“I think these great debates are absolutely nonsense,” remarks Gore Vidal, in the archival clip that closes Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s remarkable new documentary Best of Enemies. “The way they’re set up, there’s almost no interchange of ideas, very little even of personality.” He’s talking about the debates between himself and conservative counterpart William F. Buckley, Jr., which ABC aired during that year’s presidential nominating conventions, but obviously, the criticism proved prescient. After all, if even these two witty, well-educated, well-mannered men of letters couldn’t keep their on-air interactions from degenerating into cheap shots and name-calling, who could?
Though the Buckley/Vidal debates would ultimately net ABC big ratings and, as Best of Enemies notes, “change television forever,” they were initially a cost-cutting measure — a way for the third-rated net to cut costs incurred by the gavel-to-gavel coverage that was then the norm. What seemed an innocuous, if potentially fiery, pairing of ideological opposites became, as one commentator puts it, “blood sport,” illustrated by the boxing bell sound effect used by the film at the top of each debate, and the manner with which Buckley and Vidal come out swinging.
The crux of the debates, as the film carefully reveals, was never just political — it was always personal. Though they landed on opposite ends of the cultural landscape, they came from similar backgrounds and had lived similar lives, from their self-made personas as intellectual celebrities to their own dashed political ambitions. And it was perhaps because of those similarities, never acknowledged and presumably contemplated with a shudder, that the two men went at each other with such vitriol.
Yet they were also, throughout their careers but particularly in that contentious 1968 election, uniquely of their time. The filmmakers vividly color in the context, the tension of the times and how it manifested itself in race relations, religious conflicts, socio-economic unrest, and identity politics, and what’s remarkable about the film — and telling, in terms of the immovability of the two predominate parties’ hobby horses — is how may of these arguments are still being vigorously fought. Race, “law and order,” class, the income gap; all remain, and all remain as seemingly undebatable.
And in light of how huge these argument are, how succinctly they define the differences between the prevailing political schools, it’s sort of embarrassing to watch how personal Buckley and Vidal get, and how quickly they get there. Vidal leads the way, poking and prodding his conservative foe, quoting Buckley’s more odious views and putting the National Review host on the defensive; Buckley deflects, sneering at the degeneration of morals represented by the author of Myra Breckenridge until he finally reaches his breaking point, in their penultimate encounter. Dubbed a “crypto-Nazi” by Vidal, Buckley snapped back, “Now listen you queer, quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
It’s a vile, ugly moment (and one slyly set up from the beginning of the film, which indicates Buckley’s capacity for threats of violence with another clip of Buckley saying he would’ve “smashed” another man “in the goddamned face”), and it’s not a stretch to connect the dots from a moment like that to a bully like Bill O’Reilly shouting down guests and cutting off their microphones. But as bad as Buckley looks (and it’s bad) it’s hard to see it as a victory for Vidal, who later smirks, “I’m a happy warrior… this is what these things are about.”
Is it? Contrary to either their preparation or their execution, the Vidal/Buckley debates weren’t supposed to be about their feud; in the grand scheme of things, what could’ve been less important in the firestorm year of 1968 than the petty personal sniping of two rich, white, male patricians? On ABC’s dime and air, they acted like spoiled, bullying children (and did nothing to dampen that impression in the three-plus years of in-print sideswipes, lawsuits, and counter-suits that followed). And people tuned in—because that may not be informative or thought-provoking, but it sure as hell is entertaining.
Such analysis holds true today, where the counter-pointing and provocations of the worst cable news “discussions” are the norm rather than the exception. But it’s also important not to wax too rhapsodic for the “good old days” when, as Best of Enemies notes almost in passing, the only people reading the news (and determining what was news) tended to be people not unlike Vidal and Buckley: rich white guys who weren’t exactly taking a ground-level view of the world they were covering. And the centrist position that dominated that period’s news often doesn’t truly tell the story; you’ll often see more thoughtful, detailed, and well-researched reporting from so-called commentators like John Oliver and Rachel Maddow than you’ll hear from outlets that pride themselves as “straight news.”
But in the vital arena of debating issues, the current media landscape fails, just as Vidal and Buckley did all those years ago. “There’s also the terrible thing about this medium, that hardly anyone listens,” Vidal despaired in that final debate, and he’s right, but it’s more than that. Put in front of a camera in the company of a foe, and even the best and brightest of us will feel the pull to jab, to slam, and to burn — to perform. And if our politics need one thing right now, it’s fewer performers, and more thinkers.
Best of Enemies is out today in limited release.