“Best of Enemies”
Vidal and Buckley
In 1968, two intellectuals participated in a televised series of debates on issues of the day. On one side was the liberal Gore Vidal, renowned author and iconoclast and on the other was the conservative trailblazer William F. Buckley Jr. These “vitriolic and explosive encounters came to define the modern era of public discourse in the media, marking the big bang moment of our contemporary media landscape when spectacle trumped content and argument replaced substance”. “Best of Enemies” looks at the biographies of these two great thinkers as well as at the debates and the question arises, “What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?”
Back then, ABC ranked third among the major networks and decided to try something different for their upcoming coverage of the 1968 presidential conventions and that was to hire ideological enemies William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to summarize the issues in a nightly debate. For ten debates, the two men insulted each other and attempted character assassinations instead of dealing with the political issues of the day and America tuned in. The end came with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley threatening to punch Vidal in the face on live TV. Documentarians Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville brings together footage from the debates and gives us the complete context around the media event. This is where the victory of volume and rage over civilized discourse began.
As the two determined men set to do battle, some of their writings are read off-camera by John Lithgow as Vidal and Kelsey Grammer as Buckley. We see archival footage of Vidal’s Italian villa, with him giving a tour of his bathroom and this immediately creates an interesting touch right from the start. Vidal proudly points to photographs hanging over the bathtub that show him with Buckley at the Democratic Convention debate in Chicago in 1968. ABC network was seriously ailing and so the network powers invited Buckley and Vidal to debate live on television to boost their ratings during both national political conventions, starting with the Republicans in Miami Beach.
Aside from the footage of the debates, there are fascinating on-camera interviews with Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky and Dick Cavett. The ninth debate was the one in which Vidal calls Buckley a “pro-or crypto-Nazi” and Buckley looses his cool, uttering the response that was to define him for the rest of his life and beyond: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered. Then Vidal smiles the smile of a winner. It was this moment that brings a series of questions “about television culture, about the craft of insult to trigger a reaction, about the nature of enmity, about the character of time”.
The late Christopher Hitchens calls the aftermath of the debates, in both lawsuits and magazine articles by both of the men, an “enormous opportunity for the practice of malice.” Reid Buckley, says about his brother Bill that “most of all, he is a revolutionary.” The debates, were and still are in a way about “lifestyle” and “who is the better person.” We learn about how Buckley was at sea, relaxing on a yacht, and ready to wing the debates and Vidal hired a researcher to prepare him before the first debate.