I have two Gore Vidal stories. The second one involves the JFK assassination. The first may interest readers curious to learn why I get so pluperfectly pissed off at the "progressive purists."
If you want to see what my mug looks like -- or looked
like, back in the days of the 30 inch waistline and the full head of hair -- rent a film called Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No
, which details Vidal's 1982 primary campaign against then-Governor Jerry Brown to become the Democratic nominee for Senator, a position won in the general by Pete Wilson.
The film's funniest moment comes during the one public confrontation between Gore Vidal and Jerry Brown. Noting that both men are confirmed bachelors, Vidal announces: "As far as the public is concerned, we are both virgins. May the most immaculate one win!" That "exploding cigar" look on Jerry's face is priceless.
Toward the end of the movie, I can be seen wearing a white sweater, staring hard at the candidate as the returns show him trailing third behind an unknown from Orange County. (Our Boy eventually made a triumphant surge into second place.) Most viewers probably take me to be Vidal's catamite. Actually, I was studying his face for any trace of emotion. He had spent a lot of money to achieve this failure, and I wondered if he would react to loss the way everyone in my Eye-talian family always reacted to loss: Tossing plates of spaghetti, threatening murder, threatening suicide, that sort of thing.
But...nothing. Not an eye-muscle twitched. Gore Vidal came from a very different sort of family.
How did I end up in Vidal's campaign headquarters that evening? A friend named Bob (now a movie critic) worked on the campaign, and I had spent an evening helping him do what he was pleased to call "opposition research." We visited the microfilm room at UCLA and looked through old newspaper accounts of Governor Brown's speeches. "This is GOLD!" Bob would shout every few seconds. (He was very excitable.) "This will DESTROY Jerry Brown!"
"No it won't," I would snarl. "Nobody cares about that shit."
Nobody did. But Bob didn't want to hear it, so after about half an hour of increasingly surly banter I decided that my time would be more profitably spent studying editions of the London Times
from the 18th century. The criticism of George III was surprisingly candid.
CUT TO: Election night.
I was coming home by bus after my second day on a new job. I had not eaten in a while, had no food in the house, and would have no cash to purchase food until the first paycheck arrived. What to do? As the bus passed the palatial Vidal campaign headquarters on Ventura Boulevard, I realized that good old Gore had probably provided some "farewell party" grub for the folks who had toiled on his behalf.
Well. Hadn't I given the man a half-hour of my time?
Sport that he was, Vidal had purchased plain-wrap beer and cookies, which all of the Gore-ites disdained. That stuff was ambrosia
Everyone took me to be a campaign worker and a Vidal insider, and they all listened with respect to my views on The Issues of the Day. Then the cameras showed up. Never miss an opportunity to appear on television
, as the man himself once said.
After that came a Cannon tradition: Inadvertently insulting the host of a party. One must perform certain rituals. I will not tell you what I said, mostly because the words are blocked from memory, but lemme tell ya -- that "exploding cigar" look on Gore's face was priceless.
After Vidal trudged home, presumably to take solace in the arms of his real
catamite, his loyal workers went out to Denny's. I tagged along and was even staked to a patty melt -- that week's only meal fit for a carnivore.
The fellow who ran Vidal's campaign was very bright and witty, but he was addicted to automatic gainsaying: If anyone said "A," he felt compelled to say "Not A," just to show who's boss
. If ever you run into a guy with that sort of addiction, do not miss the opportunity to fuck with his mind. By evening's end, I had manipulated Mr. Automatic Gainsayer into announcing to the assembled company that Hitler had a perfect right to invade Czechoslovakia, that a pound of butter was less fattening than a carrot, and that the Montana state legislature had been taken over by flying saucer people. (Okay, this account is an exaggeration, but not by much.)
Thus ended an evening with the progressive purists. I went home feeling dirty. Full, thank you very much, but dirty.
I felt bad not just because I had tweaked the noses of good people who had put food in my belly. Sure, there was guilt in that, but when you grow up Eye-talian, you expect a certain background level of guilt. The most depressing part of the day occurred earlier, when I voted for Gore Vidal.
That vote should
have gone to Jerry Brown.
Throughout that evening, everyone around me had shouted that Jerry Brown was a corporate shill, a sellout, a reactionary, a hack who made Ronald Reagan look like Emma Goldman. That night, the walls of Denny's had resounded with a hundred variations on the Standard Issue Both Parties Are the Same lecture (also known as the SIBPATS lecture).
Bullshit. All of it.
Sure, Brown often had to compromise, as he now freely admits. He had inspired an excellent film from 1972 called The Candidate
, which chronicles a crusading idealist's segue into mere politician-hood. But by modern standards, Jerry Brown remained far closer to the crusader ideal than most today would think possible. California was then a rather conservative state, and Brown was the most liberal governor we have ever had. He opposed the death penalty when the citizenry clamored for it. He opposed Proposition 13 even after everyone understood that the thing would pass handily. He called corporate America an "out of control Frankenstein." He nominated incredibly liberal judges.
He also made the state work
. California was prosperous. Economic downturns that hit the rest of the country hard barely touched us.
Could Gore Vidal, who endlessly sniped at Brown's fine record, have done a better job in the Governor's chair? Tosh. Would Brown have made a good Senator? You bet.
I still don't know why Vidal ran in that primary. He reacted with disdain whenever anyone suggested that he might try for a seat in the House of Representatives, even though he stood a better chance of winning such a race. Winning
doesn't seem to have been his goal. He preferred to travel up and down the state insulting the man certain to be the Democratic Party's nominee -- thereby strengthening the Republican.
Not that Vidal gave a crap about the Democratic Party. People who worked on the campaign assured me that he planned to vote for the Socialist candidate in the general election -- a fact he kept carefully hidden from the Democratic citizens he addressed. No double-dealing there
, eh wot?
My friend Bob had recounted many amusing tales from inside the campaign. Most of them had to do with Gore Vidal's reactions to the common folk he encountered. Picture Stewie Griffen or Addison DeWitt coming home after a long day of pretending to be a man of the people. According to Bob, Vidal once entered a campaign strategy meeting with this anouncement: "I've just come back from....Whittier
!" He pronounced the name of Nixon's quiet and pleasant home town as though it were a pathogen.
All very humorous. But if Vidal had felt a little less disdain for the people who live in places like Whittier, more of them might have voted for him.
Did Gore Vidal really deserve to be the Democratic nominee? He despised the party, he didn't like the people he wanted to represent, and he found everyone else on the ticket intolerable.
Compare Vidal to Al Franken, another fellow known for offering amusing political commentary on the radio. Franken probably does not speak with private disgust about the people he meets in Lake Wobegon. In fact, I would bet that Franken genuinely enjoys talking to, and listening to, the citizens of his state.
Gore Vidal is a brilliant novelist and essayist. He will be read long after you and I are gone. But that fact doesn't obligate anyone to share his views -- especially these
[t]here is only one party in the United States, the Property Party...and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt—until recently... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."
Many of the progressive purists I met that evening in 1982 probably still agree with this assessment. We must confront a hard question: Have they (we?) accomplished anything
worthwhile in the past quarter century? Or have the purists indulged themselves in a 25-year bitch fest?
During that same period, people working within the Republican party structure have accomplished many things in the real world. Many very, very bad
things. And we cannot undo those things unless we work within the Democratic party structure -- because in this country, power does not exist outside the major parties.
Vidal's statement seems particularly absurd when one compares the prosperous Clinton years to the war-addled, debt-ridden Bush years. Nevertheless, I am sure that Mr. Automatic Gainsayer could make that very comparison and still deliver his latest variant of the SIBPATS lecture.
If you want to fill my ears with that
crap, you had better pick up the check for my patty melt.
(The JFK tale will have to wait for later.)