No matter what you think of Gore Vidal, whose gleefully provocative life ended last week, you can't lose by watching a public-TV profile that's as handy as the computer before you.
As a sendoff for him, PBS has made "The Education of Gore Vidal," a 2003 documentary, available free on its website for streaming until 11:59 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9.
As someone who has read only his "Vidal in Venice," rather than his more famous or notorious writings, I won't presume to weigh in on his eternal standing. Well, only this much: If the once-imperial city of Venice interests you, "Vidal in Venice" will enable you to relish its crumbling glories and tumultuous history as richly as if you were sitting across him at a cafe table at St. Mark's square.
In his books, essays and mass-media sorties, Vidal relished dissecting the crumbling glories -- as he saw the situation -- and tumultuous history of the United States. "The Education of Gore Vidal" zeroes in on that.
If you agree with him that the country's greatness has been derailed by corporate money and politicians' hunger for powers, you'll find plenty of opportunities here to say, Amen. If you want no part of such notions, you can savor watching William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer face off against Vidal in famous TV footage from the 1960s.
Either way, it should be eye-opening to discover how Vidal was set up right from childhood to take up such sweeping topics.
He grew up in Washington. Before he was even a teenager, he was serving his grandfather -- an Oklahoma senator who was blind -- as a seeing-eye escort around the Senate chamber and cloakroom. The wheeling and dealing played out right in front of him. He made acquaintance with the media as a boy, too. Vidal's father was an airline executive, and when an airplane came along that was allegedly simple enough for a 10-year-old to fly, young Vidal was put at the controls as the newsreel cameras whirred.
With a youth like that, it would've been un-American for Vidal not to make a mark in life. One last tidbit from "The Education": Standing outside the site of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in 2000, Vidal recalls attending his first national convention at his grandfather's side in 1940. Today, he says, the quadrennial exercises have little to do with big choices or important issues.
"Conventions aren't conventions any more," Vidal says. "It's just sort of a commercial."
(Gore Vidal photo: Photofest)