''The further West one comes," Oscar Wilde wrote of his 1882 visit to the United States, "the more there is to like." The city he liked most was San Francisco, which dazzled him with its Chinatown and gave him the warmest reception of his American tour; by contrast, he turned down the offer of a private car on a special train that would take him to Los Angeles, then one-twentieth the size of "Frisco." As the birth of the next century approaches, we also near the centenary of Wilde's death, which is already being celebrated across the English-speaking world with films, plays and revivals of his works. (Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency, a reenactment of Wilde's court trials, is currently running at the Mark Taper Forum.)
We mostly think of Oscar Wilde as a reluctant gay martyr or a flamboyant aphorist. But he also had a political side, most famously displayed in his essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism." "There is something tragic," he wrote, "in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve." If any writer can be said to have inherited Wilde's velvet mantle of epicurean socialism, along with his boldness and disdain for authority, it is Gore Vidal, undisputedly the leading social satirist and political critic of a country that has lost both its sense of humor and its purpose.
The novelist, playwright, screenwriter and essayist has undergone many incarnations since leaving the Army after World War II, but in the twilight of his life he has settled into the noble yet lonely profession of national gadfly. This may have seemed an unlikely destiny for the son of FDR's director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, Eugene Vidal, the stepson of millionaire Hugh D. Auchincloss and the grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore. Vidal, after all, had grown up in polite, political Washington society knowing all the right manners and people, and attending the right schools.
But Vidal was also uniquely suited for the role of outsider. A classicist deeply involved in the century's greatest expression of popular culture, film, he was an intellectual who could mingle with Tammany Democrats and Hollywood riffraff. (Unlike Wilde, Vidal came to L.A. - and bought a home here.) And while he was miles to the left of what was acceptable to most of the Democratic Party faithful, he was not stained by the ideological wars and betrayals of the Marxist left. "I thought the fierce contest between Trotskyites and Stalinists irrelevant," he would write in his autobiography, Palimpsest, "to a country where the true historic division is between Hamilton and Jefferson."
By the late 1950s he had drawn close to the camp of John F. Kennedy, who'd married Vidal's cousin, Jacqueline Bouvier. "He was pretty much what the sheltered and unadventurous son of a rich right-winger would be," Vidal wrote. "But then, at the time, so was I."
And yet, in those same waning years of the Eisenhower decade (which he dubbed "the age of the golfer"), as his reputation and personal fortune grew, Vidal suddenly began questioning why a government that took so much of his income for military spending did nothing for education or national health care. He had always resisted the lure of politics, but now politics suddenly consumed the writer.
In 1960, Vidal ran for Congress in a Boer district in upstate New York, advocating federal aid to education, communist China's admission to the U.N. and an end to capital punishment. Naturally he lost, but he drew satisfaction from knowing that he had polled 20,000 votes more than JFK had in the same district. Bad blood between Vidal and Bobby Kennedy would soon return Vidal to his familiar role of outsider, and he began to level his iconoclastic pen at the American empire.
In nearly 35 years of essays, speeches and television appearances, Vidal has zeroed in on several themes: Washington's imperial pretensions, the Puritanical underpinnings of American life, the malevolent influence of organized religion. Who, growing up in the '60s, can ever forget those wickedly sardonic articles in which he hammered home this one unassailable but ignored fact that has so disfigured our culture: The Puritans left England for America not because they couldn't be Puritans in their mother country, but because they were not allowed to force others to become Puritans; in the New World, of course, they could and did. ("The intellect of the race is wasted in the sordid and stupid quarrels of second-rate politicians or third-rate theologians," Wilde wrote. "We are dominated by the fanatic, whose worst vice is his sincerity.")
Vidal, who dislikes the word gay, believes in the innate bisexuality of most people, an empirical faith bolstered by the now-suspect statistics of Alfred Kinsey, who once interviewed Vidal in a pickup bar. Regardless of how many people "are" or "aren't," Vidal has always fearlessly correlated our national neurosis to our inability to come to terms with human sexuality, a condition that has caused American political life to be sublimated into anything but politics. "Today," he wrote years before Monica Lewinsky and her storied kneepads, "as actual politics have been entirely excluded from public life, private lives are all that we are allowed to talk about."
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Nevertheless, Vidal has conflicting feelings about the firestorm Lewinsky has brought down upon the White House. "I want very much to favor Clinton in his current troubles," he tells the Weekly, "but for anyone of a liberal disposition he is blithely - if I may use his original name - wrong, from the death penalty to sex. When asked about his sex life in the Paula Jones deposition he should have said, 'Go to hell!' But this answer takes courage."
With his house in the Hollywood Hills and a villa in Ravello, Italy, Vidal is a democratic toff who takes pride in never having written fiction about "little people." One can easily see him, even at the age of 73, playing Philip Nolan, the lonely exile of Edward Everett Hale's story "The Man Without a Country," with one exception: Vidal could quite happily exist without setting foot in America or hearing its name again. Not that it's an easy thing to avoid the world's only superpower. "Wherever I am," he says, "in no small a way, there is the United States." Whenever he does tread American soil, he engages those around him to fight what he calls the National Security State, the religious right and the numbing idiocy of a culture that gently but firmly discourages reading in favor of television and cyberspace.
Toward these ends, he will appear Tuesday on behalf of the First Amendment Foundation, the Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the Bill of Rights' single most important and assaulted guarantee. "The First Amendment's health is not too sturdy," he says, "when a special prosecutor tells us on television that the First Amendment is about truth. It is, of course, about free speech, which by its very nature is usually filled with lies and inaccuracies." Vidal will not be making any speeches, but comes to field two hours of questions from those in the audience who still cherish conversation and the right to talk back.
"An Evening of Conversation With Gore Vidal," El Rodeo School Auditorium, 605 Whittier Dr., Beverly Hills; Tuesday, March 10, 7:30 p.m.; $25 donation. Purchase tickets in advance through Ticketmaster locations (Blockbuster Music, Tower Records, Robinsons-May and Ritmo Latino). (213) 480-3232 or (714) 740-2000. Online: http://www.ticketmaster.com. Or by mail ($21): First Amendment Foundation, 1313 W. Eighth St., Suite 313, L.A., CA 90017.