Gore Vidal was a celebrated American author who wrote more than twenty novels, five theatrical plays, numerous screenplays, and over two hundred essays and articles. He was also a vehement critic of the United States, one who accused his own country of being the primary purveyor of violence around the world.
Vidal was born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, Jr. in West Point, New York on October 3, 1925. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve. Influenced by the isolationist views of his grandfather, Vidal opposed America’s entry into World War II, but he was assigned as first mate on a freight ship in the Alaskan Harbor Craft Detachment. His experiences there inspired him to write his first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946.
Vidal was often viewed as an early champion of sexual liberation, and many of his earlier works reflected the burgeoning sexual politics of the time. His third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), featured an openly gay protagonist. In 1956, while working as a screenwriter for the film Ben-Hur, Vidal attempted to introduce a homosexual subtext into the relationship of the main male characters. And in 1968 he wrote the transsexual comedy Myra Breckinridge. Though Vidal was always private about his own sexuality, he maintains that “everyone is potentially bisexual.”
In the early 1970s Vidal was a chairman of the People’s Party, an offshoot of the Peace and Freedom Party. In 1982 he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in California but was defeated by Jerry Brown in the Democratic primary.
Many of Vidal’s works reflected his personal views regarding American foreign and domestic policies. In one of his fiction books, The Golden Age (2000), Vidal claimed that President Franklin Roosevelt had provoked the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor so as to justify America’s entry into World War II. Vidal reiterated this opinion during an interview with LA Weekly in 2002, when he also gave voice to many of the themes of his just-published Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. For instance, he said:
“[The war on terror] … is an imperial grab for energy resources…. After 9/11 the country was really shocked and terrified. [Bush] does a little war dance and talks about evil axis and all the countries he’s going to go after. And how long it is all going to take, he says with a happy smile, because it means billions and trillions for the Pentagon and for his oil friends. And it means curtailing our liberties, so this is all very thrilling for him. He’s right out there reacting, bombing Afghanistan. Well, he might as well have been bombing Denmark. Denmark had nothing to do with 9/11. And neither did Afghanistan, at least the Afghanis didn’t.”
In Dreaming War, Vidal suggested that the Bush administration knew in advance that the September 11 attacks were coming and purposely did nothing to prevent them — a theme Vidal would revisit many times thereafter. At a May 2007 arts and literature festival in New York City, for instance, he said:
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a conspiracy analyst. Everything the Bushites touch is screwed up. They could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to. Even if they longed to. They could step aside, though, or just go out to lunch while these terrible things were happening to the nation. I believe that of them.”
In a post-September 11 article titled “The End of Liberty,” Vidal accused the Bush administration of “relentless plundering of the [U.S.] Treasury” to fund a war (in Iraq and elsewhere) whose aim was to create a “global empire.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Vidal lent his name and support to a number of anti-war organizations and campaigns. For instance, he was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” crafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
Vidal also endorsed World Can’t Wait (WCW), another Revolutionary Communist Party project that sought to organize “people living in the United States to take responsibility to stop the whole disastrous course led by the Bush administration.”
In his 2002 book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, or How We Came To Be So Hated, Vidal wrote:
“The right wing are the bad guys, but they know what they want — everybody else’s money. And they know they don’t like blacks and they don’t like minorities. And they like to screw everyone along the way…. Although our rulers have revived the word [‘terrorist’] to describe violent enemies of the United States, most of today’s actual terrorists can be found within our own governments — federal, state, municipal.”
In Vidal’s view, in the post-9/11 era “Islam has been demonized as a Satanic terrorist cult that encourages suicide attacks — contrary, it should be noted, to the Islamic religion.”
In March 2003 Vidal said the following about what he perceived as America’s overriding ambitions for worldwide hegemony:
“[W]e [the U.S.] have had an imperial streak from the very beginning, but it didn’t get going until 1898, when we picked a war with Spain because we had our eye on Spanish colonial possessions, specifically the Philippines, which got us into … Asia and, from that moment on, we really were a global empire…. There’s a group of what they call neo-conservatives — most of them were old Stalinists and then they were Trotskyites and then, finally, they are neo-conservatives now…. [T]hey write really extraordinarily frightening overviews of the United States and the rest of the world that we, after all, have all the military power that there is and let’s use it. Let’s take the Earth. It’s there for us.”
In 2006 Vidal was a signatory to a letter that appeared in a number of international newspapers, condemning Israel’s “illegal military occupation of the West Bank and the systematic appropriation of its natural resources.” Among Vidal’s fellow signers were Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Naomi Klein, Harold Pinter, Arundhati Roy, and Howard Zinn.
“We’ve seen all the bad side of Cuba because we’re fed nothing else by the media…. They’re turning out thousands of doctors…. Castro has been generally benign. The bloodcurdling stories that we’ve been told by our government seem not to be true at all…. This is contrary to the American way. Everything we do, we do in bad faith. We’re always out to get somebody, particularly anyone foolish enough to put themselves in the hands of our government.”
That same year, Vidal signed a letter calling on President Bush to cease his “continuing hostility towards Cuba” and to normalize U.S. relations with Castro’s island nation. Other signatories included such notables as Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and Alice Walker.
Also in 2007, Vidal signed a petition that appeared on the website of the anti-war coalition After Downing Street. Addressed to the “Joint Chiefs of Staff and all U.S. Military Personnel,” this petition stated that “any preemptive U.S. attack on Iran [in an effort to cripple that nation’s budding nuclear weapons program] would be … a crime of the highest magnitude.” Other signatories included Michael Lerner, Cynthia McKinney, Cindy Sheehan, and Norman Solomon.
While Vidal’s political views were decidedly leftist, he found fault not only with Republicans but also with centrist Democrats:
“There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”
Vidal held Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich in very high esteem. In June 2008 he praised Kucinich for having introduced articles of impeachment in an effort to remove President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from office.
In his later years, Vidal was a contributor to Truthdig.com, a Web magazine “that provides expert coverage of current affairs as well as a variety of thoughtful, provocative content assembled from a progressive point of view.”
Vidal was also a board member of the Defending Dissent Foundation (DDF), whose mission is to “protect and advance the right of dissent in the United States” by “alerting local activists to civil liberties threats” and “educating the public, the press and policymakers as to how dissent is crucial to democracy.” Other notabale (past and present) DDF board members include Chip Berlet, Kit Gage, and Victor Navasky.
Vidal died of complications from pneumonia at his Los Angeles, California home on July 31, 2012.