Commentary Magazine


Topic: Gore Vidal

Vidal, Buckley, and Anti-Semitism

Earlier this week, the chattering classes honored the passing of author Gore Vidal with the sort of praise due to a great figure of literature, including a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Yet even the Times had to admit he was more of a celebrity than a great writer. I’ll confess that I found some of his historical novels entertaining even though they are thinly disguised polemics and generally bad history. Interestingly, his play, “The Best Man,” seems to have some staying power even though it is something of a time capsule about the way presidential nominating conventions used to work but never will again. Perhaps it is because the two protagonists of the piece fit neatly into liberal pop-culture stereotypes about politicians with the play’s principled but weak-willed liberal facing off against a despicable, conspiracy-theorist of a conservative who is, of course, a closeted homosexual.

It is also notable that all the appreciations of Vidal never fail to mention his memorable face off with William F. Buckley when ABC employed the two as guest commentators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The event, now widely celebrated as a sort of intellectual battle of the titans in a long past golden age of wit, was the conceit for a piece by Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus published yesterday. Though they were open in their contempt for each other, Tanenhaus believes Vidal and Buckley were two sides of the same elitist patrician coin. What’s more he sees the fact that both were supporters of the isolationist “America First” movement as a sign that they had more in common that they or most of their readers thought. But Tanenhaus misses the point about this commonality. Buckley’s youthful embrace of Charles Lindbergh did not prevent him from standing up against anti-Semitism during his career and being the man who almost single-handedly ran Jew-haters out of the modern conservative movement. By contrast, as Norman Podhoretz wrote in his classic COMMENTARY essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” Vidal became a leading purveyor of vile anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and Israel.

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Earlier this week, the chattering classes honored the passing of author Gore Vidal with the sort of praise due to a great figure of literature, including a front-page obituary in the New York Times. Yet even the Times had to admit he was more of a celebrity than a great writer. I’ll confess that I found some of his historical novels entertaining even though they are thinly disguised polemics and generally bad history. Interestingly, his play, “The Best Man,” seems to have some staying power even though it is something of a time capsule about the way presidential nominating conventions used to work but never will again. Perhaps it is because the two protagonists of the piece fit neatly into liberal pop-culture stereotypes about politicians with the play’s principled but weak-willed liberal facing off against a despicable, conspiracy-theorist of a conservative who is, of course, a closeted homosexual.

It is also notable that all the appreciations of Vidal never fail to mention his memorable face off with William F. Buckley when ABC employed the two as guest commentators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The event, now widely celebrated as a sort of intellectual battle of the titans in a long past golden age of wit, was the conceit for a piece by Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus published yesterday. Though they were open in their contempt for each other, Tanenhaus believes Vidal and Buckley were two sides of the same elitist patrician coin. What’s more he sees the fact that both were supporters of the isolationist “America First” movement as a sign that they had more in common that they or most of their readers thought. But Tanenhaus misses the point about this commonality. Buckley’s youthful embrace of Charles Lindbergh did not prevent him from standing up against anti-Semitism during his career and being the man who almost single-handedly ran Jew-haters out of the modern conservative movement. By contrast, as Norman Podhoretz wrote in his classic COMMENTARY essay, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” Vidal became a leading purveyor of vile anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and Israel.

That Tanenhaus would play up the Lindbergh connection while playing down his Jew-hatred, which he mentions only in passing and even then as an allegation that “some said,” shows a shocking lack of perspective on these two figures. He sees them as a pair of haughty aristocratic idealists who were:

Battling not so much the other as the distorted image of himself that his opponent represented. The terms they haughtily flung at each other were those other critics sometimes applied to them, only in reverse — Buckley, whose arch mannerisms were sometimes mocked as effete; Mr. Vidal, whose disdain for American vulgarity was tinged, some said, with anti-Semitism and dislike of the “lower orders.”

Vidal and Buckley had somewhat similar starting points as teenagers backing a movement whose neutrality about the Nazis fed in part on similar attitudes toward Jews. But though Buckley may have, as Tanenhaus notes, remembered his teenage isolationism with some affection in his 1976 novel Saving the Queen, surely it is far more important to understand that he transcended the politics of his youth with respect to the crucial question of anti-Semitism. Buckley not only successfully ousted the John Birchers from conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s but also brushed back colleagues Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan when they sank into the same anti-Semitic mire more than a generation later.

