08/02/2012 11:03 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

The Precision of Gore Vidal, Broadcaster

A lot of words -- many of them just too easy -- have been applied to Gore Vidal since he died on Tuesday.

Adjectives have proliferated that evoke eras long gone by -- like "patrician"... "aristocratic"... even "Augustan" (though I'm skeptical that John Dryden or Alexander Pope would have embraced him in their circles).

The truth is that Vidal was -- for all his elegant door-stops in print, many of them instantly vintage and lauded as superior American historical novels -- absolutely a creature of popular mass media. Of television most of all, I'd say.

Little excited and clearly delighted him more than appearing on TV. He intuitively understood the medium like few others. He wrote for it well, of course, and was comfortably rewarded for that -- but it was his own live performances in what Marshall McLuhan succinctly diagnosed as this ultimately "cool" mode of communication that marked him out as a master.

I don't feel he would ever -- probably would never claim to -- qualify as a master novelist, a master essayist, a master playwright or a master screenwriter. Still less a master politician -- a profession we'll recall him attempting, entertainingly, on occasions. But as a television performer -- resoundingly, yes.

Pre-recorded television engaged his concentrated, even pedantic, attention (even though he had less enthusiasm for it than for the riskier thrill of real-time broadcasts). My friend and colleague Lucky Severson, PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly correspondent, recalls taping a walking interview with Vidal, alongside the B-29 nuclear bomber Enola Gay for the Discovery Channel. Lucky's camera operator was adopting one of those athletically challenging positions sometimes required in the trade, walking backwards ahead of his subjects, in this case half-crouching for a low angle.

Vidal, envisioning exactly how the shot could come out, said silkily: "If you show my double chin, I'll kick you in the balls."

Attention to detail was an essential part of his TV appearances -- even, or perhaps especially, during the notorious live ones -- where narcissism went naturally hand in hand with the careful pickiness. Reckless, abandoned tirades there may have sometimes been (including his insistent 1968 smackdowns of William F. Buckley) but they were always precise, never sloppy.

My own experience with him dates back to a TV show I worked on in London, once when he "guested" and I reported (in a non-Vidal segment) -- and afterwards he gave me a ride in his limo, kindly going well out of his way to drop me at my home before returning to his hotel... The Dorchester, naturally.

We discussed his interview conducted by the show's main host, which had revolved in part around the odd (for many observers completely inexplicable) fate of his novel Myra Breckinridge's when translated onto film. Twentieth Century Fox, at a time -- 1970 -- well before being bought by Rupert Murdoch, had unaccountably chosen as director a certain Mike Sarne -- an actor who occasionally directed but who was previously remarkable only for singing a British chart-topping Cockney pop-song of flirty seduction called Come Outside.

Stories had circulated about how out of his depth Sarne had predictably proved to be. Vidal had been delicate during the interview about the studio's choice... evidently not wanting to appear too disloyal to the movie, still less potentially damage its box office prospects by badmouthing it. But in the car he evidently now wished he had been sharper while on camera.

I asked: "Would you say, then, that Mike Sarne is a director of very little talent?"

"I wouldn't say that," Vidal drolled. "But I wish I had been asked that question on air. I'd say he isn't a director. And he doesn't have any talent."

Farewell Gore Vidal.

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.