“[With Ronald] Reagan, Joan Didion wrote, “rhetoric was soon understood to be interchangeable with action.”
As quoted in Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser
Forty years later it has reached its apotheosis.
“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.
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.)
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