STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And let's take a moment now to remember Gore Vidal, who died yesterday. He came from a generation of novelists whose fiction gave them a political platform. Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. Kurt Vonnegut became an anti-war spokesman. And Vidal was an all-around critic. His novels sometimes infuriated readers with unflattering portraits of American history. He also wrote essays and screenplays. And his play "The Best Man" is currently on Broadway. Gore Vidal died at his home in Hollywood Hills from complications of pneumonia at the age of 86. From New York, Tom Vitale has this appreciation.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: His father was an all-American quarterback, an Olympic athlete, an instructor at West Point, and co-founder of three airline companies. His mother was a socialite and Broadway actress and the daughter of a United States senator. Despite his privileged background, Gore Vidal told BBC broadcaster Sheridan Morley in 1993 that he was tired of being called patrician.
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GORE VIDAL: I'm a populist, from a long line of tribunes of the people. And I believe the government, to be of any value, must rest upon the people at large and not be the preserve of any elite group or class or anything of a hereditary nature.
VITALE: Throughout a career that spanned six decades, Vidal wrote and published essays that expounded his populist theme against what he called the serious wrong turnings America took in his lifetime.
VIDAL: Then in 1950, after we won the Second World War, which we regarded as our great victory, we were the number one nation on Earth, economically and militarily. Well, Harry Truman, our then president, decided to keep the country on a permanent military standing - forever. The result is we're $4 trillion in debt. We don't have a public education system. We don't have health care. And we have two or three race wars going on. And we are falling back, back, back.
VITALE: Vidal's novels included "Burr," "Lincoln" and "Empire" - historical narratives that also offered a platform for his opinions.
But Time magazine critic Richard Lacayo says that's why Vidal won't be remembered for his fiction.
RICHARD LACAYO: Whereas in his essays, he could make those arguments directly. And because he was such a funny, learned, and also sometimes very bitchy observer, those essays are both a pleasure to read, and to argue with, if you will.
VITALE: Vidal's grandfather, Democratic Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, hoped that his grandson would also go into politics one day - a hope that was dashed, says Richard Lacayo, when the young writer came out as openly bisexual in the early 1950s.
LACAYO: Vidal's third novel was called "The City and the Pillar," and many newspapers wouldn't advertise it because it was a novel with an explicit homosexual relationship in it - and a relationship that didn't involve a transvestite, or some miserable minor character, but it was sort of two regular American guys.
VITALE: Vidal was banished from literary life and went to work for Hollywood - on screenplays including "Ben-Hur" in 1959, and "Caligula" 20 years later. He also wrote plays - including "The Weekend" and "The Best Man," a prescient tale of a political campaign that Vidal turned into a screenplay in 1964.
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CLIFF ROBERTSON: (as Joe Cantwell) I favor tax reform. I think that by cutting down government spending we can eventually eliminate the income tax entirely.
ROBERTSON: (as Joe Cantwell) On Cuba, we've got to get tough. That's all those people really appreciate. And we got to get us more military hardware, because when it comes to defense, we're being sold down the river by the so-called liberal.
VITALE: Gore Vidal eventually returned to fiction, and his ideas - and the way he expressed them in person - made him a favorite of interviewers and talk show hosts. He became a TV celebrity in an era when people like Johnny Carson still featured serious writers.
In 1993, Vidal lamented that literature had lost its place at the center of American culture.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
VIDAL: I said recently to a passing interviewer, I said to the interviewer, you know, I used to be a famous novelist. And the interviewer - she's a very nice woman - she said, oh, well, you're still very well known and, you know, people read your books. And so I said, I'm not talking about me. I'm doing all right. I'm talking about the category. Famous novelist? The adjective is inappropriate to the noun. It's like being - I'm a famous ceramicist.
VIDAL: Well, you can be a good ceramicist. You can be a rich ceramicist. You can be much admired by other ceramicists.
VIDAL: But you aren't famous. That's gone.
VITALE: And so now is one of the most pointed cultural critics of our time.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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