Film Review: Best of Enemies

 

BestOfEnemies“Say again, Mr. Vidal? I thought I just heard you call me a ‘pro- or crypto-Nazi.’ Could you please repeat your words clearly for the jury in my forthcoming slander suit?” Alas, you won’t hear words to that effect in Best of Enemies, the engaging documentary about ABC’s ten televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley before the 1968 Presidential Election. Unfortunately, Buckley took the bait and called Mr. Vidal a “queer,” and compounded the slur by threatening physical violence.

The man we know as WFB had the decency to later repent. In contrast, we learn that Vidal, in his dotage, would replay the video of that moment to guests in his Italian villa. Lacking footage of these private screenings, filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon instead treat us to a clip of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. I’m not sure how the author of Myra Breckinridge would react to that, but it serves to illustrate the filmmakers’ view of where Vidal wound up.

The centrality and power of the “crypto-Nazi/queer” exchange as a dramatic focal point underscores Best of Enemies‘ central theme about the impact of television on political discourse. Whether it implies a false equivalency between the protagonists is up to the viewer. Yes, the arena-like confrontation between these two political champions with “patrician, languid accents” foreshadowed everything from 60 Minutes’ Jack and Shana to SNL’s Curtin-Ackroyd take-off (yes, the obligatory “Jane,  you ignorant slut” clip is here) and CNN’s Crossfire, down the slope to what we see today. It was — and remains — a political Thrilla in Manila (“Serving as a second in Vidal’s corner we see … Paul Newman!”)

The implied false equivalency is to blame Buckley and Vidal equally for the decline of political argument on television. In that one climactic moment, Buckley made the wrong choice and quickly realized it. “That was a disaster,” he said. Vidal’s reaction was, “We gave them their money’s worth tonight.” In that moment, Vidal was more in control, his intent accomplished. From the start, beginning with his research preparation, Vidal wanted to attack Buckley personally, incite him, and thereby expose him. Buckley, as thirty years of Firing Line broadcasts prove, had the exact opposite intention: to elevate television and its audience via reasoned political argument and debate. Buckley’s noble ambition, ironically, was consigned to public broadcasting, while Mr. Vidal’s central tactic — ad hominem opposition research and playing for the big emotional moment of confrontation — led to commercial success.

Best of Enemies correctly notes television’s tonal decline. Intellectually, these were worthy gladiators for their era. Buckley was a seminal and central thinker in the rise of 20th-century conservatism, and a witty wordsmith. Vidal was an eloquent, accomplished, successful playwright and author of historical fiction, who embodied the sophistication of his upscale liberal constituency. Their debate did lead to a verbal food fight, but — until that fateful moment — the edibles were fine cuisine.

Fifty years from now, they may dredge up video of another infamous Irish Catholic vs. gay liberal match-up, the Bill O’Reilly vs. Barney Frank bout on Fox News Channel, and compare.

What happened in the decades between Buckley-Vidal and that confrontation? Did commerce triumph over class? Maybe the cable news bookers just need to aim higher. Mark Steyn vs. Camille Paglia, anyone?

Former network news chief Dick Wald tells us that “television would never be the same” after Buckley-Vidal. The three major networks perceived themselves as “in the center” and “cementers of ideas, not disrupters of ideas.” Fox News won out by disrupting those very ideas. The ratings uptick at ABC during Buckley-Vidal is underlined with a glimpse of an old Nielsen pocket piece. Those shots you see on cable news so often now — combatants facing the camera, debating — confirm the notion that television news “in the center” is often too exclusionary of popular perspectives that also warrant presentation. The ratings prove conflict works. The challenge is the casting.

Is Best of Enemies itself fairly cast? Yes and no. The academics and critics they rounded up include the usual liberal suspects, Todd Gitlin, Eric Alterman, and Frank Rich included. The difficult-to-categorize John McWhorter and Andrew Sullivan also turn up. WFB biographer Sam Tanenhaus shows respect for both debaters, and the inclusion of Heritage historian Lee Edwards proves that one of ours can be worth more than half a dozen of theirs.

