The Liberal Trifecta
Gore Vidal, George McGovern and the loving memory of Ted Kennedy fill the presidential library of their foe, Richard Nixon
If the events transpiring in the faux White House East Room at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda the evening of Aug. 26 were not enough to cause the ground to shake under the tomb of the 37th president of the United States, nothing will.
Gore Vidal, whose satire An Evening With Richard Nixon put the then-president on trial a year before the Watergate break-in, was there to introduce Nixon’s 1972 Democratic challenger, former Senator George McGovern. Later, there would be touching words for just-deceased Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), who, back in the day, repeatedly blasted Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War, at one point saying the then-president’s “policy of violence means more and more war.”
So, it’s small wonder that Timothy Naftali, the National Archives-run library’s executive director, began by asking the crowd of 700 mostly whitehairs, “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” After claps and chortles, he added, “Well, you are.”
Moments earlier, as surprise guest Vidal was being wheeled in, folks whispered, “Gore Vidal?” “That’s Gore Vidal!” and, “That’s Gore Vidal, right?” Most eventually rose and applauded one of America’s greatest authors, essayists and intellectuals, who sat silently in his wheelchair, facing the crowd, as McGovern, who was there to talk about and sign copies of his new book, Abraham Lincoln, was fetched.
After Naftali joined the pair onstage and began the introductions, he turned toward his guests and said, “Senator McGovern, if you had a crowd this large in Orange County in 1972 . . .”
Thinking they knew where this was going, the crowd erupted in laughter and applause before the historian hired two years ago to head the library completed his thought: “. . . then this library probably would have been in San Clemente.”
McGovern, of course, lost that race to Nixon in a landslide.
Naftali said that when he asked Vidal how he should be introduced, the author replied, “As Truman Capote.”
Vidal, one of the nation’s leading Lincoln scholars, seemed to have trouble moving forward to acknowledge the standing ovation he received before speaking, explaining, “This is a Republican wheelchair. It’s not moving.”
Turning toward McGovern, Vidal bellowed, “George, how are we going to explain this to fans of 1972? Here we are in the Nixon library. Mr. [Ronald] Reagan is down the road. It looks like old home week.”
He predicted the crowd would be treated to some refreshing “honesty and honest prose from our guest speaker.” While other presidential nominees joined golf clubs and corporate boards after their defeats, McGovern went on to earn a doctoral degree, observed Vidal. “I wish some others had done that,” he said. “[McGovern] is not afraid to be learned, and he’s not afraid to be right. That makes him unique.”
The crowd, which, based on its responses and some anti-war tees, leaned to the left, ate it up. But any goodwill Vidal conjured up disappeared by the end of the painfully long passage he read from George Bernard Shaw’s 1898 play, Caesar and Cleopatra. Holding a thick book and at times barely audible, Vidal seemed as if he were going to subject his restless audience to the entire tome before one brave gentleman rose up and complained, “Mr. Vidal, with all due respect . . .”
Following the applause that outburst generated, it was unclear from the middle of the room when Vidal was reading and when he was speaking off-script. But he kept going, with hoots and hollers breaking out any time it seemed he’d finished. Mostly, he hadn’t. Finally, just before relinquishing the floor to McGovern, Vidal said, “How different this was from 1972, when all seemed possible: 1972 convinced me that all things were not possible.” His final standing O probably came more for his prolific body of work—and the fact that he was done speaking—than his final audible words: “Know that socialism will never come to America!”
McGovern then shuffled to the podium and explained that he was in the middle of a California tour for his Lincoln book, but “this is the first time I got an introduction from a man who got a standing ovation for simply entering the Nixon library.” He also said it was the largest crowd to turn out for one of his signings so far. Based on the reception he was receiving in Yorba Linda and the one he got hours earlier at Chapman University in Orange, the former politician said, “I’ve discovered this Lincoln-McGovern ticket is very popular.”
The “prairie populist” then recounted how he came to write a book about Republican Party founder Lincoln, whom McGovern called America’s greatest president. He then ticked off what he believed to be Lincoln’s greatest achievements and failures and talked poignantly about the pain of losing a daughter to alcoholism, his deep feelings about warfare as a decorated former Army Air Force bomber pilot and his empathy with Lincoln’s battles with depression. McGovern said Lincoln’s depression bouts could have been brought on by the death of his first love, the Civil War and election losses. “I know something about that,” McGovern said of the latter.
When it came time for questions from the audience, McGovern was first asked to share his feelings on Kennedy’s passing. He expressed his admiration for the Kennedy family and the guts Ted Kennedy displayed bouncing back from the tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island in 1969. McGovern and Kennedy had both first been elected to the Senate seven years earlier, and McGovern recalled Kennedy being back in his office a few days after Chappaquiddick, again working hard for his constituents from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. like he always did.
“Ted was a great senator,” McGovern said. “He hardly missed a day. . . . I admired him, and, on a personal basis, if any senator suffered a loss like a child or a spouse, he was the first person who called. When our daughter Terry died, he came to see Eleanor and me. He was there at 9 the next morning with his wife. He was a person who respected tragedy because of his family. He was very thoughtful. I thought a lot of him.”
McGovern made it clear he also thinks a lot of President Barack Obama, but he called on Congress to take a harder look at the “growing military involvement in Afghanistan,” fearing it is a “really unwise military adventure.”
Asked what he would have done differently if he had defeated the man to whose legacy the building McGovern was standing in was dedicated, the South Dakotan first praised Reagan for helping to end the Cold War and Nixon for opening relations with China. McGovern said he would have also tried to open channels of communication with the leaders of the Communist regimes. But he also would have championed further reductions in military spending so more could be diverted to health care, education and cleaning up the environment.
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The last question McGovern was asked before he was whisked away to the book-signing table was whether he had anything he wanted to add about the investigation into Nixon operatives breaking into the Democratic Party’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972.
“No, I don’t think so,” answered McGovern, slightly flummoxed. “I thought they did a pretty good job investigating Watergate.”
With that, the ground ceased to rumble under the tomb of the 37th president of the United States. Or perhaps Vidal had just finished clearing his throat for chapter two.