This gripping documentary about the invective-slinging 1968 William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal debates isn’t a celebration of intellectual combat, it’s an original-sin tale for where TV news went wrong.
Best of Enemies is a fascinating film about brilliant people behaving stupidly. It would be reassuring in a way to think that in the distant past, there was a time when American intellectuals could duke it out on the public stage before a mass audience held rapt by the sight and sound of ideas being wrestled into coherent form. We know such things don’t happen anymore. How many Americans can even name two intellectuals to have such a debate?
We also know that not so long ago, the country’s baseline anti-intellectualism had receded (albeit briefly) to the point where you could actually have prominent writers like Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley appear on a TV show and assume that people would not only know who they were, but want to hear what they had to say. These days, nobody gives Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon the prime slot on talk shows and asks them what they think about current issues.
In 1968, even though the revolt against the elites -- conservatives versus the Eastern Ivy League elites, and liberals against the corporate-military state elites -- was in full swing, a network decided that putting two of the country’s most prominently gleeful snobs up against each other would make for smashing television. That year, CBS and NBC were covering both parties’ presidential conventions as they always did: filming it all from gavel to gavel, reporters and camera crews everywhere. Flooding the zone, they call it today. ABC, however, had fewer resources, being third in the ratings (as one network executive says in the film, if there were four networks, they’d have been fourth). So ABC decided on more of an express round-up style of coverage that would be highlighted by one hell of a two-ring circus: A ten-night debate between Vidal and Buckley.
As Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s nimble fox of a documentary shows, the result was great television. But it was hardly the second coming of the Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates. The two men were incredible self-invented creatures -- it's difficult to imagine such men existing today, much less achieving the stature today that they had back then. Both were outsiders to some degree but had found their way into the ruling class, where their affected mannerisms and drawling mid-Atlantic elocutions (those long looping sentences have all the confident laze of men who feel they must never rush for anyone) were all part of their theatrical self-invention.
Both were rebels, albeit ones with plummy accents. Buckley’s first book, 1951’s God and Man at Yale, challenged liberal orthodoxy in academia at a time when conservatism was mostly the province of anti-intellectual reactionaries only. Vidal’s 1946 novel The City and the Pillar shocked mainstream society with its open embrace of homosexuality and his radical and cynical political writings went strongly against the grain of the straight-arrow pro-war Establishment Democratic circles he ran in (Kennedys and the like). Both were creatures of new media, loving nothing more than showing up on some TV show or another and cutting their rivals to pieces. Being so alike, naturally they hated each other and were destined to meet on the field of rhetorical battle.
They were supposed to debate the conventions. The filmmakers and their snappy gathering of biographers and media commentators -- everyone from Dick Cavett to the late great Christopher Hitchens, Todd Gitlin, and Andrew Sullivan -- argue that that election year was one of those fault lines that are still setting off aftershocks today. With Nixon in the ascendancy and the Buckley-approved Ronald Reagan in the wings, the new conservative movement -- midwifed in part by Buckley’s magazine National Review -- was taking aim at the pinko radicals and inner-city rioters they thought were gutting America. Meanwhile, liberals were in their generational assault on the rigid moralities, militarism and unquestioning patriotism of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”. It wasn’t a conflict of ideas so much as it was two groups convinced the other was intrinsically immoral and un-American.
While those forces fought on the floor of the Republican convention in Miami and on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic convention, Buckley and Vidal squared off on TV. Substance immediately fell to the side in favor of sniping and belligerence. Vidal, who apparently hired a researcher and crowd-tested his supposedly ad-libbed jokes on reporters beforehand (he was, after all, an old Hollywood hand), came loaded for bear. Buckley, like the good Yalie he was, had prepped for the debate by going boating for a week beforehand with friends, perhaps hoping to get a gentleman’s C.
It’s a fascinating performance. As Vidal tries to nail Buckley down on Republican positions, Buckley ducks and parries, sniping apart Vidal’s arguments but not quite engaging with them. Vidal is focused and predatory, that slight mocking grin always shadowing his lips and betraying his love of the hunt. Buckley astutely intuits Vidal’s “feline” quality. Buckley tries to rise above or dismiss Vidal’s toying hostility, with those long and winding curlicues of argument and high-handed stylistics (there are few people alive, then or now, who could seem so natural using the word “balderdash” on national TV).
The result is more high-handed squabble than argument. The boxing-ring bell the filmmakers ding before each clip quickly seems appropriate. While Vidal’s attacks on conservative positions are better constructed than Buckley’s dissembling responses (that researcher earned their pay), it’s an ugly performance. Buckley, even with his indefensible defense of the Vietnam War, seems to believe what he is saying. It’s harder to see what Vidal believes in, besides the fight.
The “debate” truly crumples when in Chicago they argue over the appropriateness of protesters waving Viet Cong flags. Buckley compares them, as all conservatives seemingly must to some liberal or another eventually, to appeasers of the Nazis. Vidal says to “shut up a minute” and then states:
…the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.
Without missing a beat, a clenched-jaw Buckley hisses:
Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face … and you’ll stay plastered.
Neither man ever truly escaped that exchange. Buckley wrestled with the aftermath, publishing a long piece in Esquire about how appropriate it was for him to answer one slur with another. (At the time, for a conservative like Buckley to have any second thoughts about using a homophobic slur, especially after being provoked, is quite surprising.) Then Vidal answered with his own piece on the matter, which included the inference that Buckley was a closeted gay. Buckley sued for libel. By some accounts, both were haunted by the exchange, and their inability to get the best of the other, to the end of their days.
It would have been easy to turn Best of Enemies into a giddy, retro pretend celebration of a time when snooty smartypants like Vidal and Buckley entranced the mass culture. But after delivering a crackling, clever film about what is essentially a poorly-filmed fight between two authors, the filmmakers find a different message. Media professor Eric Alterman is one of the most pointed of the film’s non-eulogizers, and he sums the debates up well. The debates were, he argues, “a harbinger of an unhappy future.” A montage of shouting-head political debate programs follows.
The two big thinkers Buckley and Vidal were supposed to engage in a titanic intellectual debate. They ended up just calling names and spitting out ad hominem attacks. Everybody is still following their lead today. Only nobody involved in today’s “debates” can comfortably quote Pericles.