Liz Smith: The Wise Words of "The Best Man"

Washington Jefferson and Gore“GEORGE Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the founders were almost to a man isolationists. We had a big country, it was new. We had a lot to do. We have no business fighting a war. It’s none of our business …

“The word democracy is never mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, or the Declaration of Independence. We are not a democracy. The founders hated democracy. We are a republic. And the only thing the founding fathers hated worse than democracy was majority rule, and tyranny and so everything we have is calculated to be anti-democratic …. We have more fools, of course, today.

“We must bring democracy to the Middle East. And what about the Eskimo? Are we going to leave them out? Don’t they want to have the politics of Cook County, Illinois? Don’t they want the fake balloting machines, we’re now specializing in, the ones that are rigged. We have a real mess on our hands at home and foreign wars are not the way to solve it.”

These are the words of the late intellectual writer Gore Vidal, celebrated last week at the Schoenfeld Theater on Broadway, with people reading from his works.

Gore’s remarks were offered to us by none other than the fabled talent Elaine May. She said at first when she came backstage, “… I thought this was just another tribute to Mike Nichols.”

Elaine startled the audience by her opening. They burst into laughter when she said, “I only recently found out that my speech could only be two minutes long. I’m not even going to try to keep track of it. I’ll just know my time is up when I hear the music … I met Gore Vidal many years ago under the most shocking never-before-told circumstances — which, unfortunately, I still can’t tell … because of the time … and what a hoot.”

The excerpts Elaine May did read were from an interview Gore Vidal gave a few years ago from a show titled “Witnesses.” It hasn’t aired yet.

All the mostly-famous readers were funny, sane and intelligent. They seemed appreciative to be appearing in the Jeff Richard’s produced tribute at the same theater where Gore’s play “The Best Man” is set to close on September 9th.
It is still a big hit but theater space is scarce.

Elaine May at the public celebration for Gore Vidal at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.OH, AND Elaine May ended with this: “I wish I had the time to tell you what the slightly more mellow Gore said about FDR, NATO, Truman, the CIA, homosexuality, the New York Times (except for Paul Krugman), the surprisingly liberal domestic policies of Richard Nixon, and his stunning revelations about Mickey Rooney … which is really good reading!”

Miss Elaine May, ever a sketch and Gore would have so appreciated her appearing.

I do wish I had the exact words to relay to you what the agnostic Gore said about death and dying and the meaninglessness of us all — as “dust.”

But it was uncanny to come home to my apartment, where my letters from the famous are being reviewed for sending to the archives of the U. of Texas and find one dated July 2003, lying on my desk from the late William F. Buckley, Jr. He was one of Gore’s enemies and a great Roman Catholic.

This letters reads, as follows: “Dear Miss Smith: Mr. William Buckley, who has very good connections up here, has interceded in your behalf. Your sentence is reduced to a mere 100,000 years. That won’t begin for decades. (signed) Love, Saint Peter.”

My word — the famous men I have known are really something and I miss them all these days.

I AM heartened by the avalanche of mail we are receiving by speaking up against the GOP war on women. Here’s a typical response from Nelson Devonshire of Palm Beach:

“Thanks for standing up for women. I thought this election was supposed to be about the economy, not a return visit to the land of social re-engineering. We have let our obsession with untalented celebrities obscure the frightening drive for economic domination by the too-big-to-fail banks and right wing extremists who now control the political process through unlimited PAC contributions to subservient politicians.

“Never thought I would adopt the language of a modern day Sinclair Lewis as I value the many opportunities that a great education and privileged background have provided me. To see our middle class so eviscerated and women, minorities and children marginalized so that the readers of an 800 page Vogue magazine can drool over Birkin bags is depressing to say the least.”

