Gore Vidal. My afternoon with an American political icon

Credit: Linda Sutton

Gore Vidal passed on yesterday in his Hollywood home around 6:45pm due to complications from pneumonia. He was an internationally acclaimed social analyst and as Elaine Woo reported for the LA Times, “a literary juggernaut who wrote novels including ‘Lincoln’ and satirical ‘Myra Breckinridge,’—essays critics consider among the most elegant in the English language.”

Vidal won the National Book Award in 1993 for his compilation of essays, “United States Essays, 1952-1992”, which covered all the juiciest topics in the land: scathing political rhetoric, emancipated sexual commentary, uninhibited criticism of religion and literature—published in periodicals such as The Nation, Esquire and the New York Times.

Gore Vidal had an inheritance in American aristocracy and for his entire life co-mingled with the upper echelons of America’s political and Hollywood elite.

“In print and in person, he was a shameless name dropper, but what names! John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Tennessee Williams. Mick Jagger. Orson Welles. Frank Sinatra. Marlon Brando. Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Vidal dined with Welles in Los Angeles, lunched with the Kennedys in Florida, clowned with the Newmans in Connecticut, drove wildly around Rome with a nearsighted Williams and escorted Jagger on a sightseeing tour along the Italian coast. He campaigned with Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He butted heads, literally, with Mailer. He helped director William Wyler with the script for “Ben-Hur.” He made guest appearances on everything from “The Simpsons” to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” ~ Hillel Italie and Andrew Dalton reporting for AP News

I had the fortunate opportunity of getting to know Gore during my congressional race in 2008, where we held a fundraiser in Southern California together. The first time we met was at his home in the Hollywood Hills in the late spring of 2008. At the behest of PR maven Ilene Proctor, I showed up with samples of my writing for Vidal’s review. The thought of uber-critic Gore Vidal critiquing my writing summoned a vision from an old Hollywood cliffhanger: helplessly rolling down a conveyor belt, paralyzed, toward a large spinning blade. Nevertheless, I walked the plank.

The walls and ceiling in his salon were adorned with rich artwork, numerous family photos and mementos from his life were laid out on every horizontal surface. It was a museum of sorts. He showed me a framed picture of his father, Eugene Luther Vidal, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and then Secretary of Agriculture and future Vice-President, Henry Wallace.

“They called Roosevelt a communist,” proclaimed Vidal. “But in reality he saved Capitalism from destroying itself. He saved the old system.”

We talked in glowing tones about the promise of progressivism and how Roosevelt was the inamorata of progressives—an unequaled Presidential paragon.

Gore spoke fondly about his grandfather, Thomas Gore, who served as Oklahoma’s U.S. Senator from 1907-1921, and 1931-1937.

“He started a little thing called Oklahoma,” explained Vidal, referring to his grandfather being the first U.S. Senator for Oklahoma after being admitted to the union in 1907.

Senator Thomas Gore was blind and young Gore Vidal was charged with assisting and essentially leading him around the social, political and material labyrinth that made up Washington D.C.

“I was his seeing eye dog,” chuckled Vidal. “My grandfather introduced Social Security into the U.S. Senate for Roosevelt.” He explained that in his formative years assisting his grandfather, he had learned the inner-workings of a very unique political machine: the United States Federal Government. In turn, these experiences led to Vidal’s penetrating insights into the failings and pitfalls of government and public service that he is so famous for expressing with unparalleled irreverence—as Matthew said, “…he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Vidal’s father, Eugene Luther Vidal was the Air Commerce Secretary for President Roosevelt, and according to Gore, the true love of Amelia Earhart. He showed me a picture of the famed woman aviator sitting next to a picture of his father.

His critics have mostly played into what I consider to be Vidal’s recipe for iconoclastic gourmet—he was a master of shocking the senses, stimulating debate, and stoking rancor.

One of his most famous onscreen enfilades was when he called the supercilious and Brahmin William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during live network coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Buckley lost his gourd, called Vidal a queer and physically threatened him.

I am sad to hear of Gore’s passing. He was unmatched in his candid demeanor on the world’s political stage. He was a lonely, brave soul and concertedly cantankerous—it was the character he chose to play.

Like good humor, political wit, to have the most poignant effect, must delicately push the boundaries of what is easily metabolized. Gore’s opinion and copy never did fit into the boringly binary Blue Team / Red Team mainstream rhetoric that today makes up a great vat of pabulum, either confirming or inflaming the average viewer’s sensibilities, hence giving rise to blood pressure, ratings and oodles of confirmation bias.

Vidal was a political arsonist. It was this ability to seep through the cracks of convention and reinvent any particular topic’s frame with the stroke of a quip—or just by throwing a little gasoline on it—that made him the inimitable and irreplaceable content generator (author) that he was. His compositional courage and bravery was born from a willingness to be unliked—in the land of approval junkies—an exceedingly rare trait.

After our meeting in his home that lasted several hours, I commented,

“Gore, I have to say this has been a great honor for me to meet with you and share our ideas about politics and history, I’ve learned so much about your father and grandfather and about the intricacies surrounding the foundation of our country—”

In Vidal’s salon, I gestured upward at what appeared to be an Italian fresco covering his ceiling—“I feel like I’m in the Sistine Chapel.”

To which Gore responded pointing to the ceiling sky, “Really, my son, I hardly think Michelangelo’s work rises to this level.”

Classic Gore Vidal. He will be sorely missed, and there will never be another like him.

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