Yorba Linda, California: When Past is Prologue, and Pickled
HARD TO KNOW whether to envy or pity the poor boob who stood up Wednesday night and interrupted Gore Vidal’s introduction of former Senator George McGovern, there to promote his book on Lincoln. Red Emma and Rebel Girl and the apple of their eyes sat in the front row of the mock East Room of the White House with sexy Ace Reporter Gal.
Careful observers will notice that the Authentic has trouble, always, overcoming the Spectacular. There we sat, in Nixon's Library in Yorba Linda while also sitting in the elegance of D.C., where the genuine struggled, but triumphed. We waited an hour, with my seven year old, clever lad, passing the time reading “Calvin and Hobbes,” his latest passion. Golly, he is a smart boy. Takes after his mother.
Suddenly a young, handsome man wheeled in an old, handsome man and somebody, I think it was me, stood up and began an ovation which lasted at least 3 minutes. Gore Vidal was recognized immediately by it seemed a majority of the audience beyond this fan, and the others either thought, boy, George McGovern isn’t doin’ too hot these days or maybe just went along for the hurrah. It was exciting.
The Grand Man of Letters seemed to enjoy the reception, wanting to stand to acknowledge it. He couldn’t raise himself from the wheelchair, which he’s been in for some years. Happily, weirdly, he was soon lifted three feet in the air by a sturdy little ADA-required elevator right there in the pretend finery, Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait on the wall, up to the riser where he sat until McGovern and director Timothy Naftali arrived to more applause. T.R. only looked on, bull-moosely.
As an aside, I’ll observe that Naftali, a gifted scholar and seemingly really nice guy, bears an uncanny resemblance to, no, not Nixon himself, but to Harry Shearer, humorist, “Saturday Night Live” writer and NPR “Le Show” host and hard-core Nixonophile doing the Tricky One. Weird. But…fun!
After his generous remarks, including noting the death of Senator Kennedy and the half-mastery of Old Glory and the need to celebrate the work of the Library (governmental, nonpartisan, based on fact) and also the Nixon Foundation (private rich people, partisan, silly — my words, not his), Naftali explained that he had indeed invited Gore Vidal, Lincoln scholar and McGovern contemporary and remarked (the evening’s theme, sort of) on the lovely irony of these two liberals right here in Nixonland.
Vidal accepted more applause and offered his own reliable drollery and wit, which got big laughs and then suggested he would read “some pages” from Bernard Shaw, proceeding to read the (no surprise here) ironic and instructive (if you were listening) prologue to the Fabian Socialist’s play “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
So, to review. We were assembled forty years later in a faux East Room in Yorba Linda, at the real and yet also phony library with the liberal anti-war candidate McGovern who was victimized by Nixon and his gang and voted down by the frightened and not at all silent majority of ’72 AND with the essayist-novelist-playwright-candidate Vidal, two legends who survived to reappear together on the day Ted Kennedy died, as the USA killed on and on in Iraq and Afghanistan and a moderate First Black American President struggled with Blue Dogs and gun nuts and “birthers” at town hall meetings on health care “reform” of a system which is basically a gift to the industry.
I could go on, but you get the idea. (And if not, you never will, pal.)
Oh, and did I mention that I was wearing my “I Don’t Care if He’s Dead, I Still Want to Impeach Nixon” t-shirt? And that Ace Reporter Gal wore a vintage button, “Kiss Me…I Voted for McGovern”?
In case you haven’t read “Caesar and Cleopatra” lately, I’ll summarize, briefly. Old Ra, wearing his funky Egyptian hawk’s head helmet appears. We are in Memphis. He talks to us, his modern audience, scoldingly. It’s a warning, a cautionary tale based on the political choices of old and new Rome, between the soldier Pompey (“The way of the soldier is the way of death”) and Caesar, whom the gods seemed to dig. Pompey, who represents “Mammon” (and, for our purposes, Northrup Grumman and McDonnell Douglass) makes war on Caesar, who runs away to learn a lesson from the gods, eventually gathers his wisdom and beats Mammon’s army, which runs off to Egypt, which is basically a colony of Rome.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Bush-Cheney, get it? Hubris, war, empire. Lucius Septimius seems to embrace Pompey in Sphinxville, but instead “welcomed him with one hand and with the other smote off his head, and kept it as it were a pickled cabbage to make a present to Caesar.” Wow, sauerkraut!
