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Gore Vidal, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 1, 2012

The writer, raconteur, political commentator  and talk-show favorite has died. The New York Times obit is here. A Washington Post piece is here. I am  a longtime fan of his writing, especially his Washington novels (I remember "1876" in particular as a breathtaking read). His essays, in their certainty and elegance (it seems that one can't talk about Vidal without dropping an "elegant" or two), would turn on opposing arguments and swat them, vigorously, as pesky things that were in Vidal's way.

 For that matter, it seemed that Vidal often viewed people like the villains in "Superman II" -- strange creatures, generally beneath him; I can imagine Vidal in his dry way saying "like pets." I remember about a decade ago, Vidal appeared on press tour for a PBS program. It was nominally a question-and-answer session, but a single answer might go on far longer than an armload of questions. Our obligation, it was clear, was to listen to Vidal, to follow the roll of his words, the flow of his ideas. He might acknowledgment disagreement but swat, swat, away it went. -- in a mostly entertaining fashion.

Vidal, after all, rarely forgot that part of his obligation was to entertain, that one could slip ideas into people more readily if they were involved in your stories and characters. In one of his novels, he debunks Davy Crockett when, in a brief appearance, Crockett is brought to raunchy, plainspoken life. Vidal's play and later movie "The Best Man" remains a trenchant view of American politics because Vidal put the ideas in the frame of story and the dialogue in the mouths of vivid characters. Characters, to be sure, not far removed from real ones. But Cliff Robertson's performance in the film remains one of his best not because he is so close to being the real Richard Nixon but because the fictionalized Nixon is so strong on the screen -- and even stronger when set opposite Henry Fonda, and more words from that side.

For Vidal believed in the power of words, specifically his words, and woe to anyone who failed to acknowledge their wonder.

In his memoir "Palimpsest, Vidal writes that his play, "Visit to a Small Planet," in its screen version featured "Jerry Lewis at his awesome worst," not least because from the play "he had only kept the title." (Note the precision of "only kept" instead of "kept only." We could spend a very long time here looking at Vidal's language. And  Lewis -- whose skills were more in keeping with silent film -- would not have respected Vidal's words because he didn't care about anyone's.) Still, Vidal, he adds that because his play was not used, "the text was promptly cannibalized by other writers" for "My Favorite Martian," "Mork and Mindy," the first "Superman" movie and the screen version of "The Mouse That Roared."

"The final coup was the inclusion of the television play in a tenth-grade textbook; thus the  story passed into the subconscious of an entire generation, a number of whom now make movies, and in their works, I enjoy, wistfully, bits of my old play," Vidal wrote. Of course, there is ego and exaggeration at work here, but that was part of Vidal's self-justification -- and his belief that a good story need not be entirely factual. His claims about "Ben-Hur," and especially the supposed homoerotic subtext of one scene, have been disputed by other principals. Vidal, in "Palimpsest," acknowledges the dispute but stands his ground -- swat, swat, little Oscar-winning flies, swat, swat.

As I said, I have read Vidal for years: because he was smart, because he involved the reader (even if that involvement took the form of spirited disagreement), because there were always ideas flying, characters maneuvering, history coming alive, politics to argue. He's not coming off my bookshelves anytime, either. Now, go watch "The Best Man" again.


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