'Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No': A Campaign Three Decades Old Still Resonates
This film is a reminder of what might be made of a political campaign, its usefulness as a forum for discussion and debate.
"What I am is something unbearable for the world of journalism and the world of clichés," says Gore Vidal. "I'm a realist." It's 1983 and Vidal is running to become the Democrats' nominee for US Senate in California. His campaign presents him as "the serious alternative" to the rest of the field, whose members are, by implication and demonstration, un-serious. But that very seriousness is the problem, Vidal explains patiently for his off-screen interviewer. "Anyone who draws attention to the illness and the corruption must be discredited," he says. "So, he's 'cynical,' he's a 'bad person.' If he was a good person, he would love what we've done to America."
"What we've done" is dire, as "we" might acknowledge in this Election Day in 2012. Following a long, bruising set of campaigns by candidates and corporate interests, we've arrived not at the end but at some new beginnings. It's unnerving, really, how acute Vidal's insights still sound, some 30 years later. And as he pronounces them throughout Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No, "we" might worry that so little is changed, indeed, how the system he describes has only become more entrenched, more self-evident, and more daunting. How is it that someone like Vidal (though there are, of course, few) could have been so right -- not to mention so entertaining and so complicated -- and yet, so ineffective against the corruption he identified so acutely?
In part, and predictably perhaps, the answer lies in Vidal's own critique, which is on vivid display in Gary Conklin's documentary, screening tonight as an Election Night Special at Stranger Than Fiction. As much as Vidal might have seen and analyzed the problem, he also embodied it, in the sense that his righteousness and disdain were as much products of the system he decries as its venality and stupidity. Vidal's own privilege -- his education, his erudition, his sense of superiority, and, according to some observers, his racism -- are as much a function of the system as those other illnesses he diagnoses.
Much of this difficulty is made plain in The Man Who Said No. The film follows Vidal's campaign, primarily waged against Jerry Brown, who would become the party's nominee, out of a field of 11. Vidal's brilliance is biting, his expectation that his listeners -- frequently wealthy guests at fundraisers -- keep up with and assume the rightness of his assessments. In the main, he is heir to his grandfather Thomas Gore, an Oklahoma Senator who, as well as an anti-war candidate, against all wars, as he perceives them as imperial exercises (here he describes his friend Jack Kennedy's inaugural address as a "declaration of war on the world"), as well as an advocate of wealth redistribution. When he's called a "New York socialist" for this last, he embraces the designation (as opposed to an initial misquotation, labeling him a "New York socialite").
Indeed, Vidal acknowledges during one speech that he is accused of having "many violent, radical, and un-American ideas," then offers one up: "Corporations must pay tax. I know this is shocking, I see several faces have gone absolutely livid in this room. One or two of you have already slumped to the floor, at this un-Americanism that I am spreading." It's a striking assertion, and Vidal makes it again and again. In our current context, that is, comparing Vidal's argument to Mitt Romney's comments in Boca Raton, it might seem less radical than common sensical. Still, the case made by Romney, not to tax corporations, has been accepted as another sort of common sense, even by voters whose interests are manifestly undermined by such policy.
But this, according to Vidal, is precisely the business of politics, to make such policy seem palatable. As he puts it, education in the US means to "produce docile workers and loyal consumers and that is all that we're supposed to be." If he disparages those who succumb, he sees them as logical products. He also offers himself up as a kind of antidote, at least in his capacity to narrate the story effectively, and so perhaps to articulate alternatives, real or otherwise. "The system in a sense perpetuates itself and the realities of power and the realities of class and the realities of the American empire system in the world," he says, "are completely kept from the people." By which he means those people who do not know their histories or multiple languages or the great literature of the planet.
Vidal's own erudition -- he was an essayist, novelist, actor, and playwright, and openly gay, among other accomplishments -- is at once appealing and intimidating, and he wields it here like a blunt instrument. It's a reminder of what might be made of a campaign, its usefulness as a forum for discussion and debate.