HAVING SEEN Ellen DeGeneres in stand-up during her “fallow” years — after her controversial coming out as a lesbian and the cancellation of her sitcom — I was sure she was simply too nice, too slyly low-key to really survive this often terrible business we call “show.” She wasn’t mean enough. Wrong. (That is, she’s not mean, but she did survive.) This month Ellen marks her first decade as the host of her wildly popular daytime talk show. With no end in sight.

To celebrate this, The Hollywood Reporter put her on its front and back cover, along with a six-page story inside. Ellen tells writer Lacey Rose how she thought she might never work again, the incredible hate mail, the death threats. But, she won, simply by being herself — a woman who just happened to be gay. Activists at times criticized her for not being “gay enough.” But when something is known and admitted, why talk about it every second?

She is exactly who she is. Ellen says, “I know that every time I list something that I am, I am potentially alienating a whole group of people. Publicists and managers will encourage you not to say what political party you belong to, what you eat, what you don’t eat, who you sleep with. I just think it’s dangerous. People need to have all kinds of examples and heroes who stand for something.”

THE HOLLYWOOD Reporter also pays tribute to the late Phyllis Diller. Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett and producer George Schlatter comment. Also Carl Reiner, who remarks, “She was one of the sweetest women ever. In fact, she was too sweet to be in comedy.” Like Ellen, I guess. Sometimes good girls do finish first.

This column originally appeared on on 8/27/12

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Well, I agree with Vidal that we do NOT need to be running around “exporting democracy.” Totally a fool’s errand. And an expensive one for us, in blood and treasure.

  2. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Ellen DeGeneres – I am giving this write up a standing ovation! My point exactly.

    I see it happening with President Obama as well. There is this need to almost without intention – strip away the very part of who they are – for the fear of being labeled. Barack Obama does it with his religion and race. during election time he has no problem reminding us his mother was White and he was raised by his grandparents, but very little is said about his father and his family. He ends each speech with “God bless America” but beyond that interviews are devoid of anything associated with his faith which he says means everything to him.

    In the end, we are all, who we are. Why must we define ourselves when who we are is so apparent? I watched Ellen when her show first premiered and she erred on the same side as Rosie did so many years ago, she went WAY over board in the attempt to be liked. All jokes, heavy on kids and animals, never even remotely touching the 3rd rail of conversation – sexuality.

    Now she is ore authentic. She speaks as all of us speak about our lives, in a broad manner. No more censoring herself when she speaks. Now she speaks casually of “Dinner last night with her wife…..” and LGBT events or causes….she speaks up for them without hesitation. I love it! It puts me at ease and I am sure others agree. It’s more real. It’s no longer an air of hiding something. For indeed who she is can’t be hid. Which is why I have such an issue with people that try to live closeted lives.

    Aaah Gore Vidal…..The man that made me rethink so many opinions I held firmly to.  Although I am a Christian and proud of it, I will admit many of his views made me rethink how I interpret Christianity. He ironically made me a better Christian by opening my mind and how I view others that don’t share my views.

    I will say this. As proud as I am to be an American, I do have a problem with our constant need to circle the globe in the attempt to change other nations to think as we do. Pray as we do. Live as we do. Funny, I wonder how we would react if a group of foreigners were to land in the states tomorrow and declare because they have a problem with our president, congress and senate, they were going to attempt to instill “their” way of living, thinking and praying?      


  3. avatar Lila says:

    Belinda, I don’t think Obama’s father had much to do with him. Hard to talk about the influence of someone who didn’t have any.

    As far as wearing his race or religion on his sleeve – not really appropriate since he represents all Americans. Some shrill paranoid types thought Kennedy would serve the Pope before serving America, and he countered that with a speech on honoring the separation of church and state. Some neocons these days should think on that…

    • avatar Belinda Joy says:

      Respectfully Lila, you missed my point.

      Barack has spoke of the influence the “Black” side of who he is as a person has had on him in his books.  As is the case with most biracial people, there are questions that have to do with identity that those that are not biracial have to come to terms with. I am in no way implying Barack Obama begin and end every conversation with comments about his ethnicity and religion, however conversely he should not have to avoid it either. That is what I see him doing far too often.

