Gore Vidal died yesterday evening at the age of 86. He wrote a lot of books, screenplays, and essays. He seemed always good for a quote.
My first recollection of him was his famous exchange with William F. Buckley on August 28, 1968, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vidal was as far left as Buckley was far right. They were hired as commentators by ABC. In the streets of Chicago, what the Walker Commission later called a "police riot" had riveted the attention of the whole world.
Vidal took the occasion to state that the rest of the world wondered about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He said the Vietnamese should be allowed to determine for themselves what their government should be. He pointed out this "happens to be the view" of most of Western Europe and the rest of the world. As Buckley attempted to interrupt, Vidal said, "Shut up a minute." Buckley, undeterred, said he was in favor of ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines. As the minute-and-a-half exchange unraveled, Vidal commented that the only crypto-Nazi whom he knew was Buckley. Buckley said for Vidal to quit calling him a crypto-Nazi "or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered" and something to the effect that Vidal should go back to Vidal’s pornography.
The exchange played out against the tableau of the riots on Michigan Avenue and in Grant Park.
Years later, I worked at Northwestern University School of Law. One of my co-workers was an ex-priest. A friend of his (we’ll call him "Ross"), he said, was a very serious sort, the type to whom a joke could be told and, while everyone else in the room laughed at the punch-line, Ross would ask why everyone thought the joke funny. Ross was going to visit a mutual friend in Italy. That friend informed Ross that the village in which he lived was where Gore Vidal resided and that a lunch had been arranged, at Vidal’s villa, for when Ross arrived. Ross was psyched by the notion of an exchange with an American intellectual "heavyweight." He arrived in Italy. He and his friend were shown out to the terrace of the villa. Immediately, Ross asked questions of Vidal—questions Ross thought of as deep and as "intellectual" as possible. Vidal answered politely. He batted away any attacks Ross attempted. Finally, as if to confront Vidal with the fact of mortality and a fatal flaw in Vidal’s philosophy, Ross demanded, "That’s all very well and good, Mr. Vidal. But I ask you: where is your youth?"
Vidal reportedly looked somewhat relieved at this turn in the conversation, and replied, "That’s easy. He’s down in the village, buying bread for our lunch."
Vidal’s Lincoln is a brilliant work. Also, the Daily Kos has an excellent obit this morning that features marvelous quotes from Vidal.