The Great Gorino
By Richard Rapaport
"Hello, this is Gore Vidal" the voice on the phone announced the sardonic East Egg baritone rendering identification redundant, "is Richard there?" I stammered my own return greeting as the voice continued, "I read your story"" and then halted. That previous Sunday in June 1982, a story of mine about Gore's campaign for the California Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, had indeed run. The early "80s boom in newspaper classifieds at least partially explain the luxuriant length of my "perspective" piece entitled "The Plight of the Writer in Politics" which keyed off the upcoming Democratic primary pitting Gore against soon-to-be-ex-Governor Jerry Brown.
For most of an hour the novelist, screenplay-writer, wit, social critic, television personality, movie actor, and, what few seemed to recognize, very much the politician, held forth. We talked about his Senate campaign and the primary election several weeks hence; Jerry Brown, the eventual party nominee and ultimate loser in November to Republican Pete Wilson, was leading. Polls, however, showed Gore running a noble second. We talked about the premise of my story that in 20th Century America writers seemed institutionally disqualified from serious consideration for political office.
In the piece, I referenced Gore alongside writer/politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles DeGaulle. The bulk of the story was dedicated to a comparison between Vidal and Upton Sinclair, the famed socialist, writer and "muckraker's muckraker," who had terrified California's establishment by nearly winning the Governorship in the deep depression year of 1930. Tinkling all the right xenophobic keys, the Republican right ran one of history's muckiest campaigns, complete with Hollywood-produced newsreels seemingly featuring every extra in Los Angeles portraying grimy, wild-eyed, boxcar-riding reds on their way to pillage California and not coincidentally vote for Upton Sinclair. I tried to make the point that, sixty years later, Gore Vidal was fighting the same prejudice that marred Sinclair's run: "Upton was beaten," one of his opponents famously remarked, "because he wrote books."
Through the course of our phone conversation, Gore never did expand on his cryptic remark, "I read your story"" I decided, however, that this must be writerly shorthand for approval. Bearing the interpretation out, Gore made what to him might have been simply a pleasantry but to me was a grand offer indeed. "Oh," he said with the polite diffidence once characteristic of the American ruling class, "if you happen to be in Europe this summer, why not come visit us in Ravello." La Rondinaia, Gore's cliff-top aerie on the Amalfi Drive near the ancient city of Paestum was a prized gathering place for America's shrinking pool of literates and other celebrities. I made up my mind that the coming summer I certainly would "happen" to be in Europe.
During the campaign, I had achieved a certain hanger-on status. Ever the freelancer, I deemed it unnecessary to mime the reductio skepticism of the "real" reporters. Gore would thus occasionally communicate to me his disappointment at the varying degrees to which other political writers would sup at his brainy banquet and then question his electoral bona fides. Inevitably, a news-desk-pleasing campaign appearance would be chilled by the stopper, "but really Mr. Vidal " are you serious?"
Serious, Mr. Vidal really was. Over the course of the campaign, he repeatedly proved so by devouring Jerry Brown's political lunch at a series of joint appearances and debates. Gore would convulse the brighter bulbs, and genuinely perplex poor Jerry when he cited the Governor's seven major campaigns in little over a decade as example of what he considered a major shortcoming of American electoral politics; that, as Gore would repart; "you never get a chance to think."
"If you sat Jerry Brown down and asked, why are you running, are you mad?" Vidal queried one evening that summer in Ravello, "I bet he would go absolutely blank." The proposition seemed to me true enough, because, as Gore maintained, "you're not supposed to ask them why they run. They run because it's a compulsion."
Fast-forward a quarter century. So many things circa 2012 have changed beyond recognition. Include among these Gore Vidal's departure from the world he loved so to hate at the exorbitant age of 86. No more will the roaring lion-of-the-left grumpily survey the acrid fruits of American political life about which he has so long and so exquisitely complained. Among that bitter harvest certainly count the latest turn in the career of the now once again California Governor, the-one-and-the-same Jerry Brown, against whose campaign mania Gore so long ago counseled. From his now heavenly haunt, Gore must surely be amused " but only just the slightest bit.
How different today's campaigns, including Jerry Brown's latest successful race for Governor from Gore Vidal's 1982 Senatorial run. That campaign lived at a level of rollicking thoughtfulness as dodo-dead as it was leagues beyond the expected campaign yuck and yack. Gore's was one of those gaudy, effervescently liberal crusades, reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's runs for the Presidency, Gene McCarthy's 1968 "flower-power" campaign and indeed Gore's own unsuccessful 1960 run for Congress from Duchess County, New York. In that race, the titular head of the campaign was his friend and mentor, the sublime Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Mrs. R. who instilled in Vidal the upper-crusty, good-government notion that "one speaks to the people to educate them."
Twenty-two years and a dozen books, screenplays and collected essays later, Gore Vidal was once again testing that goo-goo proposition, although few actually understood how precisely Gore fit the founding fathers' model for a United States Senator. Raised in Washington D.C., the grandson of the sightless Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas P. Gore, Gore Vidal had literally led the nation's most noteworthy blind politician on and off the Senate floor. Through that familial, familiar lens, Vidal viewed the upper Federal Chamber as the founders had; as a forum where the nations wisest, most accomplished and secure could serve their Republic, impart lifetime lessons and then, damn it, just go home.
Semi-stepbrother of Jacqueline Kennedy, a Camelot intimate (at least until an-entirely-unclear-on-the-sexual-identity-concept Robert F. Kennedy assaulted him for paying too much attention to Jackie), Vidal had spent the intervening years thinking deeply and writing well about the American polity. In 1982, however, it was once again impossible to ignore that harping inner voice instructing him to do what he was seemingly born to do, run for office.
For Vidal, the campaign compulsion grew more onerous as it rolled along. "It's terrible for the character," he told interviewers about the toll of campaigning. He would then wait that famously precise quarter note beat before adding puckishly, "My own is deteriorating right before your very eyes."
I didn't happen to think so, but someone who did was a writer from the San Francisco Chronicle named Randy Shilts. Randy billed himself as the nation's first openly Gay mainstream newspaper reporter, and would soon gain fame as the author of "The Mayor of Castro Street," as well as "And the Band Played On." The latter, a 1987 deconstruction of the ravaging AIDs plague would ironically and tragically precurse Randy's own demise from the disease.
Somewhat blinded -- I felt - by the light of his own coming-out-hood, Randy had confronted Gore over his refusal to declare himself, as Randy insisted he should, as America's first openly gay Senatorial candidate. Gore had asked me to remain on several occasions as he took Randy aside and patiently explained that although it was no secret, his sexuality was not a thing gentlemen of his generation comfortably advertised and his own Goddamned business.
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