Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

(L-r) The author, director Mike Nichols, journalist Diane Sawyer and the late Gore Vidal in Ravello, Italy. (Courtesy James Abourezk).

By James G. Abourezk

I’VE BEEN READING the numerous obituaries of Gore Vidal following his death July 31. Some were straightforward, respectful, and some hagiographies were full of praise for his literary talents. Others were full of denunciations—I read two such writings, one by David Greenberg entitled “Stop Eulogizing Gore Vidal,” and one by Gore’s old nemesis, Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary Magazine—a propaganda weapon designed to enthrall members of the Israel Lobby. Podhoretz’s article on Gore was reprinted from a Commentary piece published in that magazine in 1986. (Woody Allen once suggested that the magazine Dissent should be merged with Commentary, and that the name be changed to Dissentary.) Both Greenberg and Podhoretz, to no one’s surprise, managed to label Gore as an anti-Semite. That label is now commonly used by pro-Israel Zionists who are unable otherwise to defend Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinians.

(Upon once being called an anti-Semite by Alan Dershowitz, I responded in writing that the common definition of anti-Semite is one who hates Jews—but that it was not Jews whom I hated, only Alan Dershowitz.)

I have no idea what set off Greenberg, but Gore and Podhoretz had a long-running battle of words in which, not surprisingly, Gore emerged victorious. It was in the 1980s that Gore, apparently in retaliation for something Podhoretz had written about him, wrote an article in The Nation Magazine that managed to slice and dice Podhoretz (whom he called “Poddy”) along with his wife, Midge Decter, labeling them as more loyal to Israel than to the United States. This accusation of dual loyalty was, of course, determined by Podhoretz and his fellow travelers to be an anti-Semitic rant.

I had read the Nation piece as well as the countless letters to the editor of The Nation by Podhoretz’s friends defending Podhoretz from Gore’s charge. Not once, however, did Podhoretz have the courage himself to write to complain. He was satisfied to have his friends do it for him.

What I enjoyed most about the entire affair was that, as each letter came into the magazine, it was handed over to Gore for a brief response, each of which was both cutting and funny.

Apparently, Gore found intellectual nutrition in such attacks on him and his ideas, as he not only continued to be the scourge of Israel Lobbyists, but he struck out on any issue and at anyone he considered to be less than an honest person.

I learned that Gore’s father, Gene “Pick” Vidal, was born and raised in Madison, South Dakota, and was a football and basketball star at the University of South Dakota. From there, he went to West Point, which is where Gore was born, and ultimately became Franklin Roosevelt’s aviation chief. Gene became acquainted with Amelia Earhart, and was alleged to have had an affair with her, a piece of gossip that Gore always denied. Gore was portrayed by a young actor in the movie about Earhart.

I had arranged for Gore to speak at a commencement at the University of South Dakota one year, and the students took him to his father’s home town of Madison, where he saw his father’s birthplace.

I also invited him to speak to an American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) convention a number of years ago. The audience, of course, was made up of a mixture of both Christian and Muslim monotheists—the kind of membership ADC has always had. Gore’s speech was a very clever critique of monotheism, so clever, in fact, that at the end the audience gave him a standing ovation.

He was being stalked that day by one of the minions of the Israel Lobby, a writer named Leon Wieseltier, who postitioned himself in a front row seat, the better to hear what Gore was about to say. He was easily recognizable, and, as Gore later wrote in an essay describing his speech, he identified Wieseltier as a secret agent, “…code name Weasel, recognizable by his red-rimmed eyes and white fright wig.” (Wieseltier’s hair was both long and grey in color.)

Gore’s frontal attack on the Israel Lobby cost him, however. He once told me that usually when one of his books was published, the first printing would be at least 300,000 copies. But after his set-to with the Lobby, his publisher cut down the first printing of his books to 200,000. Either number normally would be enough to make an ordinary author jump for joy, but here I’m making the point that a writer, along with others who disagree with Israel’s policies, pays the price for such disagreement.

Gore lived for years in the small village of Ravello, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast, but he also had a home in the Hollywood Hills, and at one time, a penthouse apartment in Rome which he eventually gave up to move entirely to Ravello. His villa, which he called La Rondinaia, sits on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Access to the villa involved walking along a narrow path for perhaps a quarter of a mile from the front gate before arriving at the home.

That worked fine until the declining health both of Gore and that of his partner, Howard Austen, made the trip too difficult. Howard described to me what it took to get Gore to a hospital emergency room once while they were living there. He had to run to the village of Ravello to find four strong young men to come to the house and carry Gore in a stretcher to a point where he could be taken by taxi to the hospital. When that all became too much of a worry, Gore sold his villa and moved to his Hollywood home, which is where he died. He had been in a wheelchair for a number of years, making living much more complicated than he wanted.

Gore was known as a prolific name-dropper, but instead of being bored by this, it made for some of the most interesting gossip one could only imagine. I was a guest at his villa at the same time actress Claire Bloom was there, along with her daughter, an opera singer whose father was actor Rod Steiger. Gore told me that when England’s Princess Anne stayed at his villa, she confessed to him that the royal family in England spent most of their time drinking so as to ease the boredom of doing nothing but being a member of the royal family.

I had dinner one evening in Ravello with Gore, Diane Sawyer and her husband, Mike Nichols, and Howard Austen. When I was a guest at Gore’s villa, I stayed in the same bedroom where Gore had hosted, at different times, actor Robert Downey, Jr., the musician Sting and his family, as well as Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and their children. Gore proudly announced that, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton drove down from Rome to visit him in Ravello.

I attended a dinner in Gore’s honor in the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood, hosted by an unknown (to me) admirer of Gore along with a couple hundred guests. I was asked, along with my own guest, Myra MacPherson, a former Washington Post writer and a longtime friend from Washington, DC, to sit at Gore’s table. Joining Gore at his table was the director Peter Bogdanovich, actress Karen Black, actor Michael York, along with other Hollywood luminaries. Farrah Fawcett sat at the table next to us.

Paris Hilton stopped by to say hello and to be seen by Gore and his guests. When she left the table, Michael York announced, “I have just met a legend.”

Gore reminded me of the Pope in those kind of situations, mostly because there was always a long line of celebrities anxious to visit him wherever he was living so they could kiss his ring.

What is interesting about those who have waited until after his death to attack him in the press is that even his enemies will grudgingly admit that he was one of the great writers of this and of the last century. I’m sure that most were fearful of his retribution when he was still alive, as conservative icon William F. Buckley learned the hard way during a televised debate he had with Gore. Delivering the coup de grace during the debate, Gore called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” then later apologized, saying he meant instead to call him a “crypto-fascist.”

I’ve read many of his novels, but in my view, Gore was an essayist without equal in America. His writing, like his thinking, was sharp and crisp, wasting no time in making his point, which I guess is what gave his life meaning. 

Former U.S. Sen. James G. Abourezk (D-SD) is founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and author of the memoir Advise and Dissent (available from the AET book store) and Through Different Eyes, a debate on the Middle East conflict. He currently practices law in Sioux Falls, SD.




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