Some years ago when I was trying to decide for myself whom I would call the Great American Writer, I read a lot of and about Gore Vidal. I have since realized that no such Writer exists, and most of what I read about Gore has mercifully passed out of memory.
I am glad that I remember one passage, however, from the diaries of Jay Parini, about a meeting Parini orchestrated in Oxford between Vidal and the famous clown Isaiah Berlin. The passage is reproduced here. When Vidal came to visit him one term, Parini, knowing that his friend “liked meeting people with a reputation for intelligence and wit,” arranged for an evening with the “great historian of ideas.” The curtain rises:
After a long dinner at high table at Christ Church — roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and string beans followed by lemon tart — Gore and I sit with Isaiah Berlin in the hushed Senior Common Room under a portrait of John Locke, one of the most illustrious of former students of the college.
In the tradition of Oxford, I get a bottle of port from the drinks table, although Gore wonders if there is any Scotch. There is, of course. Berlin looks at him sternly.
“That’s John Locke,” I say, nodding to the picture. “He was here in the middle of the 17th century. They pray to him every night after dinner.”
Berlin has intimidated Gore throughout the evening: I’ve never seen that before. He wore a look of childlike amazement on his face throughout the meal. Of course everyone in Oxford considers Berlin the best talker in the university, possibly in Britain. His lectures are flawless performances, without notes, full of quotations that he has memorized verbatim. He seems to have read everything, exuding a wisdom and calm that Gore has rarely encountered.
“I’m sure you know, Gore, that Locke influenced Jefferson,” says Berlin. “Called him the most important man in history, with Bacon and Newton his closest rivals.”
Gore shuffles through memory, looking for the correct notecard. “I think he quoted Locke in the Declaration of Independence,” he says.
“Indeed,” says Berlin. “He was among the first to see that the separation of Church and State was essential in a sane republic.”
“I would get rid of the Church altogether,” Gore says.
“No! We need the Church. I’m a Jew, but I like the fact that people pray. It opens them to an experience beyond the self.”
“Do you believe in God?” Gore wonders.
“That depends, as always, on one’s definition. We’d be very small in this universe without the idea of God.”
“Locke argued for tolerance,” I put in. “He’s the father of tolerance, when it comes to religious belief.”
Berlin nods eagerly. “We’re all liberals, aren’t we? We owe that to our man here.”
“Me?” Gore teases.
“Of course we mean you,” says Berlin. “You’re our guest tonight.”
I can think of nothing more devastating to say about him than what is contained in this portrait.