We do not live in a golden age for homegrown and corn-fed radical critics. Legal restrictions on political speech remain few, but informal strictures and the passage of time have muted those who remember—and like—the free, landed republic that this country used to be, before World War II and the monolithic Cold War state that it bore. We are an empire today, the antipode of the virtuous agrarian society that our forefathers envisaged.

Woe betide the independent man, unbeholden to university or think tank, who speaks these truths. Whether left or right, blueblood or wetback, dullard or high wit, the foe of empire invites the pillory. He’s gonna get creamed.

Enter Gore Vidal.

No public figure in present-day America takes a more brutal thrashing from the Arbiters of Acceptable Opinion than Gore Vidal: novelist, essayist, acid celebrity. Although his work, particularly his remarkable chronicle of American history (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Washington, D.C.), is wildly popular with the middlebrow audience, Vidal is vilified by the “vital center,” that loud and puissant band of Cold War liberals and Pentagon-obsessed conservatives.

These attacks have all the subtlety of the commode flush. For instance:

The New Republic branded a Vidal essay on Israel’s US supporters, notably the polemicist Norman Podhoretz, as “brazen racist hate” and pronounced the essayist “ready for the funny farm.”

National Review labeled that same essay “anti-Semitic screaming” by an author who “enjoys a special immunity as an avowed homosexual.”

—Irving Howe of the socialist journal Dissent found the disputed essay “a racist diatribe.”

There is more, in the same vein, but you get the gist. Vidal has offended all three pointy-heads of the regnant American political triangle: the Manhattan-Washington-based neoconservatives, the Manhattan-Washington-based New Class conservatives, and the Manhattan-Washington-based corporate-state socialists. In short, the power elite.

Why the Vidal-hatred? Let us first dispose of the obvious, and wholly unsatisfactory, explanation: his open homosexuality. Vidal has never concealed his taste for inversion; indeed, he published The City and the Pillar in 1948, at no small risk to his career. Too, he has baited William F. Buckley Jr. on this subject, so deftly that the imperturbable Buckley once threatened him: “You queer . . . I’ll sock you in the in face.”

But Vidal is no Harvey Milk. He scoffed at the idea of a “gay political identity” in his quixotic 1982 California campaign for the Senate; apart from endorsing the repeal of sodomy laws on libertarian grounds, Vidal has ignored the homosexual agenda.

Moreover—and anyone who has spent any amount of time in Washington, DC, can attest to this—the grantmunching conservative herd is rife with gay men. Roy Cohn, Terry Dolan, Robert Bauman, and their closeted brethren make Gore Vidal look like a model of candor.

So the Vidal-loathing has much deeper roots than the Beltway Right’s purported aversion to homosexuality. The real source of the rancor is the American past, an epoch that Gore Vidal has spent the last two decades excavating and explicating in his self-described role as “current biographer” of the United States.

Vidal told a young interviewer in The Progressive: “It’s thirty-five years we’ve been a garrison state. Somebody your age doesn’t even remember what the country was like before. I do, and the country was a very good one. It had its problems, but the place worked. For one thing, we believed in the country more. Now nobody understands it. It isn’t taught.”

We have forgotten our past. In Vidal’s own words, “[w]e have no public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” Pre-Depression America has been surgically excised from the national memory, save for its quainter aspects. We are not supposed to know that alternatives once existed—still exist—to industrial capitalism, the permanent war economy, and rootless man. Gore Vidal has not forgotten, and his work is a monument to that past, witness to the climacteric events that marked the way from republic to empire . . . and back again, maybe someday.

“The historical novel,” Henry James once wrote Sarah Orne Jewett, “is condemned . . . to a fatal cheapness . . . You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do.”

Gore Vidal has done it. Grandson of a populist Oklahoma senator, slashing wit of the Kennedy demimonde, Vidal has ever regarded politics at close range. He perfectly apprehends the constitution of the statesman; he is a lucent and experienced anatomist of power. An anatomist, moreover, who appreciates Henry Adams’s twin dicta: “Power is poison,” and politics is “the systematic organization of hatreds.”

