Once upon a time there was The David Susskind Show. It aired on Sunday nights from New York City. As a ninth grader, filled with loathing at the idiocy which awaited me at junior high, I took refuge in the program.
On one such Sunday night a man appeared there with more knowledge, humor and fearless disdain for unexamined beliefs than a dozen craniums should be capable of holding. A graphic flashed beneath him, 'Gore Vidal: Burr'. What an odd amalgam of words, I thought.
Certain people transform your life. How do you thank someone for perspective? How do you thank someone for teaching you to think? I was lucky. I got to do it in person.
My brother Joe and I wrote a screenplay about George W. Bush which, through the vagaries of director selection, did not get made. Nervous as hell, we approached Gore to be in it. "Mr. Vidal, we've written this screenplay for Paramount." To which he replied "you have my sympathies." When we told him he'd be playing himself, he sincerely added, "I'll play anything." This was a man I honestly felt you could ask "please tell me everything about everything" and get a complete answer. Yet here he was being gracious and encouraging and friendly.
On the wall above my desk is a framed fax that once came clattering in from Ravello Italy. I had written an op-ed which mentioned Gore and somehow, amazingly he read it and actually took the time to comment on it as if we were just two writers. It is headlined simply "J Long from G Vidal." Living as we do in a post-words nation, a post-reason nation, it may be hard to understand how much I treasure that.
There is nothing anyone can say about Gore Vidal that he has not said better himself. But if there are still those for whom words matter, read Julian, read Burr, read Creation, read Lincoln, read Messiah, read 'United States Essays 1952-1992'. Read and read and read and read.
His last years may have been filled with flailing contempt for the country he saw as preceding him to the grave. But Vidal's concluding works, even at their least fathomable, contained more wisdom and true humanity than the entire canon of the extended Podhoretz family.
He was once asked what kind of funeral service he would want. He said that perhaps he'd have his ashes flung in some politician's face as a final gesture of defiance. But his words, like Montaigne's, will live on long after the babblings of the Cantors and Romneys and Hoyers, and the babblers themselves, are unlamented dust.
Thank you Gore and goodbye. Death is no thing.
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