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.