Review of Heather Nielson, Political Animal: Gore Vidal on Power
American writer Gore Vidal was an intimate of political power. His grandfather was a US senator; his father served as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Director of Air Commerce. When his mother remarried, to Hugh Auchincloss, Vidal obtained a descendant of Vice President Aaron Burr as a stepfather. Later, Hugh remarried Janet Bouvier, and her daughter – the future Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – became Vidal’s stepsister. Jackie took over Vidal’s childhood bedroom at the Auchincloss estate and wore his old shirts riding. They shared three nephews between them. Gore and Jacqueline’s husband, John F. Kennedy, were close.
Vidal grew up, as he said in Screening History, ‘backstage’ to the ‘real world of real politics, in a very real Washington’. As a child, he read to his blind senator grandfather and received a lesson in power. He was able, when reviewers challenged the historical veracity of his novel Lincoln (1984) to cite his grandfather’s conversations with President Lincoln’s son Robert. While Vidal’s literary career began early (his début novel, Williwaw , was published when he was twenty), a career in politics beckoned. In 1960, Vidal ran as a Democrat for a New York Congressional seat, endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt and JFK. He lost but put in a good performance in a traditionally Republican district. In 1962 he turned down the nomination for a New York Senate seat that he might well have won. He later ran, unsuccessfully, for the Senate in California. Vidal decided against a political career and in doing so ‘fail[ed] to complete the “unfinished business” of his grandfather’s life by becoming president of the United States’. But as a writer he retained a fascination with power. ‘I had the sort of background,’ he said, ‘that made it possible – inevitable – for me to write about men of power from first-hand knowledge.’
Power is the subject of Heather Neilson’s excellent Political Animal, an erudite but accessible study of Vidal’s writing that ranges across his non-fiction and drama but centres on the historical fiction. Beginning with the ‘Ancient Worlds’ novels, Messiah (1954), Julian (1964), and Creation (1981) – which chart Vidal’s distrust of, but fascination with, powerful religions – Neilson moves into the Narratives of Empire series: ‘the seven novels [which] collectively comprise a thesis about the ways in which American political mythology has been formulated since the War of Independence.’
Vidal believed in the power of literature to shape politics and history. In a 1969 interview, he said that ‘to be practical, if one wishes to influence events, the Congress is hardly the place to do it. A writer with an audience has more power than most Congressmen.’ Vidal distrusted historians, believing they ‘write fictionalized versions of the facts, imbued with vested interest’. Fiction, he thought, ‘can somehow more truthfully and insightfully represent the past’. Indeed, Vidal considered his historical fiction to be not merely literature but ‘a historical force’.
In Narratives of Empire, Vidal seeks to ‘demythologize’ the gilded portrait of America’s political founding, to ‘recover and to communicate the realities which the accretion of legend has obscured’. This is achieved, in large part, by his fictional studies of presidents, often narrated by ‘someone with proximity to power but not in a position directly to exercise it’. ‘One of his signature devices’ for achieving this ‘was the unflattering close-up, premised on the idea that veneration is dependent upon mystique’. In Burr (1973), George Washington is presented with ‘abscesses on his buttocks’: ‘He spoke the way one imagined a statute would speak. But then he sat too far back in his chair. Gasping with pain, he swore mightily, aware that he was no longer royal in my eyes but simply a Virginia planter whose bottom hurt.’ Andrew Jackson is ‘a pale old man … in physical pain … his false teeth do not fit; one can see them shifting about in his mouth as he purses his thin lips trying to make himself comfortable’. This demythologising is not so much insolence as an attempt to ‘rehumanise … the sanctified Fathers’, and to emphasise the fact that ‘however vainglorious the political animal may be, he is always inescapably that – an animal. Sooner or later the body will render all mortals either absurd or pitiable.’
Narratives of Empire variously rehabilitates and censures the political reputations of America’s great leaders. Vice President Aaron Burr, who famously shot Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel, ‘has been rewritten in history as a “traitor”, a dangerous ghost’. But Vidal’s fictional portrait challenges that received historical wisdom, contextualising Burr’s destroyed reputation within Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s ‘implacable hostility’. Abraham Lincoln gets short shrift from Vidal, a self-defining Southern writer. Vidal portrays him as a ‘benign and complex tyrant’ who ‘chose to fight the [Civil] war not on the issue of slavery but on the holiness and indivisibility of a union that he alone had any understanding of’.
Vidal was an isolationist who repeatedly critiqued ‘the evolution of the United States from a republic to an empire’. In The Golden Age, ‘Roosevelt and Truman stand collectively indicted of responsibility for … having turned the United States into an empire’, although, Neilson says, Vidal’s depiction of these presidents is ‘at times curiously sympathetic’.
Another of Vidal’s concerns is the theatricality of politics. While ardently opposed to lying (his extreme candour was, he said in 1969, the reason there could never be a ‘Vidal Administration’), he admired actors (indeed was one), and his novels show the ‘inextricable relationship between politics and theatre’. This came full circle when the professional actor Ronald Reagan was elected president – ‘in Vidal’s view an inevitable and logical convergence of the two professions’. That Vidal had rejected Reagan in 1959 for a politician’s role in his play, The Best Man (‘he would hardly be convincing’) delighted him – he described it as an act of ‘eerie prescience’. But theatricality became celebrity with the Kennedys. Vidal writes of Jackie in Palimpsest (1995) as ‘a silent star of unmade films, her face on every magazine cover’. Vidal, who described himself as ‘at first delighted and then somewhat dismayed at being a part of the Kennedy court’, was always fond of JFK, but ‘appalled by what he perceived as the mythographic industry’ around his legacy. His novel Washington D.C. (1967) and essay ‘The Holy Family’ ‘sabotage’ this, puncturing the ‘Kennedy mythology’.
Political Animal portrays a man whose love for his country was expressed predominately in a continued willingness to interrogate it, often controversially. Vidal was, Neilson argues, a ‘biographer … of the United States’, but also the ‘self-appointed foil’ to the America ‘dreamed by Hollywood’. Most apt, perhaps, is Norman Mailer’s 1985 comment on his and Vidal’s careers: while ‘condemned to live on the periphery of political life, “with our noses pressed against the window”’, they were ‘devoted to clarifying their nation’s vision of itself’.
Political Animal performs a similar role for Gore Vidal’s writing. At a time when the great republic is torn by partisanship, when a Republican legislature and a Democratic president lock horns over whether the nation will be ruled by legislation or executive order, Vidal’s privileged access and iconoclastic thinking on US political power is of remaining value. Neilson brings it to life in this assured, meticulous study of a major US intellectual.