In the main, Best of Enemies plays it fair. Buckley gets off plenty of funny lines. Why does he deliver his ideas from a sitting position? “The weight of what I know,” he responds. You may even learn things you didn’t know about him. A Vidal remark directed against Buckley on The Tonight Show led Jack Parr to invite WFB in for a rebuttal, which Buckley handled so well that it positioned him to launch Firing Line.

An important subtext to the ABC debates, voiced by Wald, was “What kind of people should we be? Who is the better person?” That’s a big one, and the filmmakers, again, play fair. WFB smiles a lot while coming off as the intellectually adept bon vivant of conservatism, i.e., its friendly face. We also see a gutsy Buckley, with a Firing Line clip of him challenging Mohammed Ali directly about his relationship with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed. Unfortunately, there’s that regretted “queer” slur. WFB also inserts a thought about Breckinridge’s “taxonomy of perversion” into the lexicon, presumably for later use by social scientists and “Queer Studies” scholars.

Vidal smiles less, and is described as “a good hater.” He’s a media snob – “images – ghastly word” and an attacker, even after death. He shows fellow Democrat Bobby Kennedy no mercy, and celebrates Buckley’s passing with an appalling rant about the reception festivities in Hell. Only one political remark by Vidal ever struck me as honest and non-partisan: his description of Mayor Daley’s Chicago during the 1968 DNC as “like living under a Soviet regime.” Almost 50 years later, most Democrats would never criticize the remaining communist regimes; they’re too busy trying to befriend them.

See Best of Enemies, not for the political ideas – there are only a few – but for its well-chosen snippets of history, and its driving, fascinating portrait of two men and a medium. The film has begun its roll out in New York, Los Angeles, and Canada, with more cities added each week. A packet with full credits is available online, and liberal New York magazine has a long, stylish review by Jim Holt.

There are 28 comments.

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  1. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    Thanks for the review. I look forward to watching it when available.

    • #1
  2. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    During his SCTV days, Ricochet’s own Joe Flaherty used to portray William F. Buckley:

    http://youtu.be/pgX–dnP820

    • #2
  3. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    NPR aired an interview with the directors this morning. Sounds like a really interesting film.

    I’ve always thought “I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered” neither makes a whole lot of sense nor holds up particularly well nearly 50 years later. The past really is a foreign country.

    • #3
  4. Dick from Brooklyn Thatcher
    Dick from Brooklyn
    @DickfromBrooklyn

    Pleasantly surprised to hear that it is somewhat even handed. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    • #4
  5. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re : 3

    “……and you’ll stay plastered”

    ” Retired boxers, who were mentally impaired as a result of head injury sustained during fights, used to be described as “punch drunk”. And “plastered” was often used to describe someone drunk to the point of being severely mentally impaired. I think Buckley was implying that Vidal was intoxicated.

    I think Buckley’s ….ah….response….makes as much and as little sense as it made at the time. But the incident is nothing compared to what a transgender reporter did to Ben Shapiro. Read “The Left Embraces the Logic of Fascism”, dated July 27, by Andrew Klavan writing at PJ Media. It’s short and really shocking. At least Buckley kept his hands to himself and knew enough to be deeply ashamed. At least the people around him weren’t so intellectually dishonest that they blamed Vidal for his behavior.

    Another difference : Vidal deliberately insulted Buckley. That was his goal. Shapiro deliberately continued to speak in accordance with his definition of gender. He probably knew that doing so would insult the reporter who wanted to be addressed as a woman, but insulting him was not Shapiro’s goal. Continuing to talk as if gender isn’t something we can change was his goal.

    • #5
  6. Mister Magic Inactive
    Mister Magic
    @MisterMagic

    My favorite line from Buckley on Vidal (and one my of favorite lines of all time) is from “In Search of Anti-Semitism”:

    “Anyone who lies about Mr. Vidal is doing him a kindness”

    • #6
  7. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Buckley may have regretted that line to Vidal, but it always made me laugh.

    • #7
  8. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    I cheated by looking on Wikipedia for information on Vidal. When he said ” …..and you’ll stay plastered” , Buckley must have meant to allude to the fact that Vidal habitually got drunk.

