the left-wing masses in one publication or another by praising the virtues of the American militia movement or Marine Le Pen or the philo-Nazi historian David Irving. This was the world of red-brown hipsterdom, which, now that Vidal, too, has passed from the scene, appears to have been eclipsed for the moment in its English-letters version. But it survives and even flourishes in the turgid continental-philosophy version of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, and therefore will be flourishing for years to come in the American universities.
Are Vidal’s literary essays as wonderful as everyone says? I used to admire his appreciations of early twentieth-century writers such as Dawn Powell and Isabel Bolton, together with an essay on Edmund Wilson and one or two other pieces. When I look back on those essays today, they still seem to me have a virtue, for reasons faintly related to his ridiculous political views. Vidal served in the Second World War, but the lessons and meaning of the war and of America’s wartime achievements and failures passed him by, in favor of the lessons of the Spanish American War of 1898, when people really did speak about the white race and the merits and demerits of imperialism. Vidal the political thinker was a white-race anti-imperialist of 1898 (and since a good deal of classic Marxist theory comes from the same era, there will always be people who continue to mistake him for some kind of progressive).
But that same impulse to inhabit the past lends a charm to the literary essays, or at least to some of them. He wrote as if he were the last living contemporary of Henry Adams, the last person alive who could gaze upon American literature as the creative hobby of his own tiny social circle. So, yes, this is wonderful. Only, the failure to have registered the experience of his own generation came at a cost. Certain of his crackpot opinions he shared with Edmund Wilson, e.g., the belief that Pearl Harbor was a plot by Franklin Roosevelt. But Wilson did not arrive at his cranky opinions because he had failed to register the experience of the First World War. On the contrary. Something in Vidal’s tone strikes me as annoying, too, the chirping sound, the insistent cheerfulness. But then, it is to Vidal’s credit that he never claimed to be a man of deep emotion. He had the veneer of veneer, and this was his talent.