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Remembering Gore Vidal, the ‘Last American Man of Letters’ and ‘Public Scold’

August 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
First and foremost a writer, Gore Vidal never shied away from expressing his thoughts to the public, from appearances on the Johnny Carson Show to his essays in The Nation. Jeffrey Brown talks to Middlebury College's Jay Parini, who says Gore never stopped writing, reading and thinking in his lifetime.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, remembering Gore Vidal.

And once again to Jeffrey Brown for our look back at the noted writer, commentator and prominent persona.

GORE VIDAL: I would apologize if — if it hurts your feelings, of course I would.

NORMAN MAILER: No, it hurts my sense of intellectual pollution.

GORE VIDAL: Well, I must say, as — as an expert, you should know about that.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Provocateur, here going at it with Norman Mailer on “The Dick Cavett Show,” wit, polemicist, celebrity, Gore Vidal was all those things and more.

But first and foremost, he was a writer, author of numerous essays, two memoirs, and some 25 novels, from historical fiction on the likes of Burr and Lincoln to “Myra Breckinridge,” his black comedy about a transsexual.

An early work, “The City and the Pillar,” about a young man discovering his homosexuality, caused a scandal when it came out in 1948.

In a 2006 interview, Vidal had this to say.

GORE VIDAL: It was a book about the absolute normality of same-sexuality, as it was sometimes called.

And, remember, I spent all my life not only in boy’s schools, but there I am stuck in three years of the Army. I knew exactly what went on in the real world.

It was Walt Whitman who said, no one will ever know what goes on in armies. Everybody thought it was the bloodshed and so on. No, Whitman was after different game.

And I knew what went on in the real world, and I thought, well, why don’t — nobody would write about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also wrote for films, helping script the 1959 epic “Ben-Hur” for television and for the theater. His 1960 political drama “The Best Man” is even now back on Broadway in its second revival.

ACTRESS: You are not the ideal candidate for the women.

(LAUGHTER)

ACTRESS: You do know that, suppose?

ACTOR: Well, hmm, what women do you have in mind?

ACTRESS: The women don’t like you trying to be funny all the time.

ACTOR: Ah, sorry. Well, Abraham Lincoln was a bit of a humorist.

ACTRESS: Yes, well, women weren’t voting in 1860.  

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Vidal, in fact, grew up in Washington and had politics in his blood. The grandson of Thomas Pryor Gore, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma.

He traveled in the highest circles in politics and in Hollywood. And he had made himself into a most public man of letters and opinions, regularly appearing with Johnny Carson, famously sparring with William F. Buckley in a series of televised debates.

GORE VIDAL: To answer Mr. Buckley’s spontaneous inaccuracy, you have almost a Stalinist desire to revise history.

WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, commentator: It wasn’t spontaneous. It was planned.

(LAUGHTER)

GORE VIDAL: Your calculated desire.

JEFFREY BROWN: Into his later life, in essays and on television, he offered barbed commentary on the state of American politics and life, here in 2000.

GORE VIDAL: I see the world — having been brought up in a political family, I know the mixture that people are.

Harry Truman did more harm to the United States than any president in our history and was one of the nicest and most honorable of men. But he replaced the old republic with a national security state, with the Cold War. As Charles Beard, the historian, said, we are now set for perpetual war for perpetual peace. And we have had 50 years of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: At times, his quips offended, as here on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

GORE VIDAL: He was trying to balance what he considered one terrible act by a government that he disliked. And he had been a highly decorated veteran in the Gulf War. And this was sending a message. Now, was it the right one? No.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of all, Vidal the writer lamented the state of the novel in American culture today.

GORE VIDAL: People have stopped reading novels. TV and video games have taken the place where novels were once.

When I was young, everybody read them. Now it seems hardly anybody does. Publishers are screaming, but they have contributed a great deal to the collapse of the novel as a popular art form. They publish too many bad books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gore Vidal died of pneumonia yesterday at his Los Angeles home. He was 86 years old.

This afternoon, I spoke with Jay Parini, himself a novelist, poet and critic who teaches literature at Middlebury College. He was a close friend of Gore Vidal and is the executor of his literary estate.

Jay Parini, welcome and thanks for joining us.

Start with the writing, this wide range of styles of subject. What drove that?

JAY PARINI, Middlebury College: Well, Gore Vidal was probably the last American man of letters, at least on a scale that we think of with someone like Edmund Wilson.

Gore did it all. Gore was primarily, though — he would hate to hear this, but I think it’s true — a great essayist. He was a man who perfected the post-war American essay with a kind of unique style and voice, clarity and wit. There was energy in that writing. And he saw America fresh and pure in a way no one else has. So I think he was a master of the essay.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, speaking of energy, there was that personality, that public persona the world came to know. You knew him well. Where did that come from? Is that who he was? He sought the spotlight?

JAY PARINI: I mean, Gore just had this internal engine that drove him.

And it was always cool and calm and collected. He had a wonderfully clear-eyed vision. But he was a passionate man who never stopped reading, writing, thinking. I met him three decades ago when I was living in Southern Italy. We became very good friends and remained friends for years.

I talked to him on the phone once a week for the last three decades and often traveled with him and stayed with him.

And he was a man of relentless intelligence, probing wit, a person who never lost interest in the world, even to the very last minute. He was always reading the news, reading history books.

He had history at his fingertips. The past wasn’t past with him. It was immediately present and accessible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, he also didn’t shy from outrage. He didn’t shy from polemic. He didn’t shy from offending.

JAY PARINI: You know, Gore Vidal was a scold. He was also a natural scold.

I can see that finger pointing at me. And he pointed a finger at the nation. If he saw a pothole in the road, he said, there’s a pothole. You might not agree that it’s a pothole, but he would say it’s a pothole. And he said things in his own inimitable fashion. He said there — famously, things like there’s really only one political party in America, the party of property. And it has two wings, the Republicans and the Democrats.

He once said to me — I once asked him if he had any advice. And he said, never lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television. So he was always there with a witty remark. He was a scold, as I said, a public scold. He was furious at what had become of this country.

He was an enlightenment intellectual, and he believed in the ideals of the American republic, as put forward in the Constitution by the founding fathers. And he saw nothing but a steady decline from 1778 onward. And he was in despair in the last few years. He always talked to me about the way our politics had been so corrupted by the influence of money.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the private man wasn’t so different from the public one?

JAY PARINI: No, there was a very — there was a private man.

In the long hours I would sit with him over a drink until 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning talking, what was revealed there was a very kind individual. Gore was generous. He had — I could call him at any hour of the day or night with a problem and he would listen and respond. And he was in this — he was like this with all of his friends.

He was a very kind man who enjoyed a public battle. And so he was feuded with Norman and Truman Capote. He feuded obviously with William F. Buckley in the most tempestuous manner imaginable. And he loved to raise the dust.

I mean, he just enjoyed it. I always used to see him light up. His eyes would twinkle, and a little grin would come on his lips. And he just loved it when he would cause some trouble. But he was a kind man with a very big and generous heart.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jay Parini on the life and work of Gore Vidal, thanks so much.

JAY PARINI: You’re very welcome, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we have additional remembrances of Gore Vidal online, including more with Jay Parini and some personal stories from writer Gay Talese and NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels. Plus, you can watch a 2006 interview in which Vidal reflects on his life and work. That’s all on our website, newshour.pbs.org.