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?"
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