    • #8
  9. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Dick from Brooklyn:Pleasantly surprised to hear that it is somewhat even handed. I’ll believe it when I see it.

    Trust but verify.

    Worked in Reykjavic. Needed in Teheran.

    So why not before schlepping into Manhattan on the D or B for a movie at the IFC Center 5 in the West Village?!

    • #9
  10. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    I think on the issue of TV then and now with commentators the difference is that the importance of civility is not as high now as it was then. In another article you covered with the Paglia interview the topic of energy and its persuasion was mentioned (it trumps civility). From what I know of Buckley and O’Reilly it is that one was of lower class and more crude social upbringing that dealt with more blue collar work in the more culturally lax America (O’Reilly) and Buckley was raised in Connecticut during a more culturally strict America in a upper class family (he was home schooled where as O’Reilly was public school) and attended very upper class universities like Yale.

    As such their manners and life experiences are considerably different. On the point of Fox doing better than other News Networks its kind of obvious. Those News Networks sold themselves as centrist as other News Organizations have always done but essentially relied on having one narrative. This centrist narrative more or less defaulted to agreeing with whatever the consensus was globally. This meant they tended to side with the more left leaning nations of Europe and other areas. This results in difference of what is promised and what is received which alienated many.

    When Fox came it out it too made that claim but through the lens of fair and balanced. This kind of implies two sides, not one and they delivered on that promise mostly.

    • #10
  11. TeamAmerica Member
    TeamAmerica
    @TeamAmerica

    “Maybe the cable news bookers just need to aim higher. Mark Steyn vs. Camille Paglia, anyone?”

    I think that’d be a great combo. I’d love that. They both have arts-oriented backgrounds, and are both cultural critics and courageous iconoclasts. In an age of neo-Stalinist conformity enforced by media and social media, they maintain the Western tradition of speaking out ‘contra mundum.’ I’d pay to watch that video. (Rob Long please take note!)

    • #11
  12. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Bill Buckley is one of my heroes and I can’t wait to go see this.  Incidentally, there is a piece that C-SPAN aired a couple of Sundays ago with the two producers of this film.

    http://www.c-span.org/video/?326642-1/qa-robert-gordon-morgan-neville

    • #12
  13. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Could be Anyone: Buckley was raised in Connecticut during a more culturally strict America in a upper class family (he was home schooled where as O’Reilly was public school) and attended very upper class universities like Yale. As such their manners and life experiences are considerably different.

    A lot of this is about manners. Vidal deliberately tried to provoke Buckley by calling him a Nazi. Fighting words were bad form, but less so than actually fighting. Buckley was upscale, but still an outsider at Yale as a Roman Catholic. If Vidal could reduce him to a “fighting” Irishman stereotype, all too ready to settle things with his fists, then in the construct of the elites he had shown Buckley up for “what he was.”

    O’Reilly attended Catholic school, as illustrated in A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity:

    photo from A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity by Bill O'Reilly, Three Rivers Press, 2010

    Proudly “one of the folks,” he was a “bold, fresh” rascal in Catholic school. The way his father was treated by a Chevron subsidiary certainly impacted his take on big business. But he’s from middle class prototype Levittown on Long Island, and attended Chaminade, a good Catholic high school in Mineola where he quarterbacked the football team. He wore (real working class) Joe Namath’s #12 and white cleats. Then it was on to Marist College.

    He became a school teacher, then moved into local and network news, the syndicated tabloid Inside Edition, then completed a graduate degree from Harvard to sharpen his political acumen before Fox News. On Inside Edition he developed a feel for the mass audience and fast pacing. Is he rude on the Factor? Not exactly. Maybe he’s the Irish cop on the beat, policing the no-spin zone. At root, he’s a teacher who learned how to control his classroom from experts.

    A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, his 2008 autobiography, is really a wonderful portrait of upward mobility in middle class Catholic America in the boomer era.

    • #13
  14. buzzbrockway Member
    buzzbrockway
    @buzzbrockway

    Thanks for the review.  There will be a screening in Atlanta August 14 that I and a few friends plan to attend.  I can’t wait to see it.

