Gore Vidal, TV star: From William Buckley to Ali G

Gore Vidal, who died on Tuesday at age 86, almost always stirred things up when he appeared on television. Coming on the scene around the same time Marshall McLuhan had dubbed TV the “cool medium,” Vidal heated up the screen with his forthright, usually liberal, often radical, opinions on politics and culture.

By far the most famous bit of Vidal TV is his squabble with the arch-in-every-sense-conservative William Buckley during the contentious 1968 Presidential race. In August of that year, with riots raging outside their TV studio in Chicago during the Democratic convention, ABC News hosted a little chat between the two men, moderated by anchor Howard K. Smith. Tensions inside the studio were running as high as they were out in the streets, as the Vidal-Buckley contretemps overflowed into insult, with Vidal landing the first blow (calling Buckley a “pro-crypto-Nazi”) and Buckley losing his usually erudite temper and lapsing into the first insult that leapt to mind — calling Vidal “you queer,” a slur not usually heard on national television before or since:


Who’s the better novelist, Vidal or Norman Mailer? I’d give Vidal the edge in fiction (his series of historical novels out-number Mailer’s best novels, The Naked and the Dead and Why Are We in Vietnam?) but say they’re pretty equal when it comes to slashing essays. Squaring off on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, Mailer had been stung by Vidal’s New York Review of Books essay in which he’d compared Mailer to Henry Miller and Charles Manson, all of them unfavorably (“The Miller Mailer-Manson man, or M3 for short, has been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons; at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated, killed”). Check out the tussle, with The New Yorker‘s Janet Flanner holding her own in the middle:

While Mailer seems to dominate in that clip, a few years later, Vidal landed a more-remembered bon mot. Mailer threw a drink at Vidal at a party and, for good measure, head-butted him. Vidal, apparently un-dazed, responded, “At a loss for words again, Norman?”

Finally, I cannot resist this interview Vidal submitted to with Ali G. Vidal is a good sport, indulging Sacha Baron Cohen’s playful misconstruing of Vidal with hairdresser Vidal Sassoon:

Vidal once told a British TV interviewer that he disliked television news because it didn’t investigate anything thoroughly, but he certainly recognized the power of the medium to project his own image brightly.

Twitter: @kentucker

For more: Novelist Gore Vidal dies at age 86


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