Boyd Tonkin: Thank God Gore Vidal lost that election in 1960

Writers thrive best on the edge of the political volcano and resist the temptation to dive in

Share
Related Topics

One evening, when I dined with Gore Vidal, he told me all about the time he outpolled his good friend Jack Kennedy. There: does that capture the late Master's sleek tone of name-dropping omniscience? In fact, Vidal used to tell pretty much everyone how, in the US elections of November 1960, he had run as a Democrat in a staunchly Republican congressional district of upstate New York. Think Don and Betty Draper's suburb in Mad Men. He outperformed the future president, but still lost heavily by 43 to 57 per cent.

I would have liked to shake the hand of the long-forgotten J Ernest Wharton. He trounced Vidal and so spared a peerlessly sharp and suave literary entertainer from all the compromises and frustrations of elected office. Since ancient Athens, communicators – orators, preachers, writers, journalists and now TV presenters – have been tempted by the lure of politics. It feels like such a natural fit for those who live by the power of persuasive and emotive words.

Well, after more than two millennia of literary dilettanti entering the ballots, the results have come in – and, in spite of some notable exceptions, their meaning looks clear. Don't do it. Most obviously, bids for election can waste the time, and rob long stretches from the creative career, of well-intentioned but naive idealists who should have spent those years writing. In 1990, the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa came top of the first-round poll in Peru's presidential election, standing as a pro-free market liberal. Then his populist rival Alberto Fujimori's spin machine got to work, presenting him as too rich, too white, too snobby for the toiling masses of the Andes.

The writer lost in the run-off. He converted the debacle into a fine memoir (A Fish in the Water), went back to his desk and, two decades later, won the Nobel Prize. As for Fujimori, he revealed himself as a tyrannical crook of epic dimensions, later jailed for embezzlement, kidnapping and murder. President Vargas Llosa would never have committed such crimes – but then neither could an active statesman ever have written his 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat, one of the greatest ever fictions of dictatorship.

Writers thrive best when they stand on the edge of the political volcano. Yet the temptation to dive in can be too strong to resist. In 2009, the philosopher Michael Ignatieff became the first Booker Prize-shortlisted author to stand a chance of running a major Western nation when he took over as leader of Canada's Liberal Party. Bad move. In last May's election, the stiff and slow Ignatieff was outmanoeuvred and the Liberals went down to a calamitous defeat.

Ignatieff suffered the usual slurs now flung at writers on the stump: over-cerebral, out of touch, elitist. But the perceived handicap of intellect is a modern affliction, born of mass-media democracy. Further back, super-bright literati could indeed rise in politics – but it didn't always mean they kept their hands clean. Consider one of the most brilliant intellectuals of his age: a scholar-writer admired around the world of learning, and author of a visionary blueprint for the perfect state. He became chief minister under a capricious, charismatic ruler, but used his time in office to persecute dissidents before, inevitably, losing his own life when the tyrant turned against him. Soviet Russia? Mao's China? No: the trajectory of Thomas More, heretic-burning Chancellor of England from 1529 until 1532.

All the same, some writers have acquitted themselves not only with honour but success in the public realm. In general, they belong in two camps. First come the nation-builders: thinkers who, in colonial conditions or the early days of statehood, take on the task of imagining what a new order might mean and then set out to realise their dream. In 19th-century Argentina, the historian-philosopher Domingo Sarmiento not only became president but did much to modernise his country. When Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, it fortunately had as its first president the poet and scholar Léopold Senghor, not only a pioneering African leader, but one who ensured his nation's stability.

Authors in office can also flourish when a system is bust and they, by virtue of their status as courageous critics of the old regime, seem well equipped to fix it. No recent figure proves the point better than Vaclav Havel. After the downfall of the Communist state that imprisoned him, the absurdist playwright looked like the sanest man in Czechoslovakia. His long tenure as president of a free country had its ups and downs, but he never betrayed his literary ideals.

No general rule about writers in politics can ever account for the mavericks and outliers. As hack columnist and popular historian, Winston Churchill earned 30 times his meagre parliamentary salary from authorship during the 1930s – although when, in 1953, the wartime leader won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it certainly wasn't for the finesse of his prose. Take the case of a cocky, flamboyant man of letters who writes fanciful romances: the upmarket chick-lit of his time. Then his register as a novelist deepens. He produces a remarkable trio of condition-of-England novels that diagnose the ills of his era and proclaim his ambitions as a reformer. Meanwhile, his political party implodes; he climbs up the "greasy pole" (a phrase he coined) amid the ruins, and becomes prime minister, not once but twice. That was Benjamin Disraeli. As it happens, another prolific author of pop romances sits on the Tory benches of the Commons again. Has Louise Mensch MP been studying her great forerunner's career?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most