FEBRUARY 7, 2021
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH his 1984 novel Lincoln, Gore Vidal has the notoriously long-legged and honest US president spring an all-timer of a trap. His victim: Salmon P. Chase, an accomplished former governor of Ohio, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. For weeks Chase had been duplicitously back-channeling with his friends in the Senate, setting in motion his own plan to unseat Lincoln and run for president as the Republican nominee in 1864. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Lincoln saw through the scheme and ended Chase’s presidential bid by making a fool of the former governor and all his friends at a carefully orchestrated Cabinet meeting. It was a political masterstroke that neither Chase nor the senators ever saw coming and a hit so well-sprung that it sunk whatever intra-party putsch the conspirators had cooking. “I am the master here,” Lincoln says with a wry, wolfish grin as he walks one of his vanquished guests toward the door.
Bold, clever, and in command — meet Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. The man was a political specimen. He had the guile and charm of the savviest operator and the instincts of a political predator. His ruining of Chase and the Republican Senate cabal may have been the crowning moment of the narrative, but it was only one example among many of him outmaneuvering foes and entrenching his power, something most doubted the humble and unassuming Illinoisan was capable of. The novel is filled with similar scenes of Lincoln unleashing the full breadth of his political prowess. The second installment in the author’s “Narratives of Empire” series, Lincoln is a 600-plus-page testament to the artful craft of politics. Rarely do readers ever escape the parlors of Washington, and the constant intrigue and gamesmanship carries the story all the way to the only place it could end — a blood-stained box-suite in the upper balcony of Ford’s Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865.
It is odd to see Lincoln presented in such a way — not because he wasn’t an expert politician and able strategist, but because most of us have only ever been acquainted with old honest Abe of myth and legend. We know him as an American folk tale — or tall tale, what with his long legs and signature stovepipe hat. Even once we move past the folklore and begin to grasp Lincoln as he was, there are so many different Lincolns to get through. There’s Lincoln the rail-splitter and country lawyer; there’s Lincoln “the Great Emancipator” and Civil War savior; there’s even Lincoln the manic depressive, an aggrieved husband and father who liked to tell dry, ribald jokes to fight off his interminable sadness. Of course, the Lincoln we know best is the Lincoln that history gave us, for when John Wilkes Booth fired a shot into the great man’s skull, he sanctified the 16th American president as perhaps the closest thing we have to an American martyr, someone who saved the nation and later died — on Good Friday, mind you — for all its sins.
The truth is that we have so many different Lincolns because in him we see so much of ourselves. As the title of a recent volume of essays puts it, he is “Our Lincoln.” We narrate our national history through his life, and it is through his words that we try and understand our terrible Civil War — “our new birth of freedom,” as he described it at Gettysburg. But Lincoln also speaks to us in some strange way because he calls us to our “better angels.” He invites us to be transcendent versions of ourselves and reminds us that we all have it in us to be a little larger than life. “[O]f us and yet beyond us,” is how Harold Bloom describes Vidal’s portrait of him. Entirely human, yet exceptional and better, a man who rose to the moment and left a mark on the world even as the world marked him. That was Lincoln. In a way, it was also Gore Vidal.
I was first introduced to Vidal via the 2015 documentary Best of Enemies, a brilliant little film about the birth of political punditry on TV. As the story goes, in 1968 the ABC network — then a distant third behind NBC and CBS — decided to up its election coverage by having William F. Buckley, the conservative kingmaker and founder of National Review, and Vidal, a known liberal, debate the issues after each night of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. It was the first time any such debate had occurred, and the film manages to tie multiple threads into one. Not only did you have a hapless network (at one point, ABC’s set literally fell down) unwittingly making TV history, but Buckley and Vidal went at it like two banty roosters in a barnyard, escalating what was already a venomous blood feud between them. This was also 1968: Lyndon B. Johnson had chosen not to seek reelection, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been killed, Vietnam had sunk further into its quagmire, and Chicago erupted as student protestors clashed with police and Americans watched helplessly.
Though tweedy and high-brow, Vidal knew how to fight. Throughout the film, his arguments about the dangers of Buckley-embodied conservatism cut hard, as did his barbs and jabs. He had apparently prepared his best material beforehand, and he sprung his traps with expert precision. “He’s always to the right, I think, and almost always in the wrong,” he quipped of his opponent, just before calling Buckley the “Marie Antoinette of the right-wing.” Admittedly, in the wake of the mind-numbingly bad Biden-Trump debate, there is something all too familiar about Buckley versus Vidal. Both men talked over each other, at each other, and the climax arrived when the two almost came to blows live on air. In the second-to-last debate, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” and the conservative growled back: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamned face, and you’ll stay plastered.” And that was it. The two held one final debate, but that was the moment everyone remembers and the moment that made this experiment in political punditry must-watch television.
