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October 3: Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal (1925)

Gore Vidal

It was on this date, October 3, 1925, that American writer Gore (Eugene Luther) Vidal Jr was born in West Point, New York, where his father was an instructor at the military academy. He grew up near Washington, DC, in the house of his blind grandfather, the populist Democrat, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma. He took his grandfather's family name for his first name, and remained Gore Vidal throughout his writing life.

During World War II, Vidal served with the Army Reserve Corps in the Aleutian Islands. The war itself provided material for Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, published in 1946, when its author was almost 21. After receiving encouraging reviews, he published more novels, branched out into theater, film and television, and piled up an impressive list of credits.

These included Visit to a Small Planet for TV (1955); screenplays for the films Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Is Paris Burning? (1966), and Myra Breckinridge (1968); The Best Man a play (1960), the novels Julian (1964), Washington D.C. (1967), Burr (1974), Creation (1981), Lincoln (1984), Empire (1987), and Live from Golgatha (1992), a collection called United States: Essays 1952-1992 (1993), the autobiographical Palimpsest (1995), and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (2002).

An unsuccessful political candidate himself, Vidal has never been shy in writing about politics. He has described Ronald Reagan as "a triumph of the embalmer's art," and publicly worried about the Bible-based policies of George W. Bush:

[H]e certainly is worse. We've never had a kind of reckless one who may believe – and there's a whole theory now that he's inspired by love of Our Lord – that he is an apocalyptic Christian who'll be going to Heaven while the rest of us go to blazes. I hope that isn't the case. I hope that's exaggeration.[1]

As a self-described "born-again atheist," Vidal says he is one of the last defenders of the idealized Jeffersonian Republic. Against what? Here is how he put it in his Decline and Fall of the American Empire (1992):

In the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Founders made it clear that this was not to be a sky-god nation with a national religion like that of England, from whom we had just separated. ... This separation was absolute in our original Republic. But the sky-godders do not give up easily. In the 1950s they actually got the phrase "In God We Trust" onto the currency, in direct violation of the First Amendment.[2]

Further, Vidal pointed out,

The original gentlemen's agreement between Church and State was that We the People (the State) will in no way help or hinder any religion while, absently, observing that as religion is a good thing, the little church on Elm Street won't have to pay a property tax. No one envisaged that the most valuable real estate at the heart of most of our old cities would be tax exempt, as churches and temples and orgone boxes increased their holdings and portfolios. The quo for this huge quid was that religion would stay out of politics and not impose its superstitions on Us the People. The agreement broke down years ago. The scandalous career of the Reverend Presidential Candidate Pat Robertson is a paradigm.[3]

In 1972 Vidal made a second home in a palazzo in Ravello, Italy, splitting his time between there and a home in California. Although he still writes about religion's influence on politics – "The idea of a good society is something you do not need a religion and eternal punishment to buttress; you need a religion if you are terrified of death," he says – the remainder of the public that still reads, reads only his political pamphlets. Says Vidal,

I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam – good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.[4]

Gore Vidal died at his California home on July 31, 2012. His obituary at Huffington Post concluded with this quote: "Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy's edge," he once wrote, "all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. "Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all."

[1] "The Erosion of the American Dream," interview in Counterpunch, 14 March 2003, with Mark Davis (transcript of Gore Vidal's March 12 interview on Dateline, SBS TV Australia).
[2] Gore Vidal, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1992, p. 79.
[3] Gore Vidal, "The New Theocrats" in The Nation, July 21, 1997.
[4] Gore Vidal, At Home, 1988, quoted in James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief, 1996.

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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April 27: Mary Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft argued that to obtain social equality society must rid itself of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies.

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