This article originally appeared at Truthdig.
I remember Gore Vidal like a Bond villain. He was sitting on the edge of his bed in that same big house in the Hollywood Hills where he died Tuesday night. Holding on to a glass of whiskey with one hand, he used the other to stroke a giant white cat with an angry mouth and a cloudy grey eye. He called it “pussy.” Of course he did.
I was there to record the great man with the booming voice while he read his latest Truthdig essay. We had done this before, but I got the impression that my arrival had disturbed him and I was anxious as I fumbled with my equipment. He was a pro with Southern grace and diction that could dent a microphone, but he chose that day to fuck with me. Rather than read his own words as written, Gore kept going off script, eyeballing me and smiling every time I ruined the recording by laughing nervously at his improvisations. The audio was unusable, but the great man had his fun and that mattered much more to him than the godforsaken hits we might generate with a podcast. That was four years ago.
We met in person again a few months ago at a fundraiser for Dennis Kucinich. Gore ad-libbed a speech praising the French, which made me oddly nostalgic for the old fights of the Bush years. He was stuck in a wheelchair and it was the first time in a half-dozen encounters I saw his hand without a glass of something brown in it. I walked up to him and said, “I’m not sure you remember me.” He shot me a wicked smile and I laughed.
I was not laughing in 2008 while editing Gore’s latest contribution to Truthdig. It was a vicious takedown of William F. Buckley Jr. The only problem was that Buckley had just died. Gore called his old nemesis a “dishonorable American,” and also attacked Buckley’s “brain-dead son Christopher” and the “tired hacks” of Newsweek magazine, which had written an obituary that offended the great man.
I was working from Paris in Gore’s beloved France with my Truthdig colleague Kasia Anderson. We were both shocked by the piece, and debated whether we could publish it. One does not speak ill of the dead, let alone the dead’s children. It was late at night and we held a global conference call with the home office. Ultimately we reasoned that in life or death, Gore had a right to hate Buckley, who, acting the bigot and the brute, outed him during a nationally televised debate in 1968. We would not censor him.
Now, four years later, Gore follows his enemy into the abyss. And do people have a right to hate him back? Sure, maybe. But to hell with them if they couldn’t take it, and pity them if they didn’t see it coming.
Gore Vidal was rich, famous and born into power. He learned about the ruling class as a boy, guiding his blind senator of a grandfather around Congress. He once asked me during a recording session how “Cousin Al” was doing. I thought it was a joke that went over my head. I did not realize that he was referring to his literal cousin, Al Gore, who was campaigning at the time on climate change.
Despite these gifts, Gore Vidal spent most of his life attacking the establishment. Maybe it’s because he was, as Buckley put it, a queer, born into power but also a secret society of misfits unwelcome in Congress or West Point.