Remembering Gore Vidal

In the aftermath of 9/11, we found ourselves almost bereft of friends and allies, as so many we had thought were fellow-travelers—sharing our dedication to core principles of the sanctity of every individual’s right to life and liberty; the danger of the welfare/warfare state; and the primacy of securing and protecting economic and civil liberties—revealed themselves as turncoats. Calls to “Turn sand into glass,” and a rush to support a “War on Terror” at all costs emanated from sources we had expected to stand with us in our call for reason in the face of crisis. Instead, we saw the word “Peace” disappear from web banners, critics of military action against innocent civilians given gag-orders, and arguments in support of extra-Constitutional power grabs issued from surprising quarters.

As we sought to organize the first post-9/11 national, public forum questioning preemptive war, Gore Vidal (Eugene Luther Gore Vidal), the world-renowned author, playwright, and man-of-letters, unhestitatingly accepted our invitation to serve as the key commentator at the event, Understanding America’s Terrorist Crisis: What Should Be Done? He was extraordinarily gracious and cooperative throughout all the arrangements, readily agreeing to the adaptation of excerpts from his new book, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated, (the title of which was taken from the path-breaking book on World War II that was edited by Harry Elmer Barnes) as an op-ed for publication in the San Francisco Chronicle coincident with the event, as “The New War on Freedom.”

I was nervous but excited when my offer to pick him up from the airport was accepted, and despite his reputation for being excessively prideful, acerbically witty,  and irreverent, I found him humble and personable as I drove him to his hotel. He participated in the attendant obligations we had arranged with aplomb, approaching all requests more as an eager young author than one of his world-renown, including taping two interviews of Uncommon Knowledge with our Senior Fellow Robert Higgs.

We had arranged to hold our forum at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, with a capacity of 1,000. When that sold out we had added overflow closed-circuit screening in a second theater in the building. Even that turned out to not be enough for demand, however, and our friend Jeff Hummel proclaimed we’d really “arrived”: scalpers were plying their trade in front of the theater.

Working the registration table, I fielded questions and complaints from the mostly left-liberal audience, including dismay that a Fellow from the “right-wing” Hoover Institution—Thomas Gale Moore—was part of the panel. I simply smiled and suggested they would be pleasantly surprised.

Sitting in the back of the theater that evening was fascinating. Just as our many classical liberal and libertarian friends had found themselves unable to consistently adhere to their dedication to defending personal liberty in the face of domestic encroachments in the guise of “national security,” so the mostly left-liberal audience could not square Robert Higgs’s ringing denunciation of interventionism and imperialism—met with cheers and applause—with his equally ringing call for free association in all affairs, including enterprise and trade—hissing when he quoted classical liberal Frederic Bastiat, “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.”

Yet Robert Higgs and Gore Vidal are, in the important, vital matters, in more agreement than less, as they were in solidarity that night. Indeed, this character from Vidal’s The Golden Age could have been quoting from Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan:

I am certain that the next war will absolutely transform us. I see more power to the great corporations. More power to the government. Less power to the people. That’s what I fear. Because once this starts, it is irreversible. You see, I want to live in a community that governs itself. Well, you can’t extend the mastery of the government over the daily life of a people without making government the master of those people’s souls and thoughts, the way the fascists and the Bolsheviks have done.

When the onstage discussion had ended and the applause died down, Mr. Vidal retired to the lobby where a seemingly endless line of literally hundreds formed, eager to have him autograph their copies of his books. And he sat, graciously, for more than an hour, signing not only his new book on sale that night, but anything presented to him, ending only when the last fan had been satisfied. In all the years of our hosting authors, I’ve never seen such generosity of spirit, notable especially in light of his age and established fame.

And then, he asked my husband David, who had organized the event, to join him for a quiet midnight hamburger up the street, lightly confessing he shouldn’t, given his health. And that topping gesture revealed the gentle man, at once a man of his own fame and storied history, yet remaining one still seeking connection—perhaps never more than in a world once again gone mad. As a result, he became a good friend and member of the Board of Advisors for the Independent Institute.

We will forever fondly remember this gentle, gracious, and generous man of peace with gratitude, and wish for more like him.

Rest in peace, Gore Vidal, and thank you.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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