“Television’s talk shows are the ultimate form of decadence,” Gore Vidal said, in an interview with the New York Times in June 1964. “We have reached the point where we gladly sit and let the machine talk to us. The talkathon has replaced the dance marathon. The question is, can Zsa Zsa Gabor talk for 24 hours? Should prizes be awarded to the person who asks the most interminably inane question?”
The interview was prompted by Vidal’s appearance earlier that month on the debut of “Hot Line,” a live call-in television show produced by David Susskind, a talk show host known for supporting liberal causes. In addition to Vidal and Susskind, the panel that Tuesday night, June 23, 1964, had included columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin of Yale University.
But it was Vidal who stole the show, according to the Times:
Unlike most national talkers who eagerly accept invitations to gather at TV’s round-table and then flounder helplessly through a series of incomplete sentences expressing incomplete thoughts, Vidal, stylishly, confidently and usually accurately, comments on just about everything under the sun — plus some topics that are not.
On “Hot Line,” Vidal went from topless bathing suits to the question of nudity (“It is a question of aesthetics — for the people watching”), to J. Edgar Hoover, integration, Georges Sand and the California primary.
What Vidal and the other panelists would later learn, although it must have come as no surprise, was that their discussion that night had drawn the attention of the FBI, which had been monitoring Susskind, in particular, for years. In David Susskind: A Televised Life, Stephen Battaglio wrote that FBI agents had been so outraged by the criticism of the bureau that night that they “conspired to undermine” the show:
The panel criticized the FBI’s handling of civil rights cases and bombings in the South. Susskind called for Hoover’s retirement. In his closing remarks on the pilot program, Susskind told viewers to write in if they wanted “Hot Line” to return on a regular basis. Hearing that, agents in the FBI’s New York office planned a letter-writing campaign that complained about the show (without identifying themselves with the bureau). The effort failed, as WPIX added “Hot Line” to its fall schedule.
Two documents from the FBI file on the “Hot Line” premiere are available at The Kilgallen Files, a memo about the show to an FBI official close to Director J. Edgar Hoover, and a letter sent to Hoover by a viewer objecting to the panelists’ criticisms of Hoover and the bureau.According to a memo written the day after the show by Cartha “Deke” DeLoach, a highly placed FBI agent, to John Mohr, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s second-closest confidant in the bureau (next to Clyde Tolson, the director’s intimate friend):
Assistant Director [in charge of the FBI's New York field office, John F.] Malone called at 1O:2O a.m. today and advised that one of the Agents in the office had just handed him a memorandum concerning a program which appeared last night over [WPIX].
…This was a panel type show where the panelists take telephone calls from the public and answer their questions. On the program were David Susskind; Gore Vidal (who Malone described as [REDACTED]); Reverend William Coffin, chaplain at Yale University; and Dorothy Kilgallen.
The first half of the program was extremely critical of the Director and the FBI in the handling of civil rights cases and bombing cases in the South. One statement was made that the Director [Hoover] should retire as he did not desire to carry out the law of the land as far as civil rights cases are concerned. Susskind said the FBI had utterly failed in the bombing cases of the South. There were, of course, other items taken up on the program; however, at the conclusion Susskind said that this was the first of its kind and was sort of a test pilot. He urged that listeners write in if they would like to have a program of this type continued in the fall season of 1964.
As was noted in the excerpt from the Susskind biography, at the end of DeLoach’s memo to J. Edgar Hoover’s henchman John Mohr, he wrote, “[The FBI agent who watched "Hot Line"] said that … some of the New York employees were going to write to the station and say that the program stunk, was factually incorrect, and do not think the program should be continued next fall. He said, of course, they would not identify themselves with the bureau.”
Station WPIX, Ch 11, NY has just presented a program called “Hot Line” and David Susskind is the moderator. Listeners phone in questions & the panelists take turns answering the calls. The panelists were Dorothy Kilgallen, Gare [sic] Vidal & Rev William Sloan Coffin of Yale Univ.
I listened knowing full well how questions would be answered & I wasn’t mistaken. I have just written to WPIX expressing my opinion of the program & of Mr. Vidal in particular. Of course a call came in (bona fide?) on the present crisis in Missassippi [sic] & that call was taken by Mr. Vidal. They all felt the FBI should “go in” & Vidal said that you were doing nothing, he couldn’t understand why you had to go on & on being director that all you talked about was communism.” I wish I could quote him word for word but since I can’t I must say that the words he used would leave the impression on listeners that you had outlived your usefulness that the big problem to-day is civil rights “& you haven’t said a word.”
In an interview recently for the Susskind biography, Gore Vidal recalled the discussion on the show that night. “We were deeply opposed to the Vietnam,” Vidal said, referring to himself and Coffin, according to the biographer, Stephen Battaglio. “I guess they thought we were ganging up on the FBI. Which we were.”