    • #14
  15. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Jim Kearney: A lot of this is about manners. Vidal deliberately tried to provoke Buckley by calling him a Nazi. Fighting words were bad form, but less so than actually fighting. Buckley was upscale, but still an outsider at Yale as a Roman Catholic. If Vidal could reduce him to a “fighting” Irishman stereotype, all too ready to settle things with his fists, then in the construct of the elites he had shown Buckley up for “what he was.”

    It’s interesting how cultures and sub cultures change over time. At the time of America’s founding, dueling was still a thing: you could actually kill a man simply because he insulted you. It seems as though the upper classes of Buckley’s time went too far to the other extreme. Some people take honor way too seriously; others, not seriously enough.

    • #15
  16. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re comment # 15

    Buckley lost his temper because Vidal was deliberately insulting him. And the viciousness of Vidal does leave you shocked and then enraged. Last night when I read about the way he described that 13 year old child the film maker raped, I found myself wishing, just for a moment, that someone had shot him.

    I wonder if maybe, at the time of America’s founding, dueling was still a thing because important people in the country were only beginning to recognize and adopt the manners necessary for a democratic republic. After all, Alexander Hamilton didn’t grow up in a democratic republic. He helped to create one.

    I wish Buckley had said something like “Grow up ,Mr Vidal, we both know that’s false and vile” because, I agree with you, it’s too much the other way to just accept that behavior, but I think the viciousness of Vidal’s remark shocked and enraged him.

    • #16
  17. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Hello, Ansonia :) Just for the record, I am totally against dueling :) But I do wonder sometimes if we have gone too far to the other end of the extreme. Gore Vidal isn’t the only one who has made indefensible remarks about the Roman Polanski situation, and none of the people who made those remarks have faced social censure of any kind, but Bill Buckley is considered by some to beyond the pale because he threatened to punch a guy who called him a Nazi? There is something wrong with that picture.

    • #17
  18. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 17

    Yes.

    By the way, I edited my comment before I read yours.

    • #18
  19. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Ansonia:Re # 17

    Yes.

    By the way, I edited my comment before I read yours.

    As someone who has lost my temper more times than I can count, I totally agree that losing one’s temper is never good, especially on TV :) I have actually also threatened physical violence to people who were saying things that I found horrifying. I regret that deeply, but maybe not as deeply as some would think I should: Buckley obviously lost his cool and said some regrettable things, but all in all, Gore Vidal has far more reason to be deeply ashamed than Bill Buckley ever did. But then, I am of Irish ancestry. Maybe I am just showing myself for what I really am :)

    • #19
  20. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    No, you’re not. Evidently, Vidal really was creeping crud. I haven’t yet read anything he’s written, so I’m taking a risk here to say this, but I’ll bet you that even his books contain plenty that make people on his side reluctant to call attention to them. I think soon the left will be as secretly embarrassed by Gore Vidal as atheists are of Madalyn Murray O’Hare.

    And Vidal’s deliberate malice is obvious in the film of the incident.

    • #20
  21. Judithann Campbell Member
    Judithann Campbell
    @

    Ansonia:No, you’re not.Evidently, Vidal really was creeping crud. I haven’t yet read anything he’s written, so I’m taking a risk here to say this. But I’ll bet you that even his books contain plenty that make people on his side reluctant to call attention to them. I think soon the left will be as secretly embarrassed by Gore Vidal as atheists are of Madalyn Murray O’Hare.

    And Gore Vidal isn’t the only one they should be embarrassed by. Lots of Hollywood movie stars have defended Roman Polanski; conservatives should mention those actors whenever the subject of rape culture comes up. If there is a rape culture in America, those who defend Roman Polanski are the ones perpetuating it.

    • #21
  22. Goldgeller Member
    Goldgeller
    @Goldgeller

    Thanks for the interesting review. I may actually have to watch the film.

    • #22
  23. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Ansonia:Re comment # 15

    Buckley lost his temper because Vidal was deliberately insulting him. And the viciousness of Vidal does leave you shocked and then enraged.Last night when I read about the way he described that 13 year old child the film maker raped, I found myself wishing, just for a moment, that someone had shot him.