Now, friends, if you were lucky enough to be sitting in the audience at this remarkable occasion on a summer evening in the waning days of our own pickled empire, waiting to hear from the man who should have beaten the war criminal, and were, yes, being read to by one of the greatest thinkers, writers in the history of our republic, wouldn’t you, like me, count yourself a pretty lucky duck, soak it up, be enthralled and feel just a little bit of, okay, hope for us all?
Not the boob. He stood up from the tenth row, and interrupted Gore Fucking Vidal! “With all due respect, Mr. Vidal…” he began. Some members of the audience, expressing their own boobery, applauded in seeming consent. Vidal only smiled, as if he had organized the whole thing, as if he had orchestrated not only the moment that we saw, but the moment, now, of the silly man, and what would follow.
The sly and wise old dude waited for the crowd to settle back down, and resumed. He just kept reading, as, of course the Big Moral had arrived, Bernard Shaw’s timing and Vidal’s own seeming to anticipate the chucklehead:
“Are ye impatient with me? Do ye crave for a story of an unchaste woman? And what I am about to show you for the good of your souls is how Caesar, seeking Pompey in Egypt, found Cleopatra; and how he received that present of a pickled cabbage that was on the head of Pompey; and what things happened between the old Caesar and the child queen…All this ye shall see; and ye shall marvel, after your ignorant manner, that men twenty centuries ago were already just such as you, and spoke and lived as ye speak and live, no worse and no better, no wiser and no sillier.”
I kid you not. That’s how it happened, with Vidal completing the passage and the goof revealed as a sort of unknowing actor in the Great Man’s dramaturgy. Vidal is a playwright, after all. He got another big applause at the end. Some people got it, some didn’t, and then McGovern took the podium. He made some good cracks himself, including thanking Vidal and noting that, of all the events he’d read at lately, it was this one, at the Nixon Library, where circumstance and history conspired to get the introducer a standing ovation. I looked over in the direction of Mr. Interrupter, lost in the crowd but gifted at least with an embarassing story to tell his friends and family, about being both a player and an object lesson.
Senator McGovern offered his thoughts on Lincoln, all solid and entertaining and thoughtful, including his observations about Lincoln’s own personal challenges (clinical depression, as the South Dakota senator’s own doomed daughter) and pointed out all that Abe got done while trying to save the union, and admired Lincoln’s writing, too. I think C-SPAN might have got all this for broadcast, which you can view I hope after reading my color commentary.
Then, during the Q & A, sexy Ace Reporter Gal sprang up to ask a question about McGovern’s recollections of Ted Kennedy. She got him to tell some pretty darn sweet stories. And afterwards, we three waited while she got in line to get McG’s signature. I watched the crowd assembled around Vidal’s wheelchair, a dozen people wanting to shake his hand. I wondered if Interrupter might apologize, but he had gone off to audition for some other performance as stooge in life’s rich pageant, perhaps to ask Yo-Yo Ma not to play so loud.
My little boy shook the old peace candidate’s hand while I tried to identify all the names of “benefactors” of the foundation and library (more fun) and tried to make sense of the weird shit for sale in the gift shop, including a t-shirt with Tricky Dick’s face and the question “What Would Nixon Do”? I wondered who bought that, and I wondered about the occasion when they might find themselves looking down at their chest to ask themselves that. Answer: Smear Jerry Voorhees, red-bait Helen Gahagan Douglas, develop a racist “Southern strategy,” bomb a country illegally, start an enemies list, beat up Pat, spy on Dan Ellsberg, get drunk with Kissinger, resign in disgrace, like that. Hmmm.
We stuck around long enough to take in the fountain outside and enjoy the warm night, congratulating ourselves on being part of a generous civic moment, then went to Mimi’s for dinner. I had fish’n’chips and a cold Newcastle Brown Ale in a tall glass. At the intersection of Yorba Linda Boulevard and Imperial Highway on the way home we read the flashing Cal-Trans-style sign which warned, over and over, “Coyote Alert.” (They have, it seems, pretty alert coyotes out there in the Yorba that’s linda.) And what, friends, is that stretch of Imperial (SR 90) called, which we were helpfully reminded as we departed to our canyon home? The Richard Nixon Parkway.
From the conclusion of the “Caesar and Cleopatra” prologue:
“And fear not that I shall speak to you again: the rest of the story must ye learn from them that lived it. Farewell; and do not presume to applaud me.”