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'Best of Enemies' is a documentary about the legendary series of nationally televised debates in 1968 between two great public intellectuals, the liberal Gore Vidal and the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Intended as commentary on the issues of their day, 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' delves into the entangled biographies of these two great thinkers and luxuriates in the language and the theater of their debates, begging the question, 'What has television done to the way we discuss politics in our democracy today?'
Brings Back Memories of Two Iconic Men and a Turbulent Time
In 1968, eighty percent of American television viewers watched the national presidential nominating conventions. As we watched the Chicago Democratic Convention, we saw what a federal commission later called a "police riot"–a horrific skull-cracking rampage. The decade was a time of economic boom, civil rights struggle, assassinations, riots, disaffected youth, rock 'n' roll, changing sexual mores, escalating protests against an escalating yet undeclared war (the Democratic Party's finger prints were on the war more than the Republicans—hence the demonstrations in Chicago), new welfare programs, and dazzling technological changes. (The national conventions were broadcast, for the first time, entirely in color in 1968.) Even though I watched the conventions, I didn't watch much of ABC, which only covered the conventions during prime time, while NBC and CBS covered the conventions from gavel-to-gavel—unheard of today except maybe on C-SPAN. So I missed seeing the subject of this documentary, the epic ten-round debate between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr., but I sure heard about it. After the round in which Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley called Vidal a "queer" and added "I'll sock you in the god-damned face," it was water-cooler conversation everywhere in America the next day. Even those like me who had not seen it, understood how shocking it was. According to this documentary, the network suits turned to each other after it happened and asked, "Can they say that on television?" And someone told them, "They just did—live." Maybe if ABC had not been the lowest-rated commercial network, it might not have been so eager to have Vidal and Buckley comment/debate at the conventions. That, of course, assumes that ABC realized that they would not do much commentary and that there would be no rules in their debate. The two men had a great deal in common in terms of background and intellect (both were masterful word-smiths), but they hated each other politically and personally with a burning passion that makes the title of this film so apt.
Their "debate" got personal fast as they ripped into each other mercilessly. It was only surprising that they lasted so long before the sharpest knives came out. At the heart was the battle between the liberal and conservative world views that each man represented. Vidal was an outspoken advocate of libertine-ism and central planning, the almost contradictory shibboleths of modern liberalism, and also a successful writer who wrote a number of good novels, plays and screenplays, but his most recent and provocative novel, in 1968, was "Myra Breckinridge," a satirical romp about trans-sexuality (very progressive, you might think) and also a celebration of homosexual rape (Yikes! You might think), but it was a different time, and both sexual liberation and rape were lumped together, according to Vidal's champions, as signs of forward thinking and, according to critics, as signs of moral decay. Buckley was the editor of "National Review", a conservative magazine that still thrives despite his passing. Both men were scions of social upstarts who became successful, Buckley's family in oil and Vidal's family in politics. Both had good educations, although, Vidal had not gone to college. They both spoke with patrician accents that, as one of the film's commentators, linguist John McWhorter, opines, would seem pompous and uncaring to listeners today. (Indeed, Kelsey Grammar, of "Frazier" fame, voices the writings of Buckley and John Lithgow, of "Third Rock from the Sun", voices those of Vidal in this film.) Vidal won the "debate" based purely on the fact that, though each man strove to get under the other's skin, it was Buckley who finally lost his cool. What got to him was the odious conceit that conservatives may be linked to fascism. Buckley had heard this slur his whole career, and was visibly infuriated by it, but pushing that button would have been a lower trick than it was if Vidal had not genuinely believed that there was truth in it. (The persistence of this myth explains the peculiar surprise of one of Buckley's liberal biographers when he learned that Buckley, otherwise unsurprisingly, had once fired a Nazi that he found to be part of his magazine's sales force.) Buckley was ashamed of his outburst in the debate for the rest of his life. Vidal gloated over it for the rest of his. I wonder if one is sadder than the other.
The filmmakers, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, make some attempt to be fair to both sides but are, perhaps, unfair to both and to history as well. For example, they present a recounting of Vidal's frequent viewing of the debate tapes in his old age while showing us a scene from the movie "Sunset Boulevard" (about a forgotten movie star who pathetically watches herself in old movies night after night). If there is a flaw in the conclusion drawn for us by the film—that the vitriol of the Buckley-Vidal debate was not only a harbinger of, but may even have caused today's cable news and internet cat-fighting—it might be that the film overly sentimentalizes the homogeneous, middle-of-the-road political viewpoint shared by most network newsreaders and commentators during the sixties. This artificial sameness presided over and callously ignored a turbulent, ongoing cultural and political split in the country as if ignoring it—or at best reporting only the ripples on the surface that could not be ignored—would make it go away. For all any of us knew, we might have blown off some of our more destructive steam if there had been alternative media back then. The confrontation between Vidal and Buckley on national television in 1968 was set against what was going on in the streets at that time. They were expressing the frustrations of adherents of both of their ideologies, frustrations that were just under the surface but not being articulated on the nightly news.
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