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The death a few weeks ago of Gore Vidal silenced one of the most erudite and controversial commentators of our times. He was a man of letters with a regal bearing, and a social critic with a cerebral and scathing disdain for the shortcomings of others.
His passing also cost me any remaining hope of sitting down with him for a very public conversation.
Four years ago, Mr. Vidal signed on to come to Toledo as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. His appearance, was scheduled for Oct. 16, 2008, just 19 days before the presidential election on Nov. 4.
Clyde Scoles, executive director of the library, invited me to lunch and asked whether I would serve as Mr. Vidal's interviewer at his Toledo appearance. Mr. Vidal, through his agent, had indicated he would prefer a one-on-one interview format to a formal speech.
Thus began nearly six months of research and preparation. I read his books. I studied his pronouncements. I remembered things I already knew and learned far more that I didn't. Some of his views I agreed with; many I did not.
But I admired most his caustic wit and the elegance with which he could reduce the target of his revulsion to a quivering puddle of goo.
In my mind, I began formulating an outline of our conversation. Then, just one day before the event, the library got a call. Mr. Vidal had fallen and broken a bone in his back.
The Toledo visit was canceled. Given his age at the time — he had just turned 83 — it seemed unlikely he would be able to reschedule any time soon, if at all.
Still, I held out hope, filing away my notes. The rescheduling never happened. Though he recovered enough to resume a limited public life, a speaking engagement in Toledo was not in the plans. What a shame.
Mr. Vidal would have attracted a large crowd to the Stranahan Theater. Admirers and detractors, liberals and conservatives. It would have been great fun because Mr. Vidal never masked his feelings.
If he liked you, he was clear about it. If he didn't, God help you. He held grudges close to his chest and never let them go.
"It's not enough to succeed," he once said. "Others must fail."
His feud with the late William Buckley made for great entertainment. What started as banter between two philosophical adversaries — Mr. Buckley was the voice of intellectual conservatism — escalated into bitterness and even threats of mayhem.
The animosity between them was real, especially when they jousted on TV during the 1968 Democratic national convention.
Mr. Vidal called Mr. Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," Mr. Buckley called Mr. Vidal a "queer," and it went downhill from there. Mr. Buckley threatened to punch Mr. Vidal in the "gosh-darned face," except he didn't say "gosh-darned."
Over the years, Mr. Vidal sparred with other intellectuals of the day, including Truman Capote and another bête noire, Norman Mailer. But it was Mr. Buckley whom he reviled the most, even criticizing the man after his death.
He also once referred to President George W. Bush, not generally considered an intellectual, as a "yapping terrier."
A reviewer once described Mr. Vidal this way: "If Gore Vidal had not existed, some deity with an instinct for the elegant, the perverse, and the unclassifiable would have had to invent him. In the jumbled playroom of American literature, he is the malevolent jack-in-the-box."
Though I can't imagine we would have had time that evening four years ago to get to all of them, I drafted 60 questions for Mr. Vidal. Here are a few:
"You once described Barack Obama as ‘our best demagogue since Huey Long or Martin Luther King.' Please elaborate."
"You've been alive for one third of our nation's history. Knowing our country's past, do you despair for its future?"
"You have outlived most of those with whom you have quarreled. Capote. Mailer. Buckley. Is that the best revenge, to outlive them?"
"You once said: ‘There is not one human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.' Why do writers and commentators have trouble getting people to do as they advise?"
I would love to have heard his responses.
Surely I would have asked him to expand on this quote: "Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half."
Perhaps the best appraisal of Mr. Vidal's stature as a social commentator and critic was a line from an anonymous online admirer: "Gore Vidal could go into a knife fight armed with a Q-tip and win."
Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org