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The Great Gorino

Many things have changed in Gore Vidal's life, yet it's easy to imagine him grumpily surveying the scorched earth of modern American politics

May 07, 2006|Richard Rapaport | Richard Rapaport is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.

Hello, this is Gore Vidal," the East Egg baritone announced. "Is Richard there?" I stammered a return greeting as the voice continued, "I read your story . . ." and then halted. On a Sunday in the spring of 1982, my article about Vidal's campaign for the California Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate had appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. Titled "The Plight of the Writer in Politics," it keyed off the upcoming primary pitting Vidal against soon-to-be-ex-Gov. Jerry Brown.

In the piece, I referenced Vidal alongside writer/politicians such as Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Upton Sinclair, the famed socialist, writer and "muckraker's muckraker." Sinclair had terrified California's establishment by nearly capturing the governorship in the deep Depression year of 1934. My point was that Gore was fighting the same American prejudice against writers that had disqualified them from political consideration through most of the 20th century and 50 years earlier had finished off Sinclair. "Upton was beaten," one of his opponents famously remarked, "because he wrote books."

For most of an hour Gore, the novelist, screenwriter, wit, social critic, television personality, movie actor and, though few knew him as such, politician held forth. We talked about the senatorial primary weeks hence; Brown, the eventual nominee and ultimate loser that November to Republican Pete Wilson, was leading. Polls, however, showed Gore running a noble second, gaining traction by questioning what, or indeed if, Brown was thinking in this, his seventh major campaign in a dozen years. Gore never did expand on his cryptic remark, "I read your story . . . ." I decided, however, that it must be writerly shorthand for approval, because he made what to him was probably a pleasantry but to me was a grand offer. "Oh," he said with the polite diffidence once characteristic of the American ruling class, "if you happen to be in Italy this summer, why not come visit us in Ravello?" La Rondinaia, Gore's exquisite 1920s aerie on the Amalfi Coast near the ancient city of Paestum, was a prized gathering spot for American literati. I decided I certainly would "happen" to be in Italy.

Fast-forward one year shy of a quarter century. Many things have changed, yet a few have remained the same. The former include Vidal's sale of La Rondinaia and his full-time return, at the age of 80, to Los Angeles. Among the latter is the latest campaign of the now-soon-to-be-ex-mayor of Oakland, Jerry Brown, whose election mania Vidal long ago questioned, now running against L.A. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. It is easy to imagine Gore, the aging lion of the left, grumpily surveying the scorched earth of modern American politics from his Olympian Hollywood Hills haunt and acidly wondering what in God's name is Brown thinking? Or, rather, if.

Gore Vidal's 1982 senatorial campaign existed at a level of thoughtfulness now as dodo-dead as it was leagues beyond the expected campaign yuck and yack. His was one of those gaudily effervescent liberal crusades, reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson's runs for the presidency, Gene McCarthy's 1968 "flower-power" presidential campaign and indeed his own unsuccessful 1960 run for Congress from Dutchess County, N.Y. In that race, the titular head of the campaign was his friend and mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt. It was Mrs. R. who instilled in Gore the upper-crusty, good-government notion that "one speaks to the people to educate them."

Gore's senatorial campaign had been something of an education for me. On the verge of 30, I was beginning to eke out a living freelancing opinion pieces under my name and for others in need of a certain rough eloquence. Having actually read a fair amount of Gore's work, I attracted the candidate's attention with questions perhaps a little more thoughtful than he had come to expect. With no need to impress a grumpy city editor, I deemed it unnecessary to mime the institutional skepticism of "real" reporters. This won me a certain hanger-on status when the campaign came to San Francisco. Gore--we were on a first-name basis by then--would occasionally communicate to me his disappointment at the varying degrees to which other writers would sup at his brainy banquet and then question his electoral bona fides. Inevitably, a newsworthy campaign appearance would be chilled by the stopper: "But really, Mr. Vidal . . . are you serious?"

Serious, Mr. Vidal was. He proved so by devouring Gov. Brown's political lunch at a charged joint appearance in front of a gathering of editorial cartoonists. Throughout the campaign, Gore would convulse the brighter bulbs and genuinely perplex Brown when he cited the governor's compulsion to run as evidence of a major shortcoming of American electoral politics--that, as Gore would say, "You never get a chance to think."

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