Sunday, December 28, 2003

A LITTLE SANITY FROM MR. VIDAL. I've got the Sunday-morning political shows on TV now. They look a little dumber than usual to me, partly because they're in their year-end what's-it-all-mean mode (which races the shouting heads through a gauntlet of economic to military to legal issues so quickly that their normally reductive analyses become practically incoherent), but mostly because I read Gore Vidal's Washington, D.C. yesterday.

That book, published in 1967, was the first of Vidal's historical fictions (to be followed, in production if not in sequence, by Burr, 1876, Lincoln, et alia), and establishes the themes that run through its successors: the ethics of power, the struggle (not altogether unfriendly) between the self-made and the patrician, the uses of the press, the degeneration of political culture, and, of course, the author's Epicurean view of natural relations between men, and between men and women. (This last is really the underpinning for the political drama: Vidal sees us as selfish creatures who, when we strive for the good as opposed to the merely convenient, do so almost by accident, as a means of attaining something better when the pursuit of power, for whatever reason, ceases or never begins to satisfy.)

The plot, such as it is, runs some ambitious Washingtonians through the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations. Blaise Sanford runs a paper, James Burden Day is a perennial Senator; their children and charges marry, have affairs, choose careers, and plot; one of these, Clay Overbury, becomes an immensely successful politician, while another, Peter Sanford, runs a magazine, at first desultorily and later with a grudging sense of purpose.

There are, naturally, good and bad people in the book, or rather good and bad forces with which the characters align themselves. Though this is clearer when seen through the prism of his later writing, in Washington, D.C. Vidal already hints at the less propitious course: when the natural appetite for power is ungoverned by good sense or at least countervailing appetites, enormous follies result that wound the purpose of the nation. In this book, Red-baiting is the most egregious example (brief appearance by hissable McCarthy); today, of course, Vidal sees in the creepy confluence of Christian Fundamentalism and neo-imperialism a likely fatal assault on the remnants of what was once a pretty good Republic.

In 1967, there seemed less of a crisis. Though many of the people in Washington, D.C. are trying to influence the course of government, they at least possess some sense of priorities, and the tone, carried by bitchy conversations, is often breezy. (One of Vidal's stylistic signatures is his ability to sustain drawing-room dialogues without letting his constant, simultaneous translation of intent deflate them.) The main characters are basically serious people playing for serious stakes, but each also has a strong sense of himself, which has the effect of making them all seem rather cynical. Even Overbury, on his surface the most pedestrian of glad-handlers, has private thoughts about people and power that would credit a habitue of Versailles; even Day, who suffers rather more than the others from the necessity of corruption and ambiguity in his line of work, and at times behaves foolishly because of it, tends toward the long view, though in a few flashes that view is very grim indeed:
Burden looked out the window. They were on an unfamiliar road with houses to the right and left, each with its high television anttena drawing from the air crude pictures and lying words. Oh, detestable age! he thought, hating it all...

Padded payrolls and illegal campaign contributions were the usual crimes, momentarily embarrassing to the legislator involved but seldom causing much damage. Americans had always believed that their representatives were corrupt, since, given the same opportunity, they would be, too. As it was, the common folk daily cheated one another, misrepresenting the goods that they sold and otherwise conducting themselves like their governors...

Vidal writes popular, not literary, fiction, though some of us think it is literature because it is built sturdily enough to be read out of season, and because it offers a detailed image (drawn by, as Vidal never tires of telling interviewers, one who knows well the lay of the land) of its time and place. It is interesting that, despite the palpable world-weariness of his view, Vidal keeps churning it out (Peter Sanford turns up again in The Golden Age, published only a few years ago), and also continues to produce long essays on the state of this nation from his villa in Italy.

I don't know how many of us who were not born into Vidal's circumstances, and lack his apparently constitutional imperviousness to bullshit of all sorts, could completely adopt his mordant detachment without giving up entirely on politics, and maybe life. But some people serve as good examples to us even if we we can't go the final mile. Vidal gets a lot of shit for his lonely defense of America as it was, and seems to take pleasure in the low character of these assaults. Here is a description from one of his essays on his appearance on one of those shouting-head shows I was watching:
I was once placed between two waxworks on a program where one of the pair was solemnly indentified as a 'liberal'; appropriately, he seemed to have been dead for some time, while the conservative had the vivacity of someone on speed. For half an hour it is the custom of this duo to 'crossfire' cliches of the sort that would have gotten them laughed out of the Golden Branch Debating Society at Exeter. On air, I identified the conservative as a liberal and vice versa. The conservative fell into the trap. 'No, no!' he hyperventilated. 'I'm the conservative!' (What on earth they think those two words mean no one will ever know.)

I'm glad he's still around. It means that we're not completely nuts, yet.

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