From Similar Roots
CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Published: August 1, 2012
The New York Times
Gore Vidal, as many have noted, belonged to a singular generation of American literary men — and yes, almost all were men — whose public identities at times eclipsed their literary achievements.
ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
The names remain familiar today: James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, William Styron. Though often at odds with one another, they were alike in many ways. Each was born in the 1920s. Several served in World War II. All were remarkably precocious. (Mr. Vidal was 19 when he wrote his first published novel, “Williwaw.” ) Each was at ease in the public world — at home on television and on public stages, their faces known to millions who hadn’t read their books.
It is not surprising, then, that so much of the commentary following Mr. Vidal’s death on Tuesday at 86 has fastened on his infamous televised debate with another man of letters, William F. Buckley Jr., during the 1968 Democratic convention, when both were commentators for ABC News.
Captured in a vintage black-and-white YouTube clip, the two can be seen and heard engaging in a nasty word brawl. Mr. Vidal pins the label “crypto-Nazi” on Buckley, who testily responds by calling Mr. Vidal a “queer.” The epithets were ugly then, as they are today. But what is most striking to the contemporary viewer is how much the combatants resemble each other, beginning with their languidly patrician tones. The phrases come from the gutter, but plainly Mr. Vidal and Buckley do not. They exude the princely confidence once associated with well-born Americans of a certain pedigree.
It is also not surprising to learn that for all their animosity, the two men shared a distinct set of attitudes. Both were born in 1925 and came of age at a time, just before Pearl Harbor, when the most pressing issue was whether America should intervene in World War II. National opinion was divided — as it would later be over different wars — but in this early instance these two men, though they hadn’t yet met, stood on the same side in their fierce opposition to American intervention and to the “establishment” that was urging it.
This may seem odd. But for all their East Coast social connections both came from families rooted in the heartland and its isolationist legacy. Mr. Vidal’s grandfather was a United States senator from Oklahoma. Buckley’s father was a Texan who made his fortune in oil. In their teens both men idolized Charles Lindbergh, the tribune of the antiwar America First Committee.
Mr. Vidal helped organized the committee’s chapter at Exeter when he was a student there, and as late as 1998 he argued that Lindbergh had been tarred as a “pro-Nazi anti-Semite when he was no more than a classic Midwestern isolationist, reflective of a majority of the country.” Lindbergh, he added, was “the best that we are ever apt to produce in the hero line, American style.”
Buckley agreed. “It takes great courage to give up what Lindbergh has and for this courage he has been called a fifth columnist,” he said in an oration delivered at his boarding school, Millbrook, in 1941, the same year Buckley attended a Lindbergh rally in Madison Square Garden. And like Mr. Vidal he continued to champion Lindbergh many years later. In “Saving the Queen,” Buckley’s first Blackford Oakes spy novel, published in 1976, he described Lindbergh as “the great advocate of the American peace.”
This enthusiasm pointed to a larger similarity. Buckley and Mr. Vidal both subscribed, though in very different ways, to the ideal of American exceptionalism — with its suggestion that even as the nation stood apart from or above other nations, it was susceptible to foreign infection. Mr. Vidal feared the evils of empire building (a continuous theme in his historical novels) and warned against the decline that had overtaken other civilizations brought low by imperial hubris.
For Buckley the threat came from global communism and “statist” domestic policies that would reduce Americans to servitude and weaken their connection to the moral values of Christianity.
It was this two-sides-of-the-same-coin idealism that led to the heated exchange in 1968. The actual topic that evening was the Vietnam War. Mr. Vidal opposed it. Buckley supported it. Again their reasons were parallel. For Mr. Vidal the war betrayed the tradition he was raised in, which sought to keep America untainted by the temptations of empire. For Buckley, supporting the war meant holding back the tide of communism.
As their tempers rose, each seemed to be battling not so much the other as the distorted image of himself that his opponent represented. The terms they haughtily flung at each other were those other critics sometimes applied to them, only in reverse — Buckley, whose arch mannerisms were sometimes mocked as effete; Mr. Vidal, whose disdain for American vulgarity was tinged, some said, with anti-Semitism and dislike of the “lower orders.”
Divided by so much, Mr. Vidal and Buckley were united in their iconoclasm, however uneasily.