Gore Vidal was considering aloud what to do with Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., as if the governor of California were a character in a Vidal novel.
"Mr. Brown is a political corpse. . . . There he lies in my way. What do I do? Do I walk around him? Light a votive candle? Do I leap over him? Is it rude of me to point out that the man is dead politically? I mean, I don't know what to do. This is a matter for exquisite tact. And I'm doing my best to bury him and yet seem nice about it."
His plans for Brown's burial are premature, however.
Vidal is running against Brown in the June 8 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican S.I. Hayakawa. Pollster Mervyn Field, in a California Poll released May 14, shows Brown as the choice of 59 percent of California Democrats, up 2 percentage points from March, and Vidal at 11 percent, up 1 point from March. Other candidates polled a total of 19 percent with 12 percent undecided.
"Most Democratic voters," Field said, "are not taking Vidal seriously."
If some people in California consider Gore Vidal's second candidacy (he ran unsuccessfully in 1960 for a New York congressional seat) no more than a dilettante's lark, he is not deterred.
The urbane, 56-year-old Vidal, famed for decades as a novelist, playwright, essayist and talk-show guest, travels the length and breadth of the state, addressing himself in countless speeches to a host of issues. He advocates, for instance, taxing corporations a flat 10 to 15 percent as a "license fee in order to make money in the United States."
He has raised little money for his campaign, however, only about $150,000, which prompted him to describe his campaign contributions as "coming in in a formidable trickle." In a state where money equals television ads, equals points in the polls, equals votes, such poverty is almost always politically fatal.
It is also unfortunate both for the edification and entertainment of the voters because Vidal brings an uncommon level of intellect and erudition to the campaign. Many observers consider Vidal's standard campaign speech, in which he likens man's splitting the atom to Prometheus' theft of fire from the gods, as one of the best of this and many other campaign seasons.
Vidal, however, clings, publicly at least, to the belief that he will win next month.
He talks about Brown's high negative poll ratings, and says his own polls show him at 17 percent, with a 38 percent name recognition factor which he contends cuts down on the need for advertising. He also believes the undecided vote is larger than that reflected in the California Poll.
When a reporter begins to ask him a question based on the premise that Brown and Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr., the current Republican front-runner, will face each other in the Nov. 2 general election, Vidal interrupts, saying, "It's going to be me and San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson."
To spend a day with Vidal is to understand why he believes he can win. With the exception of his campaign manager, his staff is comprised of eager volunteers. And wherever Vidal makes an appearance, the candidate is met by well-wishers and his pronouncements are received with applause and laughter.
But Vidal does not give enough credit to Brown's political skill and remaining popularity, which he brushes aside with the comment that "Always comes the night when the old charisma burns down."
Vidal keeps sparsely populated, dying press conferences alive by asking reporters how he can "get Jerry's $2.2 million," a reference to Brown's so-far unspent campaign warchest.
"Can that be transferred? After I'm nominated, I mean. He certainly won't need it. I assume he'll take a vow of silence for a few years, withdraw to a Trappist monastery." "Where," interjected a reporter, "he will doubtless run for abbey?"
"Abbot," corrected Vidal. "He's in the abbey. It is a compulsion that man has . . . just running for office. Very bad for character. I run every 22 years, like clockwork, and I'm visibly deteriorating before your eyes, so think what it must be for him."
Vidal chides Brown on his failure to debate, saying, "I have asked for a debate on three separate occasions, and I see nothing but a kind of Zen Buddhist cloud moving over the horizon."
Asked by KNXT-TV reporter Bill Stout whether the question of homosexuality hurt him politically, Vidal said, "I think, all in all, this comes up about me. Of course, it comes up about Jerry Brown. I think you have to remember that Gov. Brown and I are middle-aged bachelors, and I would think that any right-thinking, moral person would assume that each of us is a virgin. And may the most immaculate win."
Vidal's caustic wit is as well-known as his writing.
But aside from barbs aimed at Brown, whom he frequently calls "The Lord of the Flies" in a literary effort to remind voters of last summer's Mediterranean fruit fly fiasco, the writer displays in this campaign a sort of benign tolerance so uncharacteristic that his will to win cannot be doubted. He responds, with something surprisingly close to patience, to questions from journalists that he has already answered dozens of times for dozens of reporters.
At 3 on a recent afternoon, an obviously tired Vidal was standing in the lobby of a television station. His gray pin-striped suit was in desparate need of a dry-cleaner and blood from a shaving cut on his throat had trickled down to stain his white shirt collar.
He wanted to go home and change clothes, but his campaign manager told him there was no time. The candidate had to get to the airport, where he would meet with his pollster and then fly to San Diego for campaign appearances.
Earlier in the day Vidal, who calls himself "the peace candidate," spoke at Pasadena City College. He dropped the repartee to deliver his standard speech.
In it he talks about the danger that comes from "that peculiar genius which sets us off from the other members of the animal kingdom . . . our curiosity, our restlessness, our tribal loyalty. One of the most ancient stories of our race is that of how Prometheus stormed the ramparts of heaven and stole the fire. In the 5,000 years since Prometheus we have laid constant siege to heaven. We've stolen the fire, we've yoked the atom, we've landed on the moon. In a way we've turned ourselves into those very same gods that Prometheus worshiped.
"But there is a somber side to our divinity. . . . In the name of tribal loyalty, sometimes called patriotism, the human race has permitted incredible atrocities against itself. . . . We have shed oceans of blood, to no end at all. Now, there is a growing perception that what matters is the survival of the human race as a whole, and that this can only be done by tapping a new kind of loyalty . . . to the larger tribe that inhabits this small, fragile planet, the human race. . . . Because the fire that we stole from heaven last time was nuclear fire, and nuclear fire can make this entire planet a perfect hell, while turning all of us into so much shining dust. . . . Let us now send to the military-industrial-political complex which governs this particular nation-state the unmistakable message . . . that we want peace, not only in our time, but for all time, as there is no alternative. We are for life, and life must prevail."
Vidal says he is getting sick of the speech, but has no time to write another. "There are," Vidal said, "no Prometheus speechwriters in the business except me."