An earlier post this week (below) dealt sufficiently with the passing of Gore Vidal. That done, this one will be brief.
During their lives, Mr. Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. engaged in a running cultural debate that sometimes spilled the banks of civility and swirled into litigation. Each represented an opposite swathe of politics, though each represented his swathe in similarly patrician tones and wordy verse. As years went by, the contention was reduced from roiling boil to gentle simmer – at least, it was for Mr. Buckley. He left their enmity in the 1970s.
Mr. Vidal did not: having outlived his old adversary, he wrote on the occasion of Mr. Buckley’s death “RIP WFB – In Hell.” Not only hateful, but terribly un-literary for a man who paid his bills by writing.
Mr. Vidal’s inability to let by-gones be by-gones might have owed, at the end, to his own historical inadequacy: he was always a gnattering cultural and political critic, but never a mover in his own right.
On the other hand, Mr. Buckley launched an intellectual journal that exists still, and which propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House; the nascent conservatism he fostered gave rise to David Brooks, George Will and more. He hosted a political talk show, Firing Line, for three decades. He was awarded a Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Busch. He did not observe politics; he helped shape it. And when he died, it was an event. Newspapers and print media carried Mr. Buckley’s picture for weeks. A memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; Henry Kissinger spoke.
Mr. Vidal, conversely, left America decades before his death to live on the Amalfi coast. When he died, most people hadn’t thought of him in years. No sitting president called his family to offer condolences. No relative’s best-selling memoir about his exploits was written. His obituarial star burned brightly for 24 hours, then sputtered and went black.
But somewhere aboard a sailboat high above, Mr. Buckley may have noticed his old rival’s departure from the stage, and politely dipped his sails. He could afford to be gracious; in the battle for relevancy, he had won by a landslide.