Political Animal


August 01, 2012 11:08 AM RIP Gore Vidal

By Ed Kilgore

The news that Gore Vidal had died at the age of 86 was a generational landmark for me and doubtless other baby boomers; the often-insightful, frequently-witty; occasionally maddening man was just part of our mental furniture for decades on end. I read and liked most of his fiction, particularly his historical novels, and even when I didn’t (say, with Myra Breckinridge or the earlier Messiah), Vidal seemed to eloquently stand for a cultural perspective that needed to be heard.

But as most eulogies noted, Vidal was not only a literary and cultural figure, but very much a political animal. So like many sites today, I’m going to offer a clip from his famous live network TV collision with William F. Buckley, Jr., which I saw live at the time.

Insults and other fireworks aside, can you even begin to imagine a broadcast TV network these days choosing people like Buckley and Vidal to offer “expert commentary” during major-party political conventions? If you ever get bored, you should go to YouTube and watch the less famous but more stimulating Vidal-Buckley exchanges from 1968. And in any event, I imagine Vidal drew some grim satisfaction from outliving his conservative rival (who died in 2008), and getting, as he often did, the last word.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Jerry E. Stephens on August 01, 2012 11:24 AM:

    I'm glad you described the place Gore Vidal for many of us. My thoughts were exactly that. He was an essential writer even when his books missed their mark. But it is the Buckley-Vidal disputes that really enlivened so much of our intellectual thinking. And it is that so often elitist intellectual discourse between the two I believe I miss the most. Thank you for this neat piece.

  • merl on August 01, 2012 11:34 AM:

    I didn't realize that Buckley was such a poof.

  • Joe Friday on August 01, 2012 11:51 AM:

    When Buckley died, at the end of a missive about him, Vidal wrote:

    "RIP WFB-in hell"

  • estamm on August 01, 2012 12:02 PM:

    I read 'Lincoln' on many recommendations. It was the worst historical novel I have ever read. I am sure that I am in the minority there, but boy was it bad (in my opinion). My main objections (as I recall) was that the entire focus/scene would change from one paragraph to the next with no warning (and no 'break' in the form of a chapter or a blank line as is often done). There were many times when during a conversation it was hard to tell who was saying what. I'd re-read a page a number of times and it was impossible to know. Perhaps his editors felt like they couldn't make any changes to 'Gore Vidal', but it sure could have used a good editor to clean it up.

  • nerd on August 01, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Can you imagine the current mainstream media having a liberal as a guest? It does happen but sure seems to be getting infrequent.

  • SecularAnimist on August 01, 2012 12:31 PM:

    From William F. Buckley Jr. to Rush Limbaugh.

    That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the devolution of American "conservatism" from a genuine political ideology into a corporate-sponsored cross between a low-brow entertainment demographic and a cult.

  • c u n d gulag on August 01, 2012 12:43 PM:

    About 6 years ago, I had an opportunity to go and see a staged reading of a 1-act play of his in Chapel Hill, NC. The play itself had never been produced before.
    It took place in the the South, right before the Civil War, with a lot of great characters getting together at a family gathering right before outbreak of the war.

    It wasn’t great – but it was pretty good.

    Gore Vidal was there after the reading to answer questions, and I gathered my courage and asked him why he had made a play out of this rather than a book – which I thought was a pretty interesting question to ask of a man who had written both.

    He looked to be very, very frail – I thought he was older than his then 80 years. And he didn’t seem to understand my question and gave me some non sequitur of an answer.

    Oh well, I thought, at least the great Gore Vidal acknowledged my existence!

  • daveminnj on August 01, 2012 12:53 PM:

    that is so cool! what was the name of the play?

  • nerd on August 01, 2012 12:55 PM:

    Speaking of Great Ones, are we really without Great Ones now? I appreciate many of the Liberals but they seem to get shouted down (kind of like the exchange in the video, by the way).

    In a time when the best sound bites from the Right are on the level of junior high school smart-asses, it sure seems like we've devolved but the behavior of WFB in the video doesn't seem that much different than today's wingers.

    Is there any hope for an actual discourse or are we doomed to "oh yeah?" being the wittiest thing we hear?

  • Rich on August 01, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Except for Vidal's beginning comments, it's the same nonsense we have on cable news networks now, just higher gloss participants.

  • c u n d gulag on August 01, 2012 1:16 PM:

    I'm not sure, but maybe, "On the March to the Sea?"

    I had a playbill, but who the hell knows where that's at - that was a couple of moves ago.

    How embarrassing - having looked that play up, I can see I got the time of the setting wrong - it was in the South during Sherman's March to the Sea - hence - the title.

    And to think - I used to have a mind like a steel trap. Now, it's more like a spaghetti-strainer.

  • buddy66 on August 01, 2012 1:28 PM:

    For all of the right-wing talk about this being a Republic instead of a Democracy, Vidal actually believed it -- and mourned its loss.

    (Captcha is more effective at discouraging reader comments than any rude moderator could be.)

  • SecularAnimist on August 01, 2012 2:05 PM:

    buddy66 wrote: "all of the right-wing talk about this being a Republic instead of a Democracy"

    All of that right-wing talk is idiotic nonsense, like the constant repetition of "the Democrat Party".

    Saying that the USA "is a Republic, not a Democracy" is like saying that an apple is round, not red.

    "Republic" refers to structure. "Democracy" refers to process.

    A government with the structure of a republic could be a totalitarian dictatorship -- or even an absolute, hereditary monarchy, for that matter! -- or it could be a democracy.

    What the "right-wing talk" really means is that they don't WANT the American Republic to be a democratic republic.

  • advocatethis on August 01, 2012 2:21 PM:

    Upon hearing early this morning of his death, I recalled that I had voted for him for US Senate in the 1982 California Democratic primary. What I also recalled, just now, was that I'd gone to see him when he had come to speak at San Jose State, probably earlier the same year. His historical fiction had a lot to do with me branching out in high school from reading only non-fiction, and after hearing him speak he struck me as a more liberal alternative to Jerry Brown in that 1982 election.

  • daveminnj on August 01, 2012 4:24 PM:

    c u n d gulag
    thanks-i googled it; it was "on the march to
    the sea", starring chris noth and charles durning.
    wish i'd seen it.

  • N on August 02, 2012 10:57 AM:

    I saw On the March to the Sea - both productions in MA and NC. Vidal did appear frail - he was in a wheelchair. When we returned to our hotel after the performance, I recognized one of the actors in the lobby and went over to say hi. I asked if he were staying at the hotel - no, Gore Vidal was, and then the actor told me they were all in the bar - and invited us to join them. Wow, hanging out with Chris Noth (my favorite actor) and legendary author, Gore Vidal. Of course the topic of his battle with Buckley came up - very interesting. Was definitely a memorable evening.

  • daveminnj on August 02, 2012 12:57 PM:

    that's a great story.
    when i was a teen back in the late 70s, i did a pencil
    drawing of gore vidal (from photo on the back cover of 1876). my grandmother insisted on framing it and hanging
    it in her dining room.
    i asked her, since she was a long-time nixon democrat, how
    she could have vidal staring down on her at every meal-she
    said "well, he has beautiful eyes."