On Wednesday night, a crowd of over 700 gathered in Yorba Linda to see former Senator George McGovern talk about his new book, a short biography of Abraham Lincoln. The event, co-sponsored by the Richard Nixon Library and Museum and the Richard Nixon Foundation (and held in the Library’s replica of the White House’s East Room) would have been remarkable enough for the appearance of President Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1972 election – but, in a surprise appearance, the Senator was introduced by none other than 83-year-old Gore Vidal, almost the last major American writer of the “Greatest Generation” still living, who has written about RN on many occasions (including the 1972 play An Evening With Richard Nixon). Both men received standing ovations.
Though Vidal has sometimes expressed a degree of admiration for the thirty-seventh President’s resilience and achievements in the field of foreign affairs, in recent years his remarks about Nixon have been much more negative, and he seems to blame RN for instigating the careers of former Vice President Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom worked in the Nixon Administration and have been the targets of Vidal’s angriest barbs in articles and interviews since 2000. The late Senator Edward Kennedy has also been the object of Vidal’s bile from time to time, unsurprisingly given the writer’s mercurial relationship with the Kennedy clan, and his preference for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s brand of populist radicalism. But in his introduction in Yorba Linda, Vidal spoke instead of Lincoln, the subject of one of his best-known and most acclaimed novels.

Sen. McGovern then took the podium and discussed his biography. He stressed that Lincoln’s greatest achievement was preserving the Union, and spoke at length about the difficulties the sixteenth President had to overcome – his limited formal education, and his struggle with depression (which McGovern knows from experience, as he movingly describes in Terry, his book about his late daughter’s tragic battle with alcoholism and bipolar illness).

Though Ted Kennedy went unmentioned in the main part of McGovern’s talk, one of the questions asked after it referred to him, and the reply was:

“Ted was a great senator,” McGovern said. “He hardly missed a day [of work] . . . I admired him and, on a personal basis, if any senator suffered a loss like a child or a spouse, he was the first person who called. When our daughter Terry died, he came to see Eleanor and me. He was there at 9 a.m. the next morning with his wife. He was a person who respected tragedy because of his family. He was very thoughtful. I thought a lot of him.”

McGovern also spoke at Chapman University earlier in the day.