Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Gore Vidal Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Gore Vidal
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country…and we haven’t seen them since.” Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal is perhaps one of the U.S.’s most under-appreciated writers, certainly was one of its most vocal political intellects, and truly one of its most fascinating personalities. Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, he parlayed his wit and intelligence–and his knowledge of the backrooms of politics– into becoming a favorite choice when looking for a liberal spokesman for televised debate (most famously with William F. Buckley), a panel member, or talk show guest.


The infamous of their many debates where Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” They were discussing police brutality in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of America attempts to capture the wit, the acerbity, the political thought and the literary presence of Vidal, but at last, Vidal is really simply large a figure to truly pin down in little less than two hours. So it focuses on the political.

The film tries to be chronological but it is not really historical, moving ahead and back indiscriminately in chapters set off by one of Vidal’s aphorisms.

“I heard bad news on the way over here: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was just destroyed by fire, and, tragically, both books were a total loss. Worse yet, he wasn’t finished coloring the second one.” Gore Vidal to the National Press Club on Ronald Reagan

The United States of Amnesia is primarily focused on Vidal’s political thought–and his ultimate pessimism about the reality of the United States. The biographical part moves rather quickly. He was raised primarily by his blind grandfather, the U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas Gore, for whom he acted as page and guide, and for whom he would read out loud the senator’s voluminous reading list of philosophy and political thought. The political ideas and conversations that his grandfather was interested in had to come first through the mouth of his young grandson, and gave the young man an invaluable schooling. Vidal–who was christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal–took the grandfather’s last name as his own and became Gore Vidal.

Even as a child, Vidal was surrounded by the powerful and famous. Not only did Vidal walk the august halls and back offices of the U.S. Senate with his grandfather, but his father was a close adviser to FDR and was, according to one biographer, the great love affair of Amelia Earhart. His mother married four times, once to Henry Auchincloss, the step-father of Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Mrs. Kennedy. Vidal also reported that she had a long “on-again, off-again” affair with the actor Clark Gable.

After service in the navy during World War II, Vidal published–at the age of twenty-one– the novel, Williwaw. Based on his military experiences, the novel was highly successful. His second novel published two years later The City and the Pillar, caused a furor of controversy because of its matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality. So outraged was the mainstream press, that the editor of The New York Times, Orville Prescott, refused to “read or review” any subsequent Vidal novels.  (Vidal got around this to a small degree by writing under the pseudonym  Edgar Box.)

“What is in question is a kind of book reviewing which seems to be more and more popular: the loose putting down of opinions as though they were facts, and the treating of facts as though they were opinions.  Gore Vidal

With his books banned from review from the national “papers of record,”  Vidal set out to become a screen writer in Hollywood. He wrote several television plays–the most notable being The Best Man–and several feature films, including the rewrite of the script for Ben-Hur.  

In the 1960s, Vidal returned to fiction, writing three  novels Julian, Washinton, D.C. and Myra Breckinridge. In a way, these three encompass the themes of all his later fiction–ancient history, Washingtonian politics, and broad comedic social commentary.  Importantly,  also in the 1960s, Vidal moved to the Amalfi coast in Italy.  He was not the first writer to believe he can see and comment on his native country better from a distance…and that is what he did.

Vidal’s targets were many:  American foreign policy, the militarization of America, the role of big business in American politics, the growth of religion in government.  In journals such as The New Statesman, The Nation and The New York Review of Books, Vidal spoke his mind in well-crafted, observant and illuminating essays. Indeed, it is the essays for which Vidal is most celebrated.  Always witty, always incisive, and always confident in his beliefs, the tendencies of his political thought still harkened to the populist politics of the grandfather who raised him.

It is difficult to capture all of Vidal in a movie.  In Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, we have film clips of the famous debates and talk show appearances, we have photographs of the famous and celebrated who attended his many parties, and we have talking heads reminiscing about Vidal.  Perhaps, the most rewarding of the bits is when Vidal himself remembers particular moments. An adept storyteller–often supplying different accents–he tells us of a shooting party with him, JFK and Tennessee Williams, of an encounter between Paul Neuman and William F. Buckley following the legendary “crypto-Nazi” debate, and of the pain of ultimately packing up his beloved home in Italy when he became to feeble to stay there himself.

Poster for Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary on Gore Vidal.

The film begins with Vidal visiting the tombstone where his life long partner Howard Austen was buried and where his name is etched waiting for him to join. It ends there as well, a full circle.  It is an enjoyable two hours, filled with insight and humor and not a small bit of nostalgia for a time when non-conformist ideas and opinions were voiced in the mainstream and not lost in a sea of cable channels and internet sites.

“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.”  Gore Vidal