Gore Vidal (1925 – 2012) was a tried and true progressive and a promoter of queerness. He was a brave man at a time when he had everything to lose. His third novel, The City And The Pillar (1948), was the first mainstream novel to deal openly with male homosexuality. Vidal lacked support from his own editor, who forced him to make the already dark ending less compelling by having the gay main character become a murderer, killing his straight lifelong crush. When the novel was released, The New York Times reviewer was so outraged by the depravity that the newspaper refused to review Vidal’s next five books. Time and Newsweek vowed never to review another book by him.
Forthcoming with gay themes and characters in his fiction, along with lending strong support to Sexual Freedom and Equal Rights, Vidal still famously believed in gay sex acts, but not gay people. He claimed to be bisexual, but his close relationships with women like actors Joanne Woodward and Claire Bloom were probably platonic. Vidal claimed that he and his partner of 50+ years, Howard Austen, only had sex at the start of their relationship. Vidal never officially came out of the closet; the very idea of coming out was abhorrent to him.
”’Homoerotic’ means to lust for one’s own sex, which I certainly did a lot of in my youth, ‘Homosexual’ implies really an organization of one’s life around it, and I never did that, but always kept my options open. Needless to say, I was immediately categorized with The City And The Pillar when I need not have been, and never regretted it for one minute. I always thought it was my opinion of others which mattered, not their opinion of me. I was less distressed than you might think for being so categorized but always hesitated to categorize anyone else unless they insisted on it.”
Writers like Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Mailer and Rod Serling were public figures in the 1950s and 1960s, and Vidal was often asked to appear on talk shows like The Tonight Show. His mellifluous voice, ready wit, gift for mimicry, and unexpected candor about sex, politics and every other subject made him a sought-after guest. It was the summer of 1968, and ABC, whose rating were in last place among the three networks conducting gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, decided to try something new and daring.
ABC enticed National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. (1925 –2008) and Vidal to do a series of 10 televised debates each evening during the conventions: five during the Republican National Convention in Miami, and five during the Democrats’ in Chicago.
Buckley and Vidal loved being on camera. Vidal enjoyed people talking about his birthday celebrations. He went over the top. Both men knew how to use television to their advantage. Buckley was host of the political talk show Firing Line With William F. Buckley Jr. which ran for 34 seasons (1966–1999) and is the longest-running public-affairs show with a single host in television history.
Vidal once said:
”There are two things you never turn down: sex and TV appearances.”
The whole thing was done on such a tiny budget that the ABC set collapsed during the RNC.
Buckley and Vidal’s exchange changed televised political debate in America and electrified the country, reshaping expectations about what constitutes watchable coverage. ABC got what it wanted: a spot back atop the ratings heap. The rancor and resentment came to a head when Vidal called Buckley a ”pro-crypto Nazi’‘. Buckley ranted in his upper-class Atlantic accent:
”Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi, or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
Buckley continued to attack Vidal in Esquire Magazine just months after The Stonewall Riots, claiming that Vidal: ”…was proclaiming the normalcy of his affliction”, comparing him to a drug pusher for promoting his gayness.
This little fascinating and entertaining slice of history is the subject of Best Of Enemies (2015), a documentary film directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville about the famed televised debates.
Vidal’s series of novels include: Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), Washington DC (1967), and The Golden Age (2000) are fictional histories of the USA from the American Revolution to the recent past.
I played a combination of the two of them once. Well, not exactly, but I based a character that I portrayed, a theatre critic, in Tom Stoppard‘s brilliant comedy The Real Inspector Hound, on Buckley and Vidal, taken from their appearances on television talk shows and those ABC debates.