Simon Schama on How Gore Vidal Skewered Our Self-Deceptions

Gore Vidal in Los Angeles, California,1981 Tony Korody / Sygma-Corbis

"Entering, as I am, the springtime of my senility": these were the first words out of Gore Vidal's mouth, uttered in his dark mahogany patrician drawl, when he began the wickedly smart William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1991. Once published, they became one of his sharpest, shortest, and most outrageously enjoyable books, Screening History, a cameo-autobiography filtered through his encounters with the movies. Vidal never really turned autumnal, much less senile. Mellow fruits and ripeness were definitely not his thing, though toward the end, faced with what he considered the unshakably fatuous self-deceptions of a moribund American empire, his irony did develop a frosty rime at its bitter edge.

But a venomous glory it was, nonetheless, from its start to its July 31 finish at the age of 86. Perhaps it takes the passing of an ironist of Vidal's spidery glee to make us realize what a rarity that quality is in an American culture that prizes innocence above worldliness, sentimentality over sarcasm, booming testosterone over gadfly wit—and treats any invitation to national self-mockery as Treason Lite.

America, in Vidal's view, could from time to time, if properly encouraged, face dark truths about itself, and he positioned himself in a genealogy of attack-humorists that included Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. Their mission and his, he thought, was ultimately moral, not cynical: nothing less than the saving of American democracy from the toxic waste of its own humbug. With Twain, who became something of a pariah for his ferocious public flaying of American military adventurism and water-boarding cruelties in the Philippines, Vidal felt a special kinship, and the imagined affinity was not entirely delusional.

Infuriatingly wrongheaded though he could be, and malicious, even occasionally sinister in his prejudices, his passing unquestionably leaves a huge void. For where are the satirical polemicists now when we need them? Precious though the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are, their jabs and stings are confined for the most part to the merry ghetto of late-night Comedy Central. Come breakfast their contempt has turned to milk-sodden granola.

At his strongest, Vidal could cut to the bone because he knew the anthropology of politics from the inside. His was admittedly a love-hate relationship with the Washington he knew well. As much as he liked to cast himself as the acupuncturist of the mighty (without the analgesic effect), Vidal was drawn to their glamour and was wholly seduced by the beauteous Kennedys, even while acknowledging that their capacity for lies and intrigue were quite as habitual as anyone else in American politics.

As a page-turning novelist he was perhaps more nimble than deep, an elegant artificer rather than a hewer of prose monuments. But these were not meager skills. The gender-bent Myra Breckenridge is, in its peculiar way, a dazzling, baroque achievement, up there with the comic masterpieces of the last century, worthy of being shelved between Catch- 22 and A Confederacy of Dunces. As for his series of historical novels, Burr—in which Thomas Jefferson features as a sanctimoniously vain hypocrite and Alexander Hamilton as a mercurial soldier of fortune much taken with the invulnerability of his own cleverness—is for my money the best.

When he came to Harvard to deliver the Massey lectures, Vidal felt himself cold-shouldered by the professors who received his elegantly provocative style with fishy reserve. I offered some of the usual courtesies, drinks, chat, and a little sparring over his bugbear (Israel), for which he repaid me with repeated invitations to join him, pronto, in Boston leatherette gay bars. Heavy emphasis at my end of the phone on wife and children deterred him not a bit. Finally giving up, he sighed heavily and remarked, "You know, Simon, wholesomeness can do terrible damage to your health." That much could never be said of Gore Vidal, whose sustained acts of mischief will endure as a needful tonic against the maladies of American self-righteousness.