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

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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?

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