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Growing Up With Gore Vidal
Posted on Nov 13, 2006
By Gore Vidal
Editor’s note: In this Truthdig exclusive excerpt from his just-released book, “Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir,” National Book Award-winning author Gore Vidal recounts Depression-era episodes of his life involving his grandfather T.P. Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma, along with a political awakening that followed young Vidal’s viewing of “The Prince and the Pauper.”
My memory of the Depression is more of talk on the radio and in the house than of actual scenes of apple-selling in the street. Also, I did not always understand what I heard. When stock market shares fell, I thought that chairs were falling out of second-story windows. I did know that senators spent their days in the Senate chamber passing bills—dollar bills, I thought—from one to another, by no means an entirely surreal image.
Finally, in the spring of 1932, I saw at first hand history before it was screened. A thousand veterans of the First World War had arrived in the capital to demand a bonus for their services in the late and, to my grandfather, unnecessary war. These veterans were known as the Bonus Army, or Boners for short. By June, there were seventeen thousand of them encamped around Washington and in deserted buildings near the Capitol. The city panicked. There was talk of a revolution, like the recent one in Russia, or the one in France, which I knew so well from having seen so many movies.
At first, I thought that the Boners were just that—white skeletons like those jointed cardboard ones displayed at Halloween. Bony figures filled my nightmares until it was explained to me that these Boners were not from slaughterhouses but from poorhouses. My grandfather was against granting them a bonus. A onetime fiery populist from the Mississippi up-country, and a contributor to the only socialist constitution of the fifty states, he had come to the conclusion that “if there was any race other than the human race, I’d go join it.” He was a genuine populist; but he did not like people very much. He always said no to anyone who wanted government aid. On one memorable occasion, the blind senator was denounced to his face by a blind suppliant for federal aid. On the other hand, he believed in justice—due process, anyway—for all, equally.
As the summer grew hotter and the Depression deepened, and Congress debated whether or not to give the veterans a bonus, rumors spread: they had attacked the White House; they had fired on the Capitol; and, most horribly, they were looting the Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. I dreamed of skeletons on the march; of Boris Karloff, too—all bones and linen wrapping.
On June 17, 1932, the Senate met to vote on the Bonus Bill. I drove with my grandfather to the Capitol, sitting beside him. Davis, his black driver and general factotum, was at the wheel. I stared out the open window, looking for Boners. Instead, I saw only shabby-looking men holding up signs and shouting at occasional cars. At the Senate side of the Capitol there was a line of policemen. Before we could pass through the line, Senator Gore was recognized. There were shouts; then a stone came through the open window of the car and landed with a crash on the floor between us. My grandfather’s memorable words were: “Shut the window,” which I did.
Shortly after, the Boners were dispersed by the army, headed by General MacArthur and his aide Major Eisenhower. Guns were fired; there were deaths. The following Sunday, my father and I flew low over what had been the Boners’ encampment at the Anacostia Flats. There were still smoking fires where the shanties had been. The place looked like a garbage dump, which in a sense it had been, a human one.
From that moment on, I was alert to all films about the French and Russian revolutions and, from that day, I have always known that not only could it happen here but it probably would. In the wake of the disorders and discontents of the sixties, soon to rise again in the nineties, this is no great insight. But back then, it was an ominous portent of things to come, and of the fragility of our uniquely founded state in which everyone thought himself guaranteed sufficient liberty in order to pursue happiness on the high Jeffersonian ground that the present belongs to the living. But if the rich are too rich and the poor have nothing to support them in bad times, then how is liberty’s tree to be nourished?
A chill wind went through the Republic. Three years later Social Security was passed by Congress despite the cry of the conservatives that this was godless socialism and henceforth every citizen would be forced to exchange his name for an administrative number. My grandfather asked for the bill to be voted on. His friend, Huey Long, seconded the motion. Then Senator Long voted for Social Security, and Senator Gore abstained.
The children of the famous are somewhat different from the children of all the rest, including those of the merely rich. Until my mother married a second time, there was no fortune in the family. Cunningly, my father managed to lose control of each of the airlines that he had founded; but then he had no interest in money, only in the making of new things. Senator Gore lived on his salary as a senator, $15,000 a year. He was also the first and, I believe, last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune. But though we were relatively poor, I could tell that I was not like the other children because of the questions that my teachers would ask me about my father and grandfather, and was it true what the papers said?
When I asked my grandparents about the newspapers, they replied in unison, “If you read it in the papers, it isn’t true.” But then populists have never had a good press in Freedom’s Land. I was also warned never to answer the questions of strangers, and, of course, I always did. To one reporter, I said that my stepfather could not possibly have been the father of my half sister as he had not known my mother long enough. Although I had no inkling of the facts of life, I had an instinct for the telling detail. Later, at school, when asked what my father did, I said, “He’s in the newspapers.” Which seemed to me a precise way of accounting for his activities as director of air commerce.
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