    I wonder if maybe, at the time of America’s founding, dueling was still a thingbecause important people in the country were only beginning to recognize and adopt the manners necessary for a democratic republic. After all, Alexander Hamilton didn’t grow up in a democratic republic. He helped to create one.

    I wish Buckley had said something like “Grow up ,Mr Vidal, we both know that’s false and vile” because, I agree with you, it’s too much the other way to just accept that behavior, but I think the viciousness of Vidal’s remark shocked and enraged him.

    Nonsense, I wish the duello code was still in effect today.  Democrats might be less inclined to claim we are bunch of racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobes because we have a differing view of society.  Imagine if Romney could have challenged Obama to a duel after the ad about Romney killing that guy’s wife when his job was outsourced, how different that campaign could have been?  Facing the consequences for challenging another gentleman’s honor makes one think about what they say in public.

    • #23
  24. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Judithann Campbell:

    Jim Kearney: A lot of this is about manners. Vidal deliberately tried to provoke Buckley by calling him a Nazi. Fighting words were bad form, but less so than actually fighting. Buckley was upscale, but still an outsider at Yale as a Roman Catholic. If Vidal could reduce him to a “fighting” Irishman stereotype, all too ready to settle things with his fists, then in the construct of the elites he had shown Buckley up for “what he was.”

    It’s interesting how cultures and sub cultures change over time. At the time of America’s founding, dueling was still a thing: you could actually kill a man simply because he insulted you. It seems as though the upper classes of Buckley’s time went too far to the other extreme. Some people take honor way too seriously; others, not seriously enough.

    Another way Buckley could have answered Vidal’s outrageous insult: challenge the author of Burr to a duel!

    • #24
  25. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Ansonia:…

    And Vidal’s deliberate malice is obvious in the film of the incident.

    I think “malice” (a desire to cause harm to another person) is exactly the correct word. It wasn’t just Buckley, either. Vidal was a famous hater. What a sad reputation that is to leave behind.

    • #25
  26. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re # 25

    More than anything else, he just sounds like your typical well educated, crazy mean alcoholic.

    So he loathed Truman Capote. Did Vidal write anything as good as In Cold Blood ?

    • #26
  27. John Paul Inactive
    John Paul
    @JohnPaul

    Echoing another commenter, Bill Buckley is one of my heroes, too. Firing Line is available on Amazon Prime for anyone interested in viewing WFB debate various issues through the years.

    • #27
  28. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    John Paul:Echoing another commenter, Bill Buckley is one of my heroes, too. Firing Line is available on Amazon Prime for anyone interested in viewing WFB debate various issues through the years.

    Yes. We’re Amazon subscribers and love to hunt for treasures there. Yesterday, inspired by the movie, we watched an old Firing Line from late 1970, with Tom Wolfe who had just published Radical Chic.

    Some critics at the New York Review of Books had hammered Wolfe for reporting the proceedings at a Black Panthers benefit in Leonard Bernstein’s apartment. Buckley tries to get Wolfe to respond to his critics, but it’s clear Tom could care less what they think. His fly-on-the-wall report has enough vivid prose to expose the absurdity of the liberals going slumming with cocktails and checkbooks in hand, and artists don’t like to explain their work.

    To Wolfe’s dismissal of the critical class, Buckley counters with a prophetic remark about the way tenure track professors can have their careers squelched by left wing academics. Wolfe needn’t worry, but Buckley saw the PC train coming down the tracks before anyone else.

    Wolfe’s other essay in the book, Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is also discussed, and we learn about how “war on poverty” bureaucrats reward the bad behavior of community militants.

    They turn to questions from three young panelists, including 27-year old Jeff Greenfield, in one of the ugliest 1970’s Ron Burgundy blazers you’ll ever see. (Wolfe also sports a 1970 look — no white jacket at this point.) Greenfield’s picayune objections are summarily dismissed, e.g. criticizing Wolfe for his phonetic capture of Otto Preminger’s accent.

    WFB is slightly awkward structuring questions for the author, but he is lavish in his praise of Wolfe and prescient in recognizing a couple of stories which have become true classics. This was seventeen years before the great writer turned his talents to literary fiction.

    • #28

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