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Andrew Tonkovich, Gore Vidal, 1925–2012

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Gore Vidal 1925–2012
Andrew Tonkovich

Almost everybody in Southern California has, or should have, a
Gore Vidal story, because if you have been in any way active
in anything here --- anti-war or civil rights or environmental
activism, you would have encountered - and I use the word
pointedly, admiringly - Vidal, at a debate, lecture, reading,
demonstration, book fair, any public celebration of the life
of the mind, and of civic participation. He lived here, in
the Hollywood Hills, and regularly attended marches and
gatherings, in fact was one of the small, reliable group of
local Left stalwarts who'd add their names and deliver their
bodies to a cause. As an undergraduate years ago at Cal State
Long Beach, and as a young, eager and impressionable student
activist, I met him. I'd been invited to join a small group
meeting with the candidate when he visited campus during his
1982 run for US Senate. Sincere, good-hearted liberal and
progressive faculty, staff and other students were there, with
their questions for the Great Man, who seemed to only put up
with the responsibility of listening to his presumed
constituents, the whole tiny opera of expectations a farce of
course, since we were all there to listen to him, to be
delighted, impressed, instructed, amused and, yes, empowered
to imagine, absurdly, that an American man of letters, of
history, a radical gay public intellectual and literary artist
might stand a chance of being elected to one of nation's
highest offices as a Democrat.

I recall two questions from that meeting or, more to the
point, two of Vidal's answers. First, he was solicited for
his thoughts about engaging the rightwing (and other)
religionist crowd, just then reaching the apex of their dark
political hazing party of the entire nation as organized by
those shabby prophets Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan and direct
mail henchman Richard Viguerie. The questioner seemed to want
Vidal to offer a plan for working with these creeps in their
own terms, implying some foolish, even to me then, possibility
of somehow bringing into our Lefty fold those with a
"spiritual" worldview, as if that were desirable.

You might know that Gore Vidal had a practiced rhetorical
habit, quite effective, of pausing before skewering. It was
like watching somebody about to enjoy a very good meal. This
behavior, this affect, perhaps gave his fans courage and his
opposition the doomed opportunity, fleeting, to pretending
that they stood a chance. They didn't. Vidal waited, and
then said something that day which has stayed with me for 25
years since. The moment that the believers mention a miracle,
a "spiritual" dimension, a god, you should know, said Gore
Vidal, running for California's Senatorial seat, that "these
people" are delusional, and you should say so right there.
There was, he insisted, no talking with them. No need to
elaborate and, of course, he was not elected, not with that
level of candor about the confusion between religion (a
monarchy) and representative democracy, and contempt for
anybody who would waste time with, as he called them, "holy
rollers" or giving a damn about getting their vote.

Then, in response to a solicitation regarding the problem -
even then! - of the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant
(yes, that one - today offline after decades of both
predictable safety failures and grassroots protests), Vidal
again paused. The room quieted, eager to be slapped on the
nose with the rolled-up newspaper, a chance to be collectively
chastised, encouraged, empowered all at the same time.
Sometimes it feels good to be put in one's place.

"What you should do," Vidal offered, "is hold a press
conference in which you threaten to detonate a device." He
chuckled, as I recall, for emphasis of that ridiculous and
explosive euphemism for terrorist and/or statist bomb. The
corporate press corps would come, he said, correctly, because
they love sensationalism and are "vultures," he said, thus
providing anti-war and disarmament activist, and our own
scientist organizers the opportunity to both embarrass them
and to educate news readers and local residents on the real
scenario if the nuke were threatened by attack.

Prescient, unwilling to suffer foolishness, impolitic, funny,
I recall today the sly, generous grin on Vidal's face, which I
often looked for, and always found, on the many occasions on
which I saw him speak. And, yes, I could almost see it when I
heard his voice on the radio, most often on KPFK, the Pacifica
Radio station in Southern California where he was frequently
interviewed, his talks played and played again. And which
will, I trust, be played in the coming weeks. It is possible,
I believe, to actually become smarter, more skeptical, a
better thinker and writer and listener just by listening to
him construct an analysis, an argument, to answer a question.
All this, and I haven't even mentioned the art: his actual
speeches, reviews, essays, screenplays, novels, memoirs.

Finally, I saw Gore Vidal in person most recently at, of all
unlikely places, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in
Yorba Linda. Its then-chief Timothy Naftali had recently
organized a gentle coup d'etat, taking the Nixon narrative
away from the apologists and Tricky Dick boosters, an Orange
County GOP corporate-sponsored guerilla army of revisionist
non-historians. He'd forced the federally-supported Nixonland
to embrace actual historical analysis and not just present a
Disneyesque hagiography of the man about whom Vidal composed
the play "An Evening with Richard Nixon." Not a pleasant
evening that play, not for RN, but an especially fun read
today. Vidal, wheeled in for the occasion to the faux White
House East Room, Teddy Roosevelt glaring from his portrait on
the wall, the now disabled writer was elevated courtesy an
ADA-required ramp to the podium and mic, where he introduced
delightedly an elected official who'd been on Nixon's "enemies
list." He was the biggest "loser" in electoral history, former
South Dakota Senator, putative 1972 anti-war presidential
candidate and author-statesman George McGovern, also a very,
very old man. Jokes galore from Vidal, about Nixon turning
over in his grave, just yards from where hundreds had gathered
to hear McGovern talk about Abraham Lincoln and also got Gore
Vidal as bonus prize.

By way of introducing a man whose presidency might, he
offered, have changed the course of US and world history,
Vidal read from the prologue to George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar
and Cleopatra," a whimsical tale which, in case you haven't
read it lately, involves the old god Ra, wearing his
Egyptian's hawk's head helmet, appearing in Memphis. He talks
to us, his modern audience, scolding and offering a warning, a
cautionary tale based on the political choices of old vs. new
Rome, between the soldier Pompey ("The way of the soldier is
the way of death") and Caesar, whom the gods seemed to favor.
Pompey, who represents "Mammon" (and, for our purposes,
Northrop Grumman and McDonnell Douglass) makes war on Caesar,
who runs away to learn a lesson from the gods, eventually
gathers his wisdom and beats Mammon's army, which runs off to
Egypt, which is basically a colony of Rome.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Bush-Cheney, get it? Hubris, war, empire.
Lucius Septimius seems to embrace Pompey in Sphinxville, but
instead "welcomed him with one hand and with the other smote
off his head, and kept it as if it were a pickled cabbage to
make a present to Caesar." Vidal read nearly the entire
prologue, one of his final opportunities, it turns out, to
once again both set the scene and steal it. He was
courageous, fearless really. He was consistently provocative,
but usually, it turns out, he was also correct. And he knew
it, which perhaps annoyed some people, jealous of him or
unwilling to sit there and be read to, or unable to appreciate
life as art as politics that was this lovely man, citizen,
writer and provocateur.

Here, then, the final lines of the prologue to "Caesar and
Cleopatra," by way of never, ever forgetting Gore Vidal, and
wishing that he were only pausing before delivering his next
and necessary slap-down of power and its acolytes: "And fear
not that I shall speak to you again: the rest of the story
must ye learn from them that lived it. Farewell; and do not
presume to applaud me."

[Andrew Tonkovich teaches writing at UC Irvine and edits the
West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review. He hosts
Bibliocracy Radio, a weekly books program on Pacifica Radio
KPFK in Southern California, and is President UC-AFT Local
2226.]