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.