When liberal Gore Vidal lost to a conservative
With the death of Gore Vidal last month at age 86, much was written about his hit plays such as Visit to a Small Planet and The Best Man. Also noted were his best-selling historical novels such as Burr, Lincoln, Washington DC, his celebrated feuds with fellow men of letters William F. Buckley Jr, and Norman Mailer, and how he grew increasingly acerbic (and unpleasant) in his twilight years.
Mentioned but seemingly consigned to a cameo role in Vidal’s life story is now the author of political novels and plays sought office himself. In 1960, the 34-year-old Vidal was the Democratic nominee for Congress in New York’s 29th District in what was easily one of the most-watched races for anything outside the presidency that year.
The contest between Vidal and five-term Republican Rep. J. Ernest Wharton for the upstate House seat is a fascinating study. In many ways, it was a “sneak preview” of how the two major parties would look. With the New York Republican Party dominated by moderates led by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Wharton was an unabashed conservative on foreign and domestic issues. Vidal was a committed liberal and said so—less like the centrists who then wielded clout in the Democratic Party and more like future, more liberal Democratic nominees such as Vidal’s cousin Al Gore and Barack Obama.
At a time when Harry Truman and Democratic presidential nominee John Kennedy were revered icons (and both campaigned for their friend Vidal), the playwright-politician was decidedly to their left and said so, Where JFK and other national Democrats were trying to get to the right of the Republicans on being anti-Communist, Candidate Vidal called for the recognition of Red China. As he put it, “you can’t pretend 600 million people don’t exist.” He also vowed to cut defense spending (“The Pentagon talks about our power to ‘overkill’ Russia ten times, twenty times, perhaps forty-eight times. For my tax money, it is sufficient to overkill them once.”) And, nearly two decades before creation of the Department of Education, he championed federal aid to and federal standards for education.
“The American high school graduate is two years behind his English, French or German counterpart,” Vidal told the New York Times, “in Alabama, God knows how far behind.”
Wharton, a former district attorney from Schoharie County, had much in common with today’s tea party-backed conservatives in Congress such as Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y). A vigorous anti-Communist, Wharton opposed federal aid to education and spoke proudly of his record in holding down hold down minimum wages, housing subsidies, public works, and aid to depressed areas. In other words, he was opposed to federal aid to just about everything, and all that Vidal supported.
Never mentioned, of course, was that Vidal was gay. The closest to this was a reference in the New York Times to the bachelor Democrat living in “lonely splendor” and how Wharton almost always campaigned with his attractive wife Marion at his side.
The 29th District never saw a Democrat campaign as hard as Vidal did in 1960. He shook more than 15,000 hands, appeared at service clubs and private events in homes, and had friends such as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward stump for him. He drew the best-showing of a Democrat in memory—44 per cent of the vote–but he could not overcome the Republican registration advantage and organization.
With all that he wrote for stage and screen and all the controversy he encountered and engendered in his long life, Gore Vidal’s race for Congress is easy to overlook. But it was significant in the shape of things to come for the political parties today.