With intelligence and caustic humor, Vidal has vivified American history and its great actors. He peoples his chronicles with men of letters—William Leggett, William Cullen Bryant, John Hay, Henry Adams—who are quick with the epigram, the gnome, the illuminating throwaway.

Beyond his flair for reanimating dead statesmen, Vidal succeeds because he has found a grand unifying theme: the growth of the American empire. He has descried, as have few others, the irreconcilable conflicts that delivered us unto that empire: the early tension between republican ideals and the lure of the western lands; Lincoln’s cataclysmic destruction of the loose confederation of states and strengthening of a brand new, centralized, and unitary state; the withering of republican virtue in the flames of the Great Barbecue; Teddy Roosevelt’s vanquishment of the principles of 1776; the exponential growth of government in the wake of the Second World War. (Vidal’s sixth entry in the chronicle will use the League of Nations debate as a backdrop; will pious old Parson Woodrow Wilson ever be the same?)

Vidal has plaintively summarized his politics as such: “I hate the American Empire, and I love the old republic.” He can be didactic on the point: witness this exchange, from the turn-of-the-century novel Empire, between Secretary of State John Hay and Henry Adams, who is in so many ways Vidal’s kindred soul.

“John, it is empire you all want, and it is empire that you have got, and at such a small price, when you come to think of it.” “What price is that?” Hay could tell from the glitter in Adams’s eye that the answer would be highly unpleasant. “The American republic. You’ve finally got rid of it. For good.”

The parallels between Vidal and Henry Adams are many and significant: aristocratic birth, long years in Europe, hints of anti-Semitism, hostility to formal education. To emphasize the affinity, Vidal has made Adams the gray eminence of the latter chronicles, offering droll—and very Vidalian—commentaries.

The most pertinent kinship between the two is ideological. Vidal and Adams are conservatives in a very singular American vein. They are exponents—if not embodiments—of Ben Franklin’s notion of republican virtue. Disparage “the love of power and the love of money,” the rake told the Constitutional Convention, and elect to office “a sufficient number of wise and good men.”

Underneath Gore Vidal’s cynical skin beats the heart of a good government mugwump, surrounded by fetid grafters and power-seekers, forlornly seeking those fabled few good men. The mugwump may be harsh and caustic, as in Adams’s novel of the Gilded Age, Democracy, but the idealism is never quite extinguished.

Thus Adams, the self-proclaimed “conservative Christian anarchist,” and Vidal, whom we might tag “patrician ambisexual republican,” share an ardent and anachronistic passion for the old republic. They are not naifs, blind to the evil that men do; indeed, for sworn enemies of power, both spent an inordinate amount of time within power’s ambit. But they show a familial concern for their country. They bleed richly for it, and when they see its government acting the bully or the slattern they inveigh and protest with the outrage of one who witnesses the desecration of an ancestral tombstone.

In Empire, an extended wake for the old republic, Vidal finally finds his milieu in the dimming twilight of the native aristocracy. Sitting in a parlor with the Henrys, Adams, James, and John Hay, belittling the Blaines and Roosevelts, the corrupt and imbecilic, the parvenu enemies of the republic—this is Gore Vidal’s home.

Vidal’s best books (Burr, Lincoln, Empire) are object lessons in the uses of political power. His Abraham Lincoln has all the depth and appeal of the mythic character found in history books, but the novelist’s Father Abraham differs sharply from the hagiographic porridge fed grade-schoolers. Vidal’s Lincoln is a politician: a skillful manipulator of men, to be sure, but even more he is the grand reconstructor of our polity. He effaces the Founders’ bequest and substitutes, through war, a national government muscular and triumphant, bound for glory and conquest.

Vidal conveys the grandeur of the Rail-splitter’s achievement through the eyes of Lincoln’s secretary of state: “For the first time, Seward understood the nature of Lincoln’s political genius. He had been able to make himself absolute dictator without ever letting anyone suspect that he was anything more than a joking, timid backwoods lawyer.”

His Lincoln is a tyrant, preternaturally shrewd and personally engaging, but a tyrant nevertheless. Vidal’s obvious affection for the protean and undeniably great Lincoln perhaps accounts for the book’s reverent tone; the author’s awe, however, does not cloud his quite unfashionable understanding of the centrality of the Civil War to what the textbooks call the American Experience.

