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Gore Vidal, 'Contrarian-in-Chief'

At 79, his writing is more outrageous than ever, especially about the ruling 'junta' in the White House. Ever
since the events of Sept. 11, CHRISTOPHER DREHER reports, the patrician man of letters has become a
rock star among dissidents -- and a contemptible fool in the eyes of his critics

By CHRISTOPHER DREHER

Saturday, Jul 17, 2004


UPDATED AT 11:10 AM EDT

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"I dread to think what lessons Americans might draw from the examples provided by their government's
behaviour in the post-9/11 orgy of destruction." -- Gore Vidal, July, 2004

It's been a long time since Gore Vidal had a friendly game of backgammon with an American president, which he
used to do with his stepbrother-in-law John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

Even more has changed since his United States: Essays 1952-92 won the National Book Award in 1993, and
earned the sort of thunderous praise that seemed to augur an autumn in the pantheon of literary heavyweights.

He was, as Newsweek gushed, "the best all-around man of letters since Edmund Wilson," who in addition to plays,
screenplays and hundreds of essays has published 22 novels ranging from the sex-change fantasia Myra
Breckinridge (1968) to Empire (1987) about W.R. Hearst and Theodore Roosevelt.

Yet instead of settling into the quieter role of elderly sage, the 79-year-old author has become an even more
contentious figure in the past five years.

Perhaps the first hint of his sharpening edge came in 1998 when he started corresponding with Timothy McVeigh,
the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombing, trying to understand the meaning of a former Gulf War hero
choosing such a deadly act. His observations, very different from the mainstream media's lone-evil-nut mantra,
came out in a controversial article in Vanity Fair.

It appeared in the September, 2001, issue, on the eve of an action by another self-professed warrior and mass
killer, whose impact would boost Mr. Vidal's late-season intensity even further. Not much later, he would compare
Osama bin Laden with Mr. McVeigh: "Each was enraged by our government's reckless assaults upon other
societies as we pursued what a great American historian has called perpetual war for perpetual peace."

His three post-Sept. 11 books are characterized by detractors as a primer for the stranger theories held by the
"loony" left, while his admirers see them as a devastating attack on imperialism by one of the few real defenders of
the republic. Mr. Vidal is often quoted at rallies, and his books are traded around with the enthusiasm usually
reserved for adolescents sharing a Playboy.

For a best-selling political author, he has received little attention from mainstream media outlets, perhaps partly
because of his unsparing ridicule of media bastions such as The New York Times and Newsweek, let alone the
television networks.

"I was hardly surprised by the relative blackout that I have enjoyed in the U.S. media," he says, "since my
suggesting that 9/11 might have resulted from misdeeds on our part."

His first two volumes after the attacks (he calls them "pamphlets") were 2002's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: