Vidal doesn’t go that way, but he hasnbeen flying high as a popular writer. Anmillion five, which I’m told was hisnadvance on Hollywood, may not be anrecord, but it’s nothing to sniffs at,nparticularly when the performance is asnconsistent and reliable as his has been.n”I am,” he likes to say, “the secondrichestnserious writer in the world.”nThis sets the listener up so that thosenwho are lively enough to have elicitednthe performance generally ask who,nthen, is the richest. (It’s Edward Albee,nbut only because Albee bought a lot ofnJasper Johns’ paintings back when theynwere in the lower six figures, and theynhave appreciated and are in the lowernseven now.) After him, it’s Vidal — andnwith books that are not deplorable.nHe’s always good for fun, and there’snalways wit in evidence, an actual livelinessnto the sentences, a syntactical snapnthat is admirable and winning.nI don’t mean this to sound like faintnpraise. To get away with well-madensentences in that kind of book is alreadynan amazing feat. A friend ofnmine was once told by an editor tonremove from his chapter headings thenepigraphs he’d spent much time innhunting down. Why? Because theynreminded people that they were readingna book! This editor’s view was thatnpeople prefer the mental movie to thenactual text on the page, which ideallynshould be totally transparent. It is notnan idea shared by Vidal, who delightsnin the tricks and turns of the Englishnsentence. It is amazing that he getsnaway with this, but he has done so, overnand over again.nBetter, he has written other kinds ofnbooks. He has collections of essays,nmany of which have appeared alongnthe way in the New York Review ofnBooks. And he has his “serious” fiction,nwhich is to say his seriously frivolousnnovels (the lower-middle- andnmiddle-middle-brow reader can forgivenwell-turned phrases but not outrageousnjokes and camp): Two Sisters, MyranBreckinridge, and Duluth are wonderfullynfunny, impishly intelligent booksnhis publisher would prefer not to touchnbecause they are only likely to puzzlenand therefore enrage the readers he hasnattracted by the “American chronicle,”nand the risk is that they will reducenrevenues. Still, for fear that Vidal willntake his herd of literary cash cows intonother pastures, they do what they havento (but without advertising these titles).nHow does he manage this doublenlife? I honestly wish I knew. My bestnguess is that by focusing his attentionnon the prose he is able to operate like angood craftsman and not worry toonmuch about the blueprint, which isnconventional, conservative, and evennretrograde. His appeal, furthermore, isnto a truth beyond the text — which isnwhat the readers in the slower groupnmuch prefer. This is America he’sntalking about, after all. If it is true, as Inbelieve it to be, that the most solemnnbooks any of us ever encountered werenjunior high school social studies texts,nthen Vidal has the authority of thosendouble-columned pages working fornhim as he assures us that we’re notnwasting our time and that this is somehowngood for us, even while it entertains.nHe is like the kid in the classroomnwho could make us laugh, rolling hisneyes and making faces while thenteacher droned on about boring thingsnlike the Zimmerman telegram and itsneffect on Wilson’s neutrality policyn(with which Hollywood actuallynbegins).nVidal avoids condescension. He hasnhis views about Burr and Lincoln andnHearst and Warren G. Harding —nwhose personal style he finds piquantnbut whom he regards nonetheless as anshrewd politician — and it must benpleasing to him to create, more or lessnex nihilo, impressions of these historicalnfigures in the minds of many of hisnfans. It is perhaps for that reason thatnhe is so patient of the constraints of thenpopular novel, accepting the limitationsnof the form the way he acceptednthe limitations of screenwriting andntelevision script-making. It is not justnintelligence that allows him to do thisnbut a sure sense of who he is. His ownnreading — as set forth in Views from anWindow: Conversations with GorenVidal (published ten years ago) — runsnto Flaubert, Proust, James, Meredith,nGeorge Eliot, and Thomas Love Peacock.nAnd he has suggested that Gibbonn”has had as profound an effect onnme as any writer. I don’t mean stylisticallynso much as the effect of hisnattitude.”nThe attitude is that of amused tolerancenthat is nonetheless proud of whatnit can tolerate. Early on, there is anreference to Secretary of the NavynJosephus Daniels as “an amiablennnSouthern newspaper editor, who hatednwar and alcohol and so had beennentrusted with the American Navy.”nThe contempt for Daniels is evident innthe joke, the machinery of which is innthe “and so.”nThat’s a characteristic flick, andnwhat makes Vidal worth reading. It’snheady stuff for best-sellerdom.nDavid R. Slavitt is a poet and novelistnwhose Lives of the Saints wasnrecently published by Atheneum.nThe Age of Nixonnby Russell KirknRichard Nixon and His Americanby Herbert S. ParmetnBoston: Little, Brown and Company;n784 pp., $24.95nThis temperate and thorough bookncommences with a detailed descriptionnof President Nixon’s activitiesnon May 8 and 9, 1970, when thousandsnof young people had poured into Washingtonnto protest the American expeditionninto Cambodia. This was the mostndramatic of the several crises in RichardnNixon’s life. As Dr. Parmet writes,n”Nixon’s postmortem account of thosenagitated days conveyed a detachmentnthat can variously be described as offeringnbrave, strong, determined leadership;nor, to critics, a presidential responsenthat was indifferent andninsensitive to the rebellions tearing thennation he had vowed to reunite.”nThis reviewer can attest that thenformer description, not the latter, is thentruth of the matter. For I spent nearfynan hour, late in the afternoon of thatnFriday, May 8, conversing with Mr.nNixon in the White House, privately—anmeeting unmentioned by HerbertnParmet, although elsewhere hendescribes the correspondence betweennRichard Nixon and Russell Kirk.nOn that fateful afternoon PresidentnNixon did not discuss at all the franticndemonstrations being held in the capi-nJULY 1990/41n