My only real interaction with the man was a review I wrote of his awful 2000 novel, The Golden Age, where he accuses FDR of setting up Pearl Harbor in a conspiracy to go to war with Nazi Germany. Yes, he was not just a 9/11 skeptic but a Pearl Harbor truther:
It is difficult to make a solid argument about America's imperial temptation when you willfully discount the darkening world that greeted the fledgling superpower in the 1930's and 40's. It is difficult to make an argument about American history when you write a novelistic account that makes grand claims about the American past, but then neither defends them by accountable historical methods nor disowns them as mere fiction.
Vidal wants it every which way. In fact, he wants to be Shakespeare (Vidal draws the analogy himself). ''Why do you keep letting Shakespeare leak in upon us?'' Peter asks late in the novel. ''Why not?'' is the answer. ''He gives names to things, real and unreal. He understands how the actors — the Roosevelts and the Trumans — are simply spirits and once their scenes are acted out, they melt into air, into thin air, as we shall presently do, still hankering after what was not meant to be, ever.'' But Roosevelt and Truman didn't melt into thin air. They were not invented; and they didn't live long enough ago to be turned into enduring myths. They lived lives and made choices that deserve fearless scrutiny, not snooty, cynical attack. And, by any reckoning, they helped make the world what it now is — a far freer, brighter place than anything concocted on the strange, orbiting planet called Gore Vidal.
He subsequently dismissed me as a foreigner and therefore unqualified to review his book (the most baldly nativist comment directed against me in a quarter century of living here). Vidal was also a fierce opponent of the gay rights movement in America, denying that homosexuality exists at all, a tic of his generation that he typically refused to relinquish in the face of overwhelming evidence. Then this, of course:
But I must say that his extreme hostility to the American Empire – sustained relentlessly through the decades – looks much less repellent to me than it did before Bush-Cheney. He ruined his case by exaggeration, and absurd moral equivalence. But he was surely onto something from the perspective of the 21st Century. And his willingness to court public outrage and disdain in defense of his ideas is a model for a public intellectual, it seems to me. As a historical novelist of the Roman past, he was superb – even peerless. No one can or would dispute his profound erudition. And his astonishing memoir, Palimpsest, is better than any writer has any business aiming for.
But he also, it seems to me, let his passions outweigh his reason more than a thinker as gifted as he was should. This emotionally turbulent quality seemed to me to be related to his woundedness as a brilliant scion forced by his homosexuality into a marginalization he learned to adorn with enormous style. He never, perhaps understandably, learned to let go of resentment. But this very rebelliousness was, in some ways, the flipside of a deep and romantic patriotism. You can never be that angry if you have never been that naive.
And that combination of love of country – and vein-bulging disgust with it – strikes me as related to his homosexuality, lived bravely in an era of cowardice. The displacement of being gay in a very straight world created a dynamic of rejection and longing that extended to more than a family. It extended to a country. And it was a bit of a show. He returned to the country he loved to die. And he will be buried, we are informed, in a grave next to his partner of many decades, whom he would doggedly refuse to call his husband:
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.