In hindsight, perhaps the most interesting thing about the Vidal-Buckley debates — aside from the preview they offered of the corrosive politics of our current moment and the nonstop, pundit-driven hell in which we live — is that they came at an important juncture in Vidal’s career. By 1968, he was already widely known as the groundbreaking, if controversial, novelist of books like Williwaw (1946) and The City and the Pillar (1948), two early works that feature sympathetic portrayals of homosexual protagonists (Vidal himself identified as bisexual, though he was always suspicious of categorizing sexuality, especially his own). And indeed, in early 1968, he received notoriety and acclaim with Myra Breckinridge, a deeply satirical, erotically charged best seller about a transgender woman who brings female domination to the boys’ clubs of Hollywood studios. Critics called it pornography; to Vidal, it was just norm-breaking, sensibility-exposing satire of the kind he would revisit in Myron (1974), a sequel to Myra Breckinridge, and Duluth (1983).
Yet around the time of his on-air showdown with Buckley, Vidal’s fiction was evolving. He began to write more about politics in the form of historical fiction. He released Julian, a novel set in ancient Rome, in 1964, and in 1967, he published Washington, D.C., a tale of a well-connected political family set during the Roosevelt years. While not as historically grounded as Lincoln or some of his other works, Washington, D.C. was the first of what would soon become his “Narratives of Empire” series. It was followed by Burr in 1973, and in 1976 came 1876, a novel set around the contested election of that year — which Vidal considered our national low point. Lincoln came next in 1984. By 2000, Vidal had produced a stunning seven-part series chronicling the rise of the United States as an imperial superpower.
Keen, critical, often irreverent and absurd, each installment in the “Narrative of Empire” series captures the shifting nature of wealth, power, and politics in American life. Not content with vainglorious stories of American exceptionalism, Vidal muddied the waters. He cut founding fathers down to size and reveled in the corrupt influences of machine politics (in 1876), the news media (in Empire ), and Hollywood film (in Hollywood ). Lincoln, though, was a bit different. Despite presenting Lincoln as a shrewd actor unafraid to show his teeth, and despite casting Lincoln as a pragmatic white supremacist who abolished slavery as a wartime political measure only, Vidal retained a certain understated affection for the man. His Lincoln was never perfect; he was never meant to be. But in his witty, folkish, and always charming way, Vidal’s Lincoln managed to evolve and play the long game — all while managing a war and transforming a nation in the process. It was the kind of power and resolve a discerning political writer like Vidal could respect.
Admittedly, the pairing doesn’t make much sense. Lincoln was a prairie lawyer and former rail-splitter. His skeptics thought he was little more than a country rube, and he had a high, almost whistling voice that didn’t command much respect. Vidal, by contrast, played the part of a noble patrician and played it well. He lived in a seaside Italian estate and spoke in the outdated dialect of a well-born gentleman. That said, the two had overlapping sensibilities. Lincoln never spoke much of his father; neither did Vidal. Both men could write: Lincoln was lyrical where Vidal was sharp, elegant, and often polemical. And importantly, too, both Lincoln and Vidal had a thing for drama. Lincoln adored Shakespeare and liked to tell a good story. Vidal, on the other hand, wrote stage plays and made a living telling good stories.
Still, it was Vidal’s longstanding interest in politics that brought the two men together. His maternal grandfather was an old Populist-Progressive who served two terms as a senator from Oklahoma. As a young boy, Vidal worked on the Hill as his grandfather’s page. The experience was no doubt formative. It likely gave him insight into the kind of sausage-making that was at the core of American politics. It also explains an important part of Lincoln. Two of its principal characters — the two that brought the story into the brothels and backrooms of DC, the two who heard more whispers than most — were Lincoln’s key aides, John Nicolay and John Hay. Both men later became the custodians of Lincoln’s memory by co-authoring the first official biography, but in the novel, they are right where Vidal once was. They couriered mail, drew up documents, sent messages. Moreover, they watched — often mystified — as a man they considered a father, someone they affectionately called “The Ancient” and “The Tycoon,” bedeviled his opponents with one hand while managing the war with the other. The two Johns recognized Lincoln’s greatness from the start; that Vidal told the story through them tells us that he did, too.
