At its most florid, which is frequently, Gore Vidal’s prose style resembles the well-oiled musings of a professional wit on the banquet circuit, who regales his moist, heavily breathing listeners with elegant postprandial tales just outré enough to stir their digestive juices. But with his bizarre essay in the September Vanity Fair, “The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh,” the expat contrarian has crossed into creepier territory. Vidal’s increasingly untethered rage at the federal government, combined with his sympathy for a man he regards as misunderstood, leads him to more or less explicitly argue that McVeigh’s murder of 168 people was more defensible than the government raid at Waco that killed more than 80 Branch Davidians.
It is a grotesque and morally offensive position, and Vidal’s familiar self-congratulatory, ponderous, weirdly digressive style only makes it more so. Usually, Vidal’s pieces amuse even if you don’t agree with them: This piece seems a little unhinged, like one of those submissions that come in an envelope completely covered in tiny writing and filled with confetti clippings from magazines. It’s hard to imagine that the editors of Vanity Fair didn’t feel a little queasy about publishing this piece: Would such a rambling, borderline exercise, filled with obsessive attacks on the obscure Catholic order Opus Dei and the like, even have been considered if its author wasn’t famous? Celebrity bylines are granted sprawling license in celebrity bibles like Vanity Fair.
Vidal corresponded with McVeigh for three years, a fact which serves as the impetus for the piece. He quotes some of McVeigh’s letters to him (which serve mainly to confirm that McVeigh did indeed think of himself as a soldier in a righteous battle against an evil government). He raises some legitimate questions about whether McVeigh acted alone, and some less legitimate ones about whether he was involved at all, and takes some fair shots at the FBI. But what Vidal really is doing here is launching a wild roundhouse — think Socialist Workers Party handouts — against the federal government and the Media (yes, he does spell it like that), and giving McVeigh a disturbing posthumous kiss.
Vidal’s hatred of the Media, that hideous octopus of conformity and mind control (Condé Nast’s opulent Vanity Fair apparently excepted), seems to have been exacerbated to the point of mania by an incident he relates in which “Good Morning, America” talking head Charles Gibson pulled the plug on him when he dared bring up Waco as an explanation for McVeigh’s crime. Whatever the reason, Vidal is led to sophomoric pronouncements like “Since McVeigh had been revealed as evil itself, no one was interested in why he had done what he had done. But then ‘why’ is a question the Media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful …”
In fact, contrary to Vidal’s assertion, McVeigh’s hatred of the government and obsession with Waco was widely reported. (For one thing, everybody in the country quickly learned that when arrested McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt bearing the Thomas Jefferson quote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”) It seems not to have occurred to Vidal that one could legitimately consider McVeigh to be both a black-helicopter-fearing kook and “evil itself” — a crude phrase, but as useful as any to describe a human cypher who killed 168 people without emotion or remorse.
It isn’t the fact that the Media didn’t acknowledge Waco as a motive that really exercises Vidal — it’s the fact that the Media didn’t agree with him that the debacle at Waco, as well as other disturbing abuses of federal power that Vidal rightfully condemns, was in any way a legitimate provocation for an act of mass murder. Vidal is too cagey to come right out and say that McVeigh’s action was justified, but the very fact that he leaves his attitude on this question vague says all that needs to be said.
Indeed, Vidal does nothing to dispel the morally pornographic impression that he regards McVeigh as a fighter in the good fight — and as such worthy of hagiographic prose. Vidal writes, “The stoic serenity of McVeigh’s last days certainly qualified him as a Henley-style hero. [W.E. Henley wrote "Invictus," the poem McVeigh copied out in his final days.] He did not complain about his fate: took responsibility for what he was thought to have done; did not beg for mercy as our always sadistic Media require.”
That is a pretty nauseating statement. But the really instructive passage follows. “[H]e seems more and more to have stumbled into the wrong American era,” Vidal writes. “Plainly, he needed a self-consuming cause to define him. The abolition of slavery or the preservation of the Union would have been more worthy of his life than anger at the excesses of our corrupt secret police. But he was stuck where he was and so he declared war on a government that he felt had declared war on its own people.”
The rhetoric of this passage is worth examining closely. Vidal writes that other causes “would have been more worthy of [McVeigh's] life.” This implies that McVeigh’s act, even if mistaken (though Vidal never says that it was) was more or less a noble sacrifice in the service of a higher cause. To see what a shocking statement this is, simply substitute the words “more worthy of his killing 168 people.” But for Vidal, harping on the 168 people McVeigh killed is sentimental bosh, the kind of received Moral Dogma promulgated by the Media in its evil attempt to stifle all Thought. The line “But he was stuck where he was” is equally slippery. It can be read figuratively, to mean that McVeigh lacked the moral judgment to see that his cause was wrong. But it seems far more likely that Vidal really meant the loftier “But no man can choose the age into which he is born, and so McVeigh, alas, had to settle for firing a righteous salvo at our corrupt secret police.”
Of course, Vidal has an important point to make about corruption in high American places. From Waco to the war on drugs to draconian anti-terrorism measures, the list of abuses of federal power is long and deserves constant exposure. But what possessed Vidal, who hitherto has played the more or less respectable role of the disloyal opposition in exile, to defend McVeigh? What made him join hands with the militia-and-black-helicopter crowd? Vidal has long made a living as a counterpuncher, and it’s an important role. But there are some subjects on which it simply doesn’t pay to be a contrarian, and mass murder is one of them.