In Memoriam: Gore Vidal

Opinion | Vienna Review | September 2012

Gore Vidal at the 2008 LA Times Festival of Books (Photo: Mark Coggins / WikiCommons)

Gore Vidal was in Vienna in October of 2004, just before the U.S. presidential election that would leave George W. Bush in office for a second term. While a life-long Republican, Vidal was no fan of Bush or the Iraq War or any of the rest of "the foolishness" that he saw coming out of the White House, other than their thinking "quite rightly, that the American people are idiots."

Vidal – novelist, literary critic, screenwriter, and later historian, who died July 31 at the age of 86 – hadn’t planned to "spend his career" writing American history. But given how little Americans knew and understood, he felt obligated. "I saw no alternative to taking it on myself," he explained in 2008, at the release of his book, The United States of Amnesia. "This is a people with no culture, they’ve never had one." There were only the Founding Fathers, heirs to a European Enlightenment long lost in industrialisation and perpetual war.

An all-around dazzling intellectual, Vidal’s public life had been a history of high-impact eloquence, challenging power, smuggery and received ideas on every side.

Thus it was startling to see Gore Vidal rolled up onto the platform of the Palais Ferstal in a wheelchair for his announced head to head with former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. The chair made him seem especially fragile, more elderly than he might have been at his then 79 years.

We needn’t have worried. The U.S. government was being run by "a bunch of illiterate oil and gas dealers," he complained within minutes of taking the floor, and generals who were "better suited to running a post office." U.S. troops should be immediately withdrawn: "There is no good advice that we have to give anyone."

Vidal had been shocked by the ease with which the Bush administration transformed America after 9/11. "I didn’t think that, institutionally, we were so easy to overthrow. But that was a coup d’état! They threw out Magna Carta, they threw out ‘due process’… They broke the Republic," which he, as "a true reactionary," would have liked to restore.

In his last years, Gore Vidal had effectively given up on America. "Amnesia has won," he said at the book presentation. And for this, there was no recourse, as "people will forget to defeat it."


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