      The problem I have with your view of his position, which as you know many share, is the belief that because he is president of the United States and therefore speaks for ALL Americans of different beliefs, we aren’t suppose to hear him speak of faith. That somehow in doing so that means he is showing some sort of bias, and that simply isn’t true.

      I don’t have a problem having a Chrisitan President that when asked about his beliefs speaks about them openly and honestly. Wouldn’t it be nice if people that claim to have open minds could allow for those that don’t think as they do? That they can hear their president speak in interviews (if asked) about being a Christian, Jew, Catholic, Mormon, Muslims, Atheist, Agnostic, etc. etc. etc. and have Americans STILL respect him as their president and accept that his/her religion (or non belief) is simply a PART of who they are?   After all they are human as we all are. Why must they hide a vital part of their core being simply because they lead a nation?

      That’s was not the intent when we speak of separation of church and state.         

      • avatar Lila says:

        Hi Belinda, I confess that YES, it does make me uncomfortable when our most senior leaders speak openly about matters of faith. In my mind it brings up a whole host of issues:

        — If a person is a truly devout believer, how could he NOT execute his office in accordance with his beliefs? And might that not impinge on the lives of others who don’t share that faith?

        — If a person is NOT a truly devout believer, why the show? Well – for the public expectation, I guess. It seems to me that we really do have an informal “faith test” for our politicians; they are practically required to speak of their faith in God and how they are guided by prayer and so on. We once shuddered at the thought of a Catholic president. Some now shudder at the thought of a Mormon president (it’s a “cult” or “not real Christianity” in their eyes). And for idiots who buy into hype, there are those who were in utter panic thinking that Obama is a Muslim. So apparently there is a sort of expectation that we are supposed to have a nice, Christian, church-going First Family. This really bugs me.

        –Back to being guided by God and prayer: nothing scares me more. A person who holds the power our president holds should be guided by sound real-world principles; they should have some understanding of foreign, domestic, and economic affairs; they should believe in the validity of scientific data. It’s fine to believe in God and go to church, but our president needs to keep his decision-making firmly in THIS world, not the next. We are a secular nation. Or at least, supposed to be.

        So – I don’t mind so much if the president goes to church, has his kids baptized, closes his speeches with “God bless us all,” or whatever; but please… I don’t want them to tell me that they pray and that God tells them very specifically what to do in their office.

  4. avatar Briana Baran says:

    Religious belief, or the lack of it, belief in a higher power or the absence of such, faith, dogma, prayer…these are personal matters, and they remain personal, even when one is speaking of the President. Especially when speaking of the President. His or her system of belief should have no bearing on his job as President, on the way in which the nation is viewed, on the treatment of the people of the country, on his decision making, or on the legislation or law. I don’t want to know about his prayer habits, or his asking WWJD, or his belief that a “Higher Power” guides him.

    I don’t care what religion he is: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, Norse…though I would prefer an agnostic, and feel positively over-joyed by an iconoclast who would put paid to the notion of untaxable religious institutions. They’re businesses, tax all but their charitable efforts. Let them pay property taxes, income taxes, school taxes, the whole thing. It would be so profitable for our economy.

    I am not dazzled by a president’s charisma, good-looks, race, sweet voice…or belief in the same dubious creator as myself. Flights of fancy don’t impress me…ideas, actions, conviction, progression, intelligence, strength and character do, in a man or woman. You could be an ugly as home-made-sin, Muslim, multi-racial candidate…and if I thought you were the best person for the job, I would vote for you, regardless of party affiliation.

    I’m waiting for one of the GOP candidates to start teebowing on the campaign trail to remind their constituents of their piety. I don’t want to watch you pray, I won’t say “under god”, and this nation was not based on Christianity according to George Washington himself. The President’s religion is his own business, he has no reason, no duty, and no business to be witnessing from the Oval Office.