Gore Vidal’s Judenrein Politics
A Broadway revival of 1960’s The Best Man reveals a prescient take on presidential politics, but from era before Jewish issues played a major role
The play has a few anachronisms, to be sure. Take nicotine. Most of Vidal’s characters smoke cigarettes. The drama of a brokered convention, despite the GOP’s sequential flirtation with a series of deeply flawed alternatives to the now front-running Mitt Romney, seems impossible. Finally, if Vidal were writing that play today, Schoen argued, he would have undoubtedly created a character like Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who almost single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich’s loony campaign afloat. Today’s Best Man, in fact, would be all about money—a modern-day Merchant of Venice, perhaps.
Vidal’s play endures because he knew not only what made Washington tick, but also what makes people tick. The plot revolves around the race between Russell, whom the playwright clearly favors (played with stately if slightly tedious elegance by John Larroquette), and Sen. Cantwell (played with charismatic raw energy by Eric McCormack). To defeat the more-experienced, contemplative Russell, Cantwell seeks to publicize some documents he has bribed a hospital to obtain that describe Russell’s nervous breakdown many years ago (shades of Thomas Eagleton, who was briefly George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate in 1972). If Russell refuses to withdraw from the race and steer his delegates to him, Cantwell threatens to distribute the report on Russell’s medical frailty to convention delegates and to the piranha-like press.
But Russell’s adviser, a role superbly played by Michael McKean, has dug up some dirt on Cantwell too—a homosexuality charge that could sink the senator’s presidential bid. But should Russell use it?
Ex-President Hockstader thinks the choice is clear. In such mortal combat, using such material is essential, he counsels. But Russell resists. “This is exactly the kind of thing I got into politics to stop,” Larroquette’s character says, much to Hockstader’s consternation. Ethics in such life-and-death struggles is a quality that winners, and by implication, Vidal argues, America itself, can ill afford.
Candice Bergen is compelling as Russell’s elegant, understated, witty wife Alice—type casting, to be sure. Angela Lansbury, like Jones, a legendary stage actor, is memorable as the powerful party committee woman whose southern upper-crust charm barely conceals the steely soul that politics demands.
The play is beautifully written, filled with witty observations about life and politics that still resonate. Cantwell is described as having “every characteristic of a dog—except loyalty.” Former President Hockstader recalls the era when one had to “pour God over everything, like ketchup.” Russell moans that “the terrible thing about running for president is you become a compulsive talker, forever answering questions no one has asked you.”
Gore Vidal, the self-described “border lord” in the “dying kingdom of literature,” is nothing if not provocative—worthy of a play himself. It was his disdain for Israeli policy and neoconservative Jews that led to one of those bitter contretemps in which he revels. Writing in 1986 in The Nation, Vidal attacked neo-conservative icon Norman Podhoretz—accusing him of “divided loyalties” and slamming most American Jews as “Israeli fifth columnists.” Podhoretz shot back, denouncing not only Vidal but The Nation for publishing such outrageous allegations.
A decade later, Vidal, having called Judaism in an interview “an unusually ugly religion,” accepted an invitation to appear at New York’s celebrated Young Men’s Hebrew Association, to promote a new book. Still fuming, former Mayor Ed Koch denounced those who had issued the invitation as either the “most forgiving Jews ever, or schmucks.”
But Vidal, predictably, made news, defending director Roman Polanski, the Polish Jewish director then under fire for having raped an underage girl, as a victim of anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism is very strong out here,” Vidal told the Atlantic magazine, referring to Hollywood’s film industry. “Even though this is a Jewish business.”
The WASPish Vidal is a bundle of contradictions. A man who has reveled in his aristocratic lineage—a senator’s grandson, Eleanor Roosevelt’s confidant, a relative of Jacqueline Kennedy—he spent much of his adult life with a male companion: Howard Austen, a Jew whose mother was a hat-check girl at the Copa.
In a review of Vidal’s 1987 book Empire, political journalist Steve Waldman, a former editor of the Washington Monthly, urged Vidal to forgo his love of histrionics, shun the talk shows, and just “shut up” and write.
“Vidal’s novels are so well executed that you forget he’s the same loon you just saw on Dick Cavett,” Waldman complained.
The same is true of his plays, especially The Best Man. Nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Play, the original version played for 520 performances. In 1964, Vidal adapted it into a memorable film. Given Broadway economics, this revival, directed by Michael Wilson, will have a shorter life. It ends July 1. No matter how you feel about its author, if you love politics, or especially if you hate politics, don’t miss it.
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