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.