If you don’t mind, please name five current celebrities who everybody in America knows……
……Okay, are you done? Good. I have no idea who is on your list (mine is Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, and Katy Perry), but I do know that you didn’t name a single intellectual.
That’s because there are absolutely no celebrity intellectuals today. The last one died in 2012. His name was Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is a loving, reverent documentary about one of the towering celebrity figures of the 20th Century. Gore lived to be 86. But based on the film, it was as if he did enough exciting things to take up two full lifetimes.
Vidal was born into a passionately political family. He was raised by his grandfather, who was a U.S. senator during the early decades of the 20th Century.
Vidal’s grandfather was one of eight senators to vote against the declaration of World War I. In perhaps the movie’s most powerful clip, we see a fiery speech by the senator in defense of his unpopular position. “I say to the women of America: I would never rob your cradles to feed the dogs of war.”
It was a brave, provocative speech in defense of an unpopular issue. This pretty much sums up what Gore Vidal did again and again throughout his career.
Young Gore Vidal found immediate success as a novelist. But when he released a novel – The City and the Pillar – that featured explicit gay sex scenes, Vidal suddenly found himself shunned by the literary establishment.
Undaunted, Vidal moved out to Hollywood, became close friends with Paul Newman, and made a decent living as a screenwriter.
Vidal was inspired by his friend John F. Kennedy. Vidal campaigned for Kennedy and ran for Congress in 1960.
Vidal lost the election. And he lost his political idealism by the end of Kennedy’s presidency. In one of the film’s most memorable clips – from about 1965 – Vidal rips apart JFK’s legacy, accusing him of doing nothing positive and blaming him for the Vietnam War.
The disappointment of the Kennedy years left Gore Vidal more cynical, more negative, more extreme, and more eager to offend.
Vidal moved to Italy with life partner, Howard Austen, and penned a series of popular, provocative historical novels and essays. He famously argued that Abraham Lincoln didn’t really want to free the slaves. And that FDR was complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor because he was eager to start fighting WWII.
Vidal was often wrong. In the late 60s, he predicted that the counter culture and civil rights movements would lead to a revolution. In the early 80s, he predicted that the Reagan administration’s goal was to start an apocalyptic nuclear war. After the Patriot Act was signed into law, Vidal predicted that America would soon become an undemocratic police state.
Throughout the decades, though, Gore Vidal remained a witty, uncompromising voice in defense of personal liberty, pacifism, and atheism.
And he also partied with Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Johnny Carson, Sting, and Tennessee Williams. He was truly a celebrity intellectual. I wonder if there will ever be another one.