Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
“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.