Vidal captures the overriding political significance of the war in this brief exchange in Empire between John Hay and Elihu Root, two examples of fast-fading republican virtue.

“Poor Jefferson thought that he had won, and now we are all Hamiltonians.” “Thanks to the Civil War.”

Recall that the incident that roused Vidal to his attack on Podhoretz was the Commentary editor’s statement that “to me, the Civil War is as remote and irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” The Civil War! (In interviews, Vidal upholds the Confederacy’s right to secede—and when’s the last time you heard a Northern intellectual proclaim himself a Copperhead?)

Vidal’s knotty political iconoclasm has long perplexed liberal observers. He was one of the precious few with the courage to praise Edmund Wilson’s 1963 book, The Cold War and the Income Tax. Wilson’s lament for his beloved country was met with averted eyes and whispers about senility when it appeared, at Camelot’s zenith: fancy an educated man complaining that the national government was accumulating too much power!

Vidal seconded Wilson’s testament, warning that Washington’s postwar power-grab was creating “a rigid Byzantine society where the individual is the state’s creature, his life the property of a permanent self-perpetuating bureaucracy.”

Vidal’s sympathy for rebels and nonconformists extends to those on the right, from tax-protesters to populist tribune George Wallace. Indeed, Vidal endorses Wallace’s sage adage that there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats. “There is only one political party in the United States,” insists Vidal, “and it is the Property Party,” controlled by a vital center directorate of plutocrats, bureaucrats, generals, and various well-off evil-doers. A central function of the Property Party is the stigmatization of real dissent—exemplified by maligning Wallace as a malevolent racist, or Barry Goldwater as a bloodthirsty nuke-crazed monster (unlike . . . Truman?), or Gore Vidal as an anti-Semitic nut.

Vidal elucidates his conspiratorial view in the essay “Homage to Daniel Shays.” If the crankiness sometimes intrudes, Vidal reminds me of Delmore Schwartz’s truism that “paranoids have real enemies, too.” Besides, the Property Party can do that to a man: Henry Adams tells us that he “had become little better than a crank” after inhaling the rank smoke of the bankers and politicians in the brave new world of the 1870’s that Abraham Lincoln had wrought.

The shameful abandonment of early American political values—liberty, decentralism, self-rule—explains, I believe, the shrieking hostility to Gore Vidal. For despite the tartness, the homosexuality, even the seasonal expatriatism, Vidal is an authentic champion of a peculiarly American conservatism, a conservatism vastly nobler than that of the typewriter hawks and blow-dried Republicans of Washington, DC.

With the countenance of an antebellum aristocrat and a flair for the eloquent savagery once so common in American political writing. Gore Vidal is the avenging wraith of Henry Adams, merciless with the empire-lovers and power-lusting intellectuals who have, barnacle-like, leeched themselves onto our decrepit ship of state.

I have, admittedly, ignored Vidalianisms that are inconvenient to my argument or offensive to my tastes. His crack that “the average American voter is forty-seven, blue collar, white, intensely racist . . . and what little he knows of the Bill of Rights he doesn’t like” is the sort of Westchester liberal garbage that one expects from a touchhold relation of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis et al. He is overly partial to fools like Eleanor Roosevelt and Bella Abzug. His most notorious work, Myra Breckenridge, leaves me cold. He is disrespectful of, er, family values that I hold dear.

No matter. Vidal’s novels and essays will outlast his carping contemporaries. Burr and Lincoln and Empire and even “The Empire-Lovers Strike Back” will be read long after back issues of The New Republic molder forgotten. But it remains for conservatives of some future generation to read Gore Vidal as a discerning critic of the empire that Abraham Lincoln, by crushing the localist Confederate rebellion, sired so many years ago. May the blind give birth to the sighted!

Someday the American Empire, like all empires, will collapse. The republic will probably be buried under the debris. And in the ruins of what once constituted mankind’s finest political achievement, archaeologists will discover in the witty dissections of Gore Vidal a prolonged and heartfelt jeremiad. The pity, you will understand, is that he was not heeded.