This site and others are rightly carrying a wide range of tributes to Gore Vidal, who passed away yesterday at the age of 86. Naturally, I’ve read a lot of Gore over the past decades (even, in my youth, Myra Breckenridge), but I’ve never met the man. One of my most indelible memories, however, goes back to August 1968, when I was in Chicago for the epic protest/police riot at the Democratic Convention. ABC had hired Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. for mini-debates during primetime coverage of both party conventons, and I recall catching one of the infamous confrontations (they nearly came to blows) one night after returning from the streets.
Of course, Vidal was obsessed with electoral politics for much of the first half of his life. He even ran for high office twice, was the fifth cousin of Jimmy Carter and may have been related to Al Gore. Since my current blogging beat here remains Campaign 2012, let me stick to the electoral aspect of Vidalism in this space.
Born Eugene Louis Vidal, he took the middle name Gore in honor of his maternal grandfather Thomas Gore, a Democratic US senator from (of all places) Oklahoma. The young man was close to the Senator and was strongly influenced by his isolationist views.
Vidal began his writing career in 1948, and there’s little need or space here to detail the essays, novels, and screenplays that soon followed. But his play, The Best Man, in 1960, would focus on a national convention pitting an ethical versus an unethical candidate. A story goes that Ronald Reagan tried out for a lead role in the road show but Vidal nixed him, feeling he could not credibly play a president. In any case, the play later became a movie, and has been revived often, including a current Broadway version.
Vidal would write many books and novels related to US presidents and those around them (including Lincoln and Burr), but let’s stick to his own election campaigns here.
In 1960 he ran for Congress in a district along the Hudson River just north of where I now live, and received the active backing of everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to Paul Newman. In her popular newspaper column, “My Day,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote as election day neared, “Incidentally electing good Congressmen like William FitzRyan and Bill Vanden Heuvel in New York, or Gore Vidal up in my neck of the woods is very important to our national picture. No President can afford not to have a substantial majority of his own party in Congress at the present time, for he always has to overcome some divisions which are almost inevitable within the party itself.”
Part of Vidal’s platform: higher taxes on the wealthy. His slogan: “You’ll get more with Gore”—and wasn’t that always the case? Few writers had ever run for high office. (I chronicled the saga of one of them, Upton Sinclair, in my book, The Campaign of the Century.) Unfortunately, it was a very red district, and he lost by a 14 percent margin, while getting more votes than any Democrat in five decades. He loved to point out, for the rest of his life, that he outpolled John F. Kennedy in that district. Needless to say, he had not yet come out as a gay man.