When I called campaign headquarters that day in Los Angeles, 1982, attempting to learn the candidate's schedule for the day so I could follow him around, I was more than a little surprised when the U.S. Senate hopeful himself answered the phone. "Gore Vidal!" he said. I paused, looking frantically for a notepad to write on, which was on the other side of my Hollywood hotel room.
Yes, the novelist and political commenter said, "the garage of my Hollywood home."
Well, I was in town for the Seattle Times, I explained, writing about California's U.S. Senate primary - which, had it been a movie, would have been directed by Stanley Kramer.
Besides Vidal, the mad, mad, mad election cast included Maureen Reagan, then the First Daughter; Barry Goldwater Jr., a onetime hopeful First Son; Jerry Brown, then the state's last governor (and these days, the current governor); John Tunney, son of legendary boxing champ Gene Tunney; with cameos by a white supremacist, an ex-KKK grand dragon, and a John Bircher who was being sued by a feminist attorney for calling her a "slick butch lawyeress."
This was, after all, California.
(The seat was eventually won by ex-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who beat Brown in the general election, served eight years, and became California's governor in the 1990s, while Brown, who became Oakland's mayor and state attorney general after repeated White House bids, made a gubernatorial comeback in 2010).
I asked Vidal if he had any public appearances or campaign plans that day.
"No I don't," he said.
It was the final week of the race. What about tomorrow?
"It's sort of up in the air." I still couldn't quite reach a notepad.
Well, how do you think your campaign's going? I asked, fumbling about.
(Looking back, I think he said it as a joke. He actually finished second in the primary, behind Jerry Brown. Vidal, who preferred to be called a "homosexualist," later remarked that he "might have had a life in politics if it wasn't for the faggot thing").
Tell you what, he said that day, "Let me take your phone number and if anything comes up, I'll call."
He never did. And, it seems, never will. Vidal, as you've likely heard, died Tuesday at age 86.
A "celebrated writer, cultural gadfly and occasional political candidate," in the words of the Washington Post, he passed away at his Hollywood Hills home after complications from pneumonia.
Or was it envy? "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little," he once said. His literary career spanned more than 60 years, and he hoped to be remembered as "the person who wrote the best sentences of his time."
One his more durable lines was describing this land as "the United States of Amnesia," a subtitle to one of his books and a reference to our collective political memory lapses, though he later amended that:
I'm not joking when I refer to our country as the United States of Amnesia, although I was corrected recently by Studs Terkel out of Chicago. And he said, "Gore, it's not the United States of Amnesia; it's the United States of Alzheimer's." I stand corrected.
Vidal is being widely remembered by friends and critics recalling the glory days, the marvelous feuds, and the final bleak months of his life, drawn out in hospitals and a coma. "The world," as one writer put it, "is a grayer place without his sneer."
A proud egotist, Vidal would likely prefer to be remembered in his own words. "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television," he said. A more suitable epitaph might be "There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."
But I'll probably just remember "It's not."