Polymath. Patrician. Pompous. All these words and more have been used frequently to describe the American author Gore Vidal, who died yesterday at the age of 86. Now PublicServiceEurope.com
is not in the habit of writing obituaries, but we wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to a great man - a true individual. With Vidal, you knew you would get the unfiltered truth as he saw it. There was no tribalism and no allegiance to the right despite his moneyed background, none to the left despite his Democratic Party links or even to his own country despite the obvious dangers of not being a patriot in the United States.
In fact, like that other celebrity American intellectual Noam Chomsky
, Vidal was often the most vociferous critic of United States policy and the nation's political leadership. Indeed, Vidal would probably have belonged to the cynicism or stoicism schools of thought had he been around in ancient Greece.
In a prolific and illuminating career – Vidal crafted 25 novels, more than 200 essays and several plays as well as being the go-to commentator for those interested in the evolution of American society and geopolitical change. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress twice and mixed with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Kennedy. His numerous public spats included a vicious battle of words with fellow writer Norman Mailer, whom he somewhat impetuously compared to mass murderer Charles Manson.
But these facts are mere window dressing. To get the real measure of the man, you need to read his work and chuckle along to some of the classic aphorisms he was compelled to say out loud in public forums. Some make you laugh, some make you cringe at the brutal honesty and some of the more hubristic comments simply make you want to scream.
Here is a selection. Enjoy. On the office of United States president: "As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a president has to be these days." On America's position in the world: "We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth, when we're not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic." On the US political system: "Congress no longer declares war or makes budgets. So that's the end of the constitution as a working machine." On the need to be right: "The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so." On elites: "The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return."
On apathy: "Fifty per cent of people won't vote, and fifty per cent don't read newspapers. I hope it's the same fifty per cent." On democracy: "Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates. Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like, painkiller X and painkiller Y. But they're both just aspirin." On the founding fathers of America: "The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country - and we haven't seen them since." On self-obsession: "A narcissist is someone better looking than you are." On human achievement: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail. Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." On his own intellect: "There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."
So there you have it, we must mourn the loss of a unique iconoclast. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these people around. Of course - we are not suggesting that it would be healthy for society if every great thinker or every political leader auditioned for the now vacant position of chairman of the awkward squad. But governments, states and elites and the work they do on behalf of citizens are certainly aided by some brutal honesty and the sorts of checks and balances provided by critical friends like Vidal. In an age of tedious management speak and rampant political obfuscation, we salute you Gore. And we will miss you.