A documentary about the 1968 televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal becomes a study of two fascinating men, but also of the way TV, and politics, were changed forever
Best of Enemies
Featuring: William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal
Directed by: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Running time: 87 minutes
By Jay Stone
In 1968, the ABC television network was running a distant third to CBS and NBC, who among them dominated the airwaves. Someone said that if you wanted to end the Vietnam War, you should put it on ABC because it would be cancelled in 13 weeks.
Among the network’s problems was its news department, where correspondent Howard K. Smith was far behind the dominant anchors of the time, Walter Cronkite (on CBS) and Huntley and Brinkley (on NBC.) The most immediate concern was that there were two political conventions that year — the Republicans were meeting in Miami Beach to nominate Richard Nixon over young upstart Ronald Reagan and the Democrats were convening in Chicago, where violence between police and protestors pretty well doomed the chances of eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey.
CBS and NBC planned the usual gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, but ABC didn’t have the resources. So someone came up with a novel idea: 90 minutes of evening coverage, enlivened by on-air debates between spokesmen for the two sides of a divided America, the liberal left and the conservative right.
It became the dawn of the age of TV pundits, although the pioneers were two unlikely opponents, patrician intellectuals who spoke in complete paragraphs from a deep base of learning. Most of what they said comprised venomous insults — they hated one another personally as well as politically — but their on-air debates became an elevated kind of theatre. They may not have illuminated the political landscape, but they brought a rare sharp wit to television.
On the right was William F. Buckley Jr., a right-wing Christian libertarian, editor of the National Review — the leading organ of conservative thought — who had honed on his own TV show, Firing Line, a strange public persona. Buckley would lean back in his chair and speak directly through his adenoids, occasionally flicking out his tongue like some Yale-educated lizard and allowing a rictus of delight (or perhaps intellectual sadism) to spread into a lupine grin.
On the left was Gore Vidal, a prolific author of a series of historic novels, as well as a scandalous Hollywood satire, Myra Breckenridge. He was born into a well-connected political family (he was step-brother of Jacquie Kennedy, wife of the assassinated president), but he rejected the life of privilege even as he led it. He was a handsome, isolated man who viewed America mostly from Italy, where he had moved.
They had 10 debates, which are the subject of Best of Enemies, a documentary about two fascinating characters that is also a galvanizing study of television news, the manipulations of the medium, recent American history and the general decline of discourse in our society. Unlike today’s TV commentators, who speak over one another in short bursts of anger, Buckley and Vidal were lucid critics, albeit mostly of one another, well schooled in the art of debate.
Directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies uses fascinating archival footage — those old enough to remember 1968 television will be especially engaged — and interviews with such personalities as Dick Cavett, who knew both men. In addition, John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer read letters and commentaries from Buckley and Vidal that give their version of what happened on air.
But it is the debates themselves that are the centre of this oddly dramatic encounter. Moderated by Smith — who mostly introduced the principals and let them go — they were contests, as someone says, to persuade the viewing public which of them was a better person. Buckley saw a nation of declining standards, made vulgar by stampeding hordes of barbarian teenagers. Vidal saw a country in which the poor and young were abandoned to notions of wealth and empire.
The climax of Best of Enemies comes in the final debate, a famous attack in which Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley loses his temper and calls Vidal a “goddam queer,” threatening to sock him in the face. It’s a moment that took the debates past all notions of civility and deeply affected the two men for the rest of their lives.
The debates were a sideshow in a watershed era in the U.S. — the age of Vietnam, Nixon, and the fires of street protest — and Buckley and Vidal are mostly forgotten (an especially cruel fate for Vidal, who was in some way America’s unofficial historian). But this movie revives the memory: the story of how television, and much else, was changed forever.
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