From Gore Vidal, in an essay written in the early 90s but quite appropriate for today:
Almost forty years ago, I heard Secretary of State John Foster Dulles say that of course our foreign policy (as outlined in the then-secret National Security Council Memorandum 68) would lead to an arms race with the Soviet Union but that, as we were richer, they could cave in first. Dulles was right. They did. But he had not taken into account the economic cost to us or, worse, that in the process we would lose the old Republic and its Constitution, so revered by its current destroyers.
That last sentence is absolutely perfect. I still think HL Mencken was the greatest essayist America has ever produced, but Vidal is a close second. I’ve just received a new copy — having long ago worn out the old one — of his essay collection United States, which contained essays from 1952 to 1992. I also received the next volume, which covers from 1992 to 2000.
Unfortunately, I think Vidal has gone a bit loopy since then, and especially since 9/11. These days in public appearances he comes across more as a crank and a bully than a serious thinker. Since he is now 85 years old, perhaps that is to be expected to some degree.
But still, for the last half of the 20th century — perfect timing to replace Mencken, coincidentally — he was the nation’s finest practitioner of the art of the essay, my favorite written form. Very much like Mencken again, he was such a brilliant wordsmith that even when you disagreed with him, you could not help but be awestruck by the perfection of his prose.
On my very best day, when my thoughts and words flow effortlessly and I write as well as I can write, I am still aware that I am operating at a fraction of the perfection attained by Mencken and Vidal on their most unproductive days.