Tuesday, August 19, 2003

he Education of Gore Vidal,” airing tonight at 8 on WETA (Channel 26), is the latest chapter of PBS’ “American Masters” documentary series, an inventory of the republic’s cultural patrimony.

This one, a glowing tribute to Gore Vidal, the novelist, playwright, essayist and full-time provocateur, snags its title from the memoir of another writer with a privileged upbringing and a famous political grandfather, Henry Adams. The grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of Founding Father John Adams, Henry Adams famously said he had no use for his Harvard education.

Mr. Vidal, grandson of Oklahoma’s first U.S. senator, Thomas P. Gore, and a graduate of the prestigious Exeter prep school, didn’t bother with a university.

“I know how the country’s run,” Mr. Vidal says in the Deborah Dickson-directed PBS hagiography. “I come from the governing class. I turned against it because I thought it was stupid, frankly…”

Although it might raise skeptical brows, Mr. Vidal — proud pagan and inveterate homosexual hedonist though he is — shares some ideological ground with some of today’s more adamantine paleoconservatives. Isolationist, aesthetically traditionalist and nostalgically attached to what he terms the “Old Republic,” Mr. Vidal espouses politics that are in some ways those of patrician reaction.

As this documentary makes clear, Mr. Vidal’s bete noir is empire — imperialism, expansionism, whatever what isn’t isolationism is called.

Like his grandfather, from whom he borrowed his given name (he was born Eugene, his father’s name), Mr. Vidal is an America firster. Even the sacrosanct World War II bears the taint of imperial adventurism in Mr. Vidal’s moral universe.

As this documentary makes unclear, Mr. Vidal cannot decide when America’s governing class started putting empire first and America second.

In one of many snippets of speeches to audiences of self-satisfied leftists in “Education,” Mr. Vidal says that President Harry S. Truman “replaced the old republic with the permanent national security state” and an “imperial military machine.”

OK, so America must have become an empire at the outset of the Cold War.

Well, no.

Here’s Mr. Vidal again, on the same tirade but with a different villain: President Abraham Lincoln “smashed up the old republic and reinvented it as a highly centralized militaristic state, which we still are.”

How can Truman have replaced an “old republic” that already had been “smashed up” by Lincoln four score and change years ago? Maybe, then, it was the Civil War — with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and his violent answer to the Southern rebellion — that truly betrayed the country’s founding ideals.

Nope, that’s not right, either. Not exactly.

Actually, things went wrong even before the awful Civil War. From its inception, America always has been a “sanctimonious society of hustlers,” Mr. Vidal says, a place started by white men looking to get rich on the backs of black labor.

Empire-making couldn’t have been very far off.

Mr. Vidal is an effete old rake these days and is frequently shown walking with a slow, creaky gait at his cliffside estate on Italy’s western seacoast. His mind, however, is seemingly as fertile as ever, the barbs still sharp and expertly phrased, the theories still dark and conspiratorial.

For all its unreserved praise of its subject, there remains a question mark at the center of “Education,” and it’s because of Mr. Vidal’s own schizoid intellectualism.

There’s Gore Vidal the lively and witty historian, prompting high-minded commentary from the likes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Kennedy confidant and historian himself; there’s Gore Vidal the entertainer, cracking jokes on television with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.

What is the arrangement and shaping of facts we call history, and what place do Mr. Vidal’s fictional narratives have in it? Can a novelist and polemicist such as Mr. Vidal also be considered a historian?

It’s an intriguing question, but “Education” cannot afford to spend more than five minutes on it because Mr. Vidal’s oeuvre is either too catholic to be reduced to it — or too insubstantial to deserve it. The writer of “Burr” and “Lincoln” also gave us “Myra Breckinridge,” a novel about a transsexual.

At one time a scripter for television and movies (including 1959’s “Ben-Hur”), a period during which he became fabulously rich, Mr. Vidal is equal parts Washington and Hollywood.

Throughout his literary career, he has straddled the axis of power and sex, feeling as at home among the power brokers in the Senate cloakroom, where he would spend time with his grandfather, as at plush parties in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Hotel.

His true intellectual home, though, is Rome, a city he first visited in the eventful year of 1939 and moved to in 1962, with his longtime companion Howard Austen. It’s in this setting that “Education” almost locks on to something novel: what might be called the contradiction of being Gore Vidal.

For Mr. Vidal, a polity’s morality is measured not so much along a spectrum between Athens and Rome — between republic and empire — as it is along a spectrum between Rome and Rome: at one end, the Rome of the bathhouse and the bacchanalia, which Mr. Vidal loves; at the other, the seat of global emperors, whom Mr. Vidal abhors.

Unfortunately, “Education” is too fawning a portrait to confront Mr. Vidal’s ideas. Chunks of valuable time are wasted on some of Mr. Vidal’s Hollywood comrades — including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon — as they, and he himself, read passages from his novels. It lingers too long as well on a recent Broadway revival of Mr. Vidal’s play about a political party convention, “The Best Man.”

More entertaining are clips of old TV exchanges Mr. Vidal had with novelist Norman Mailer (who said Mr. Vidal was essentially a “right-wing snob”) and William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, the flagship conservative magazine.

Debating the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Mr. Vidal called Mr. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” The latter, furious, then returned: “Listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your [expletive] face, and you’ll stay plastered.”

That’s more like it: two grandees with fake English accents about to throw down.

The crotchety Mr. Vidal is still striving after his brand of dissident sensationalism today, and the effort is becoming ever more strained, if not outright ridiculous.

“Education” touches on his warped apologia of Timothy McVeigh two years ago and, wisely, for its purposes, breezes past the subject. There’s no mention at all of Mr. Vidal’s latest ravings: of America’s secret plan to build an oil pipeline in the Caucasus, the supposed real pretext for taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Clearly, these are the kind of embarrassing low-church antics that would ruin the high-church canonization that is “Education.”

Mr. Vidal made his celebrity out of exposing America’s icons, warts and all. Why shouldn’t he have gotten the same treatment?

WHAT: “American Masters: The Education of Gore Vidal”

WHEN: Tonight at 8, WETA (Channel 26)

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