In 1977, Gore Vidal went head-to-head with Roy Cohn, onetime mentor of the president*, on the NYC talk show Midday Live. Cohn was promoting his new book, which sported a cover blurb by, uh, Roy Cohn: an “answer to” the recent TV movie Tail Gunner Joe, in which Peter Boyle portrayed Joe McCarthy as a crapulous commie-baiter who lied about his military service. Roy was hopping mad. He published his book-length screed a month after NBC aired the movie, and he sued the network for libel, and fought all the way to the Supreme Court. (He lost.)
Cohn’s performance is a master class in demagoguery. He accuses everyone else of lying. McCarthy is the victim of a vicious smear campaign. If elites in New York and Washington, D.C. don’t like what McCarthy stands for, it’s because they’ve lost touch with the decent, vital, God-fearing people of the heartland, who understand the stakes in the fight against Communism. Most instructive is his fluid interpretation of the word “McCarthyism.” Vidal defines the term early in the broadcast and uses it consistently throughout; for Cohn, it means anything that confers a momentary rhetorical advantage. In the same breath, he casts doubt on the validity of the concept (the word first appeared in The Daily Worker!) and tries to use it like a curse (the real exponent of McCarthyism is… Gore Vidal!).
The real fun starts when Vidal brings up the topic of personal sexual habits, which is right in the wheelhouse of Jack Kerouac’s seducer, and a subject Cohn would rather avoid:
Vidal: To me, the nicest thing—let’s be affirmative. The nicest thing that I have ever heard about Joe McCarthy was told me by Senator Flanders of Vermont: that he was a full-time homosexual. Is this true?
Cohn: No, I’m sure you’d think that merited a badge of honor, but it is not true.
Vidal: Well, I’m getting to you in a minute, but what about Senator McCarthy?
Cohn: Oh, sure, that’s your favorite topic of conversation. I know that.
Vidal: I know; it’s aroused by the obvious.
Vidal later remembered telling Cohn on this broadcast, “We regarded [you and G. David Schine] as the Damon and Pythias of the homosexual movement,” and said Cohn responded by “shaking all over in a ghastly way.” This moment, alas, does not appear on the tape; I like to believe it occurred during a commercial break. But Cohn does appear shaken by all this talk of manly love, and eager to change the subject. Immediately, he produces a sheet of paper and reads some of Vidal’s cutting remarks about LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and General MacArthur, to prove that Vidal is the real McCarthyite. (As if “McCarthyism” just meant “saying unfavorable things about public figures.”)
Don’t worry; host Bill Boggs circles back to Joe McCarthy’s sex kicks—a hot topic since the early Fifties, when, as McCarthy ginned up the Lavender Scare, the Las Vegas Sun reported that the senator himself was “the queer that made Milwaukee famous”—and Vidal makes Cohn squirm some more.
Cohn: I hate to eliminate or eradicate the one plus you ever did give to Senator McCarthy, but the statement and the charge is totally untrue.
Vidal: You would know.
Cohn: Well, I don’t know, you’ve been around a man for a certain period of time, you know his wife, uh, you know his family, uh, you see him, I suppose you can know as well as anybody can know, and if I knew or didn’t know, I’d wanna have a little more proof before I start throwing it around the way you’ve done.
Vidal: But Senator Flanders did.
Cohn: Well, that’s McCarthy—Senator Flanders apologized for having made a statement which was not based on fact, but based on something somebody told him, which when he checked it out, felt was so unfounded that Senator McCarthy deserved and received an apology from Senator Flanders—
Vidal: I would be happy to see that.
Me too. When 67 senators voted to condemn McCarthy on December 2, 1954, the New York Times reported that Flanders apologized for one thing only: comparing McCarthy to Hitler.
The sound drops out from 11:58-12:13.