Moments after his infamous televised dust-up with Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley encountered a livid Paul Newman, who told him that Buckley calling Vidal a “queer” on national television was the most disgraceful thing he’d ever seen. Not even Buckley reminding Newman that Vidal had started the ball rolling by calling him a “crypto-Nazi” lessened the actor’s rage. “That was political, yours was personal,” Newman replied.
From that moment on, both men would defy their political labels. Buckley, the supposed reactionary, would display intellectual growth. He would generously state that even though he did not like Vidal, he would “never call him a bad writer.” In the 1990s, Buckley would conclude that he should have supported the 1965 Civil Rights Act and that he should have heeded conservative guru Whittaker Chambers’ advice to steer clear of Joe McCarthy. And while neo-conservatives were beating the drum for war in Iraq, Buckley would oppose it.
Meanwhile, Vidal, the supposed progressive, would behave as the reactionary. To him, Buckley’s politics was linked to his writings and made both disgusting. Around the time of the debate, Vidal had the epiphany that America was a “fascist security state.” He believed that the military-industrial complex had kicked into high gear during the presidency of Harry Truman, whose Cold War containment policies he saw as part of an effort to bolster the economy by maintaining a permanent state of war.
Vidal would cling to this worldview no matter the counter-evidence. Like Oliver Stone, Vidal would argue that the very lack of proof of a military-industrial cabal was evidence enough of its existence and control over American lives. Vidal greeted every unpredictable event through this prism. The Soviets invading Afghanistan was the result of the military-industrial complex goading the Russians into this venture in order to bleed them and, by doing so, remove them from the running for the military-industrial complex sweepstakes. He believed these maneuverings, not ordinary people’s desire for freedom, led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Vidal incorporated his boyhood prejudices into his grand theory of history. In his youth, Vidal (like Buckley) was a member of America First, that collection of sincere patriots, Nazi Bundists, socialists and pacifists. Vidal never abandoned the anti-Semitism of portions of that group and the conspiracy theories it spawned. Just as his hero Charles Lindbergh would speak of Jews in the Roosevelt administration dragging the country into World War II, Vidal would, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, denounce a secret pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. government that controlled foreign policy. This lobby either (Vidal could never make up his mind) orchestrated 9/11 by encouraging Bin Laden to take out the Twin Towers or performed the attack itself. Vidal also never abandoned the virulent racism toward the Japanese that he imbibed as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II. Throughout the 1980s, he spoke of a Yellow Peril (this time an economically based one) and urged the United States to once again form a grand alliance with the Soviets to combat it.
Before Vidal and conspiracy theories found each other, he displayed a fair-mindedness that made his pre-1960 writings compelling. His celebrated play “The Best Man” promoted keeping character assassination out of politics (a view he would abandon when he urged the hanging of George W. Bush) and included the admirable quote, “There are no means, only ends.”
But, Vidal eventually came to believe that his ideology explained everything, and that the “means” (containment of the Soviet Union) did lead to “ends” (the maintenance of a permanent war economy). That “epiphany” turned Vidal from an interesting and valuable writer into a reactionary old man who didn’t mind committing the worst sin of the intellectual: repeating oneself.
Ron Capshaw is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times. He lives in Midlothian, Virginia.