Yet Vidal never escaped the conspiratorial hate that gripped him in his youth. Indeed, it seethed within him and distorted much of his work. That Tanenhaus thinks this to be insignificant tells us all we need to know about the way the literary establishment is willing to forgive any sins committed in the name of liberalism.

In a week when the U.S. State Department issued an International Religious Freedom Report that noted the “rising tide of anti-Semitism” around the globe, the distinction between the conservative who fought Jew hatred and the liberal who embraced it seems more crucial than ever.

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Gore Vidal and “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name”

On Tuesday, Gore Vidal died at the age of 86. In response to readers’ requests, we have made available Norman Podhoretz’s famous essay on Vidal, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Originally published in the November 1986 issue of COMMENTARY, the piece exposes both Vidal’s hatred for Israel and his steadfast enthusiasm for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Jews.  

The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Norman Podhoretz — November 1986

Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal entitled “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” which impressed me and many other people as the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II. The Nation is a left-wing (or, some would say, a liberal) magazine run by an editor, Victor Navasky, who is himself Jewish. Yet one reader (who happened not to be Jewish) wrote in a personal letter to Navasky that he could not recall encountering “that kind of naked anti-Semitism” even in papers of the lunatic-fringe Right which specialize in attacks on Jews; to find its like one had to go back to the Völkische Beobachter. Nor was he the only reader to be reminded of the Nazi gutter press. “I thought I was back in the 30′s reading Der Stürmer,” wrote another.

Actually, however, it was not the crackpot racism of Julius Streicher that Vidal was drawing on, but sources closer to home. Prominent among these, I would guess, was Henry Adams, about whom Vidal has written admiringly and with whom he often seems to identify. Adams, as a descendant of two Presidents, was a preeminent member of the old American patriciate—the class to which Vidal also, if somewhat dubiously, claims to belong—and his resentment at the changes which came over the United States in the decades of industrialization and mass immigration after the Civil War knew no bounds. The country was being ruined, and Adams blamed it all on the Jews: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” It made no difference that J.P. Morgan was neither Jewish himself nor in any sense a representative of the Jews. For as Adams wrote in another of his letters: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.”

Click here to read “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name” in its entirety.

On Tuesday, Gore Vidal died at the age of 86. In response to readers’ requests, we have made available Norman Podhoretz’s famous essay on Vidal, “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Originally published in the November 1986 issue of COMMENTARY, the piece exposes both Vidal’s hatred for Israel and his steadfast enthusiasm for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Jews.  

The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Norman Podhoretz — November 1986

Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal entitled “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” which impressed me and many other people as the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II. The Nation is a left-wing (or, some would say, a liberal) magazine run by an editor, Victor Navasky, who is himself Jewish. Yet one reader (who happened not to be Jewish) wrote in a personal letter to Navasky that he could not recall encountering “that kind of naked anti-Semitism” even in papers of the lunatic-fringe Right which specialize in attacks on Jews; to find its like one had to go back to the Völkische Beobachter. Nor was he the only reader to be reminded of the Nazi gutter press. “I thought I was back in the 30′s reading Der Stürmer,” wrote another.

Actually, however, it was not the crackpot racism of Julius Streicher that Vidal was drawing on, but sources closer to home. Prominent among these, I would guess, was Henry Adams, about whom Vidal has written admiringly and with whom he often seems to identify. Adams, as a descendant of two Presidents, was a preeminent member of the old American patriciate—the class to which Vidal also, if somewhat dubiously, claims to belong—and his resentment at the changes which came over the United States in the decades of industrialization and mass immigration after the Civil War knew no bounds. The country was being ruined, and Adams blamed it all on the Jews: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” It made no difference that J.P. Morgan was neither Jewish himself nor in any sense a representative of the Jews. For as Adams wrote in another of his letters: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.”

Click here to read “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name” in its entirety.

Read Less