This brief time spent serving as a page to his grandfather would be the closest Vidal ever got to a seat of real political power — but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1960, with his career as a novelist already in full swing, he ran for a Congressional seat in the Hudson Valley as a Democrat. His campaign brought out the heavy hitters. Eleanor Roosevelt supported him, as did Jackie and John Kennedy, both of whom he knew personally. But he lost, which removed him from formal politics until 1982, when he ran a quirky primary challenge against Jerry Brown for a California Senate seat. He again lost this, his final race (so did Brown, in the general election), and though he had always operated on the outskirts of formal politics as a kind of insurgent force, he now entered permanent gadfly territory.
He would never run again, but he never stopped writing. Lincoln came out two years later, followed by Empire and Hollywood, and it was in this period that he perfected the art of the political essay, writing as trenchantly and pointedly about politics as he ever had before.
Writing Lincoln must have been cathartic. In it, Vidal got to needle the things that, politically, always needled him. For example, he had his Lincoln repeatedly whip Chase, a religiously devout and idealistic do-gooder with an ambitious ego the size of Ohio, his native state. In addition, one of the villains in the story is a man named William Sprague, Chase’s eventual son-in-law and a dull knave of a man who ends up committing treason just so he could keep his cotton mills running and preserve his family fortune, a rogue member of the new capitalist class if ever there was one. Vidal even knifed at William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, whom the president later befriended and trusted as a close personal confidant. Though Vidal seemed at times to appreciate Seward’s pragmatic style, not to mention his taste for good brandy, he never passed up a chance to assail the Secretary for his dreams of one day conquering Canada, Mexico, and eventually the whole of South America. To a staunch anti-imperialist like Vidal, attacking the quiet architect of America’s emerging imperial order (Seward would purchase Alaska and press for expansion into the Caribbean and the American West) was like a prize-fighter pummeling his favorite practice bag.
Writing Lincoln must have also been cathartic in the sense that it let Vidal breathe a little life into his own self-perceived greatness. Just as we pin our national identity onto Lincoln’s legacy, so Vidal penned his own ill-fated political aspirations into the story of Lincoln’s rise and fall. He was “The Ancient” and “The Tycoon”; Lincoln’s greatness was his greatness. Even if only by proxy, Vidal became the cunning and in-command politician he always thought he could be, someone who defined an age by wrestling history and outdoing enemies. It was a chance, in other words, to return to the arena, to recover the liberal champion who locked horns with Bill Buckley and debated the all-important issues of 1968, a year as age-defining as any. In that sense, writing Lincoln was like a great painter painting his self-portrait. The only difference is that Vidal traded his face for another — one with deeper, sadder eyes — and replaced his signature suit and tie with a black duster and a stove-pipe hat.
Perhaps this explains Vidal’s peevishness in response to his critics. In 1987–’88, he instigated a brief kerfuffle in the letters section of The New York Review of Books over a minor swipe from Yale historian C. Vann Woodward. Woodward wasn’t even reviewing the book; he merely alluded to Vidal as a fiction writer who played fast and loose with historical truth, citing scholars who had taken issue with Lincoln. Well, Vidal wrote back with all the bite we’ve come to remember him for. Labeling his critics “scholar-squirrels,” he indicted them for being so delusional as to not know the difference between history and fiction, and the licenses in between. Richard Current and Harold Holzer — two of the historians Vidal shaded — wrote back, and Vidal responded with another lengthy, bad-tempered reply. He defined what he meant by “scholar-squirrels” — “academic careerists” who “spend their lives trying to be noted and listed and graded and seeded because such rankings determine their careers” — and referred to the exchange as “savory scholar-squirrel stew time again!” For a man of Vidal’s success, the whole back and forth seemed juvenile, but it was also personal. In criticizing his Lincoln, the critics had criticized him.
On the substance, those who criticized Vidal’s Lincoln did so because they believed it was a fanciful take on Lincoln the man. Current — the supposed Dean of Lincoln scholars — claimed that it was Vidal who was writing hagiography. Vidal’s Lincoln, he said, was “an oversimplified and fragmentary character,” absent the “complexities and ambiguities of his life and times.” I’m not so sure that’s true. Vidal’s Lincoln was as complex as he was, only Vidal never shied away from Lincoln’s greatness. In the penultimate page of the novel, he has John Hay reflect back on Lincoln in a way that sums up exactly where he himself stood. When asked if he would rate Lincoln higher than George Washington in the pantheon of American presidents, Hay says yes:
Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington’s. You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said, no. Lincoln said, this Union can never be broken. Now that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.
“You astonish me,” Hay’s interlocutor replies, and Hay responds, “Mr. Lincoln astonished us all.”
For the better part of six decades — from his first novel to his death in 2012 — so did Gore Vidal.