NEW YORK — "It's crazy time," said Gore Vidal, in summing up the state of presidential politics. "It all comes down to having no politics and no political parties. Instead of being concerned with issues, we're concerned with a person's private life."
Vidal, the novelist, playwright, screenwriter and sometime-political candidate, could have been describing the climate of "The Best Man," his 1960 play about a sordid campaign to select a presidential candidate.
Instead he was bemoaning the current political season, which he has made the setting for the Ahmanson's revival of the play, opening tonight.
Vidal said the Ahmanson version, starring Mel Ferrer, Don Murray and Buddy Ebsen as three "eternal political types," marks its first major revival since 1976.
"It was a distillation of everything I thought about politics at the time I wrote it," said Vidal, who's the grandson of a U. S. senator (Thomas Pryor Gore, D-Okla.) and who has been around American politics all of his 62 years.
The names have changed since the 1960s, but one thing hasn't changed, Vidal said: "the paradox" of choosing a President on the basis of his presumed moral character, rather than his competence. "This attitude is still very much in place."
During a recent interview here, on a stopover from his home in Italy to Los Angeles, Vidal observed that the revival seems particularly timely in light of the wrecked campaigns of two Democrats--former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
Vidal added that he was pleased to see Hart and Biden out of the race--but only on political grounds.
"I'm delighted they're gone, but not in the manner in which they've gone," he said.
"Actually, I think audiences will get a few more laughs out of 'The Best Man' now than in 1960, because at the time it was more difficult to put across the idea that a politician's private life should be discussed," Vidal said. (His play is now set at next year's nominating conventions, and it includes the names of this season's contenders.)
Vidal wrote "The Best Man" at a time when he was "very political." An ardent supporter of John F. Kennedy, Vidal ran for Congress in 1960. He lost, but he ran 20,000 votes ahead of Kennedy in his Upstate New York district. (Vidal also lost a 1982 bid for the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat vacated by California's S. I. Hayakawa.)
"I wanted awfully bad for Jack (Kennedy) to win. But I knew that sooner or later, his personal life would be exposed and I was trying to say, 'Let's be grown up about this,' and to get people to see that a person's private life has nothing to do with his ability to govern," said Vidal.
Vidal showed a draft of his play to Kennedy and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, who provided one of the "models" for his three central political types. (Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon provided the other models.)
"Jackie (Kennedy Onassis) was reading it," said Vidal, who shares a stepfather, Hugh D. Auchincloss, with her. "One night, sitting up in bed, reading about how the hero was going to get girls into the White House, she muttered aloud, 'Is he writing about (us)?'
"And Jack said, 'No, it's all made up.'
"Jack was a very high-risk player. He took a lot of chances," Vidal said, speculating that Kennedy would have a difficult time under today's tough press scrutiny.
"But the press then loved him, and protected him, and we had more of a tradition of privacy. And look what we've had since: ideologues, crooks, rhetoricians, actors . . . we haven't had anyone capable of running a dry-cleaning establishment, let alone the presidency.
"The media can only deal in personalities. And the public has been led to believe that if they just elect a nice person, everything will turn out all right. But the chances are that 'a nice person' will not make a very good President."
Vidal, who stated flatly that he has no further political ambitions, made it clear that he believes presidential politics has reached its nadir.
"If I were to write a brand new play, it would be very different. The need (for today's candidates) to beg for money is another subject entirely.
"But there's no point in (writing) a downer," he said, noting the playwright's responsibility dramatize, to describe, rather than to express opinions.
"To effect change, you either write or you run for office